Since the beginning of the decade, we have become accustomed to the optics of unrest and revolution. Tunisia, Egypt, Ukraine, Venezuela, Brazil — and to a degree, Ferguson, Missouri. The context and struggles may share some resonance, but they're not interchangeable. I can list these sites of unrest in abstraction only because that is how Western media consumers receive them — contiguous images of tear gas, fire, lines of riot cops, chanting crowds, furious crowds, surging crowds, bleