In New York City, protesters swarm the roadway portion of the Brooklyn Bridge, heading from the City Hall area of lower Manhattan into Brooklyn. The crowd stopped incoming traffic, but there was no violence, May 30, 2020. JOHN PENNEY
Amid curfews in New York City, constant marches and protests, sirens from the streets and helicopters whirring above, the United Nations top leader, António Guterres, has not appeared before the media to say anything directly about the convulsions exploding across the five boroughs and far beyond. Instead, he has relied on his spokespeople to provide responses.
As protesters in New York City have been swelling the streets, highways, squares, plazas and bridges to express solidarity and outrage over the death of George Floyd, an African-American who was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis on May 25, the UN, the global beacon for “we, the peoples,” has also been using social media to do most of the talking about the sudden civil rights movement across the country where the UN is based.
At its headquarters abutting the East River in Midtown Manhattan, the UN compound has remained physically shut in the lockdown since mid-March. But the UN itself has been active, pronouncing on the severe damage that Covid-19 is inflicting everywhere. Its mantra has been a call for unity, laced with practicality: how to overcome the financial and public health ruin as soon as possible.
Throughout the lockdown, New York City has also become a remarkably still place where mourning doves dominate at dawn.
Yet that aberration changed overnight as tens of thousands of protesters rallied across New York City and nationwide to voice their fury over not only Floyd’s murder but also the rampant discrimination in the country against African-Americans, chanting slogans like “black lives matter” and “I can’t breathe.”
The lack of direct reference to the killing of Floyd and the turn of events here in the city in the last week and elsewhere extends to the UN Security Council, the General Assembly, the US mission to the UN and other national delegations. Only the UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, a Chilean who is based in Geneva, Switzerland, has directly addressed Floyd’s murder.
On her bilingual Twitter account, with nearly 734,000 followers, she was at first oblique, on May 29: “Many religious and ethnic minorities are being acutely affected by #COVID19. We need leadership and principles to #FightRacism and #HateSpeech.” Her tweet on June 2 was more demanding: “We all have a responsibility to #FightRacism. #COVID19 or not, I call on everyone to take a stand, speak up and put an end to racism wherever present.”
On May 29, she was quoted in a VOA article, referencing Floyd, saying that it was the latest “in a long line of killings of unarmed African Americans by U.S. police officers and members of the public.”
“I am dismayed to have to add George Floyd’s name to that of Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Michael Brown and many other unarmed African Americans who have died over the years at the hands of the police — as well as people such as Ahmaud Arbery and Trayvon Martin who were killed by armed members of the public,” she said.
Back in New York City, the president of the General Assembly, Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, a Nigerian, has not said a word about the US protests on Twitter, where he has nearly 133,000 followers. On June 2, he wrote: “#HumanRights are the foundation for peace and prosperity. There is nothing more urgent than ensuring that all human beings are able to live in dignity, with justice and peace. It is in ensuring this that the work of the @UN is crucial.”
The US mission to the UN has tweeted nothing about the protests or racial discrimination in the country, but it has plenty of retweets from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on rights abuses around the world, such as this on May 30, “The Chinese Communist Party is crushing what was so special about Hong Kong, what made it different from the rest of China.”
Kelly Craft, the US ambassador to the UN, constantly retweets Pompeo. On June 2, she focused on Syria: “The Assad regime’s campaigns of indiscriminate violence have resulted in hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths. The Members of this Council must not remain silent. The United States certainly will not.”
Craft has been working from her home in Kentucky since the lockdown in New York City. Louisville, a large city in northern Kentucky, has been one of dozens of urban areas where protesters have been marching in the country in the last week. Breonna Taylor, an African-American, was killed by the police in March, just weeks before Floyd’s death, in Louisville.
Although Guterres has been here in New York since Covid-19 first struck in early March, he has not read a statement or appeared before the media to convey any personal or professional message about the protesters’ grievances, the violent tactics of police officers during the protests or the authoritarian dictates of the president of the US toward protesters’ frustrations. That includes his photo-op walk from the White House to a church across the street on June 1 to hold a Bible as peaceful protesters had been tear-gassed, flash-bang-shelled and rubber-bulleted by police to make way for Trump’s bizarre stunt.
The next day, responses to protests in Washington grew more militaristic, as one person tweeted, “We are under some sort of military occupation because this is the only place in the country Trump can bring out the military without running into major legal problems.”
Guterres has always shown reluctance to criticize the US and other big powers as secretary-general. On May 29, he took the high road, tweeting: “Racism continues to be prevalent in our societies. We must raise our voices against all expressions of racism and instances of racist behaviour. We urgently need to dismantle racist structures and reform racist institutions.”
The next day he remarked on the media being assaulted in the protests by police and other officials, tweeting: “When journalists are attacked, societies are attacked. No democracy can function without press freedom nor can any society be fair without journalists who investigate wrongdoing and speak truth to power.”
It wasn’t until June 2, after days — and a weekend — of unending protests in the five boroughs when Guterres said something about the city in which he lives, tweeting: “I am heartbroken to see violence on the streets in our host country and our host city of New York. Grievances must be heard, but should be expressed peacefully — and authorities must show restraint in responding to demonstrations.”
That message was reposted by the Chinese ambassador to the UN, Zhang Jun, who had objected to the US and British calling for a UN Security Council meeting last week over China’s new national security law in Hong Kong. Zhang wrote: “Support the strong voice of the @UN in fighting racism and discrimination.”
Russia’s mission to the UN and the deputy ambassador, Dmitry Polyanskiy, seized the moment to retort to the European Union’s message from Josep Borrell, the top foreign affairs official for the continent. Borrell, also late to the conversation on Twitter, wrote on June 2: “Like people in the United States, we were shocked and appalled by the death of George Floyd. We condemn violence and racism of any kind and stress the need for de-escalation of tensions.”
Polyanskiy messaged to Borrell: “We expect the #EU from now on to condemn violence and stress the need for de-escalation of tensions each time protests occur anywhere, starting from #HongKong#protests2020#Minneapolis.”
In a May 29 media briefing at the UN led by Guterres’s deputy spokesperson, Farhan Haq, he was asked if Guterres endorsed the “condemnation” expressed by Bachelet over the murder of Floyd.
Haq replied: “Well, as you know, she speaks in her capacity as the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and she’s supported in the work that she does, and so I don’t have anything in particular to add to what she said about Mr. Floyd’s case.”
Guterres’s top spokesperson, Stéphane Dujarric, was asked about the protests and the death of Floyd in a June 1 media briefing. He gave a lengthy reply:
“Sure. I think, you know, the situation we’re seeing today, we’ve seen in different parts of the world before, and the Secretary‑General’s message has been consistent. One is that grievances must be heard, but they must be expressed in peaceful ways and authorities must show restraint in responding to demonstrators.
“I think, in the US, as in any other country in the world, diversity is a richness and not a threat, but the success of diverse societies, in any country, requires a massive investment in social cohesion. That means reducing inequalities, addressing possible areas of discrimination, strengthening social protection, providing opportunities for all.
“And these efforts, these investments, need to mobilize national Governments. They need to mobilize local authorities, the private sector, civil society, faith‑based organizations. In one word, society as a whole, needs to be mobilized.
“I think we’ve also seen, over the last few days, cases of police violence. And, again, I would just restate what we have been saying in many other cases when we have seen police violence, is that, first of all, cases, obviously, need to be investigated. We’ve always said that police forces around the world need to have adequate human rights training, and there also needs to be an investment in social and psychological support for police so they can do their job properly in terms of protecting the community.”
A day later, a reporter asked about the secretary-general: “Do you expect this SG to make any comment of this on camera? It would be helpful to some of us.” Dujarric said: “I understand. If something happens, I will definitely let you know.”
The official UN twitter account, with 12.6 million followers, may lack a personal voice but collates messages from UN entities. A recent one from Unesco exemplifies how indirect the UN can be in profound moments, saying: “Against hate: education. Against racism: education. Against discrimination: education. Building peace & preventing #ViolentExtremism begins on the benches of schools. Join our call to #StandUp4HumanRights and #FightRacism & all forms of intolerance!”
Nevertheless, the UN has generally spoken up about discrimination in all its forms. The history of slavery — and its continuing existence in many parts of the world — has not been overlooked through such avenues as General Assembly resolutions and UN officials in the past commenting on racial and other violence in the US and conditions of African-Americans. A memorial commemorating the sorrowful history of the trans-Atlantic slavery era is installed in the plaza at the main entrance to New York headquarters.
But when it comes to criticizing the US or other great powers who control the UN, Guterres has built a reputation of making vague statements or letting other UN experts, from human-rights chiefs to refugee bosses — not a new reaction — to comment on the latest problem or conflict violating international law or overriding universal rights. When Trump first banned citizens from Muslim majority countries to the US right after his inauguration in 2017, Guterres was criticized for letting other UN leaders voice dissent over Trump’s edict while remaining in the shadows.
In New York City, where the UN takes up a sizeable chunk of real estate donated by the US, it can seem that the UN exists in a bubble. This has been the case during the pandemic, and it may not be the entire fault of the UN. Throughout his daily media briefings about the crisis, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has not mentioned the UN when he discusses the status of Covid-19 in the city. The UN has been working with local officials on decisions over telecommuting and reopening its campus, but the only public interaction has been a donation by the UN of protective masks to the city. Mayor Bill de Blasio showed up for the photo moment, but no top UN official appeared.
In 2016, one of PassBlue’s most popular stories centered around an African-American in Baton Rouge, La., who wanted the UN to pay more attention to what he called the “hypocrisy” of the US and its treatment of African-Americans. Silky Slim, as he calls himself, started a nonprofit group, “Stop the Killing” that year, after the shooting deaths of three police officers and a black man, Alton Sterling, who had been selling CDs in a convenience-store parking lot in the Louisiana capital.
Both episodes and other killings at the time of black men and police officers jolted the US into examining once more race relations in the country. Slim told PassBlue that if he could come to the UN and talk to the Security Council, he would tell them to “make America rethink some of her laws, put racism on the table.”
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.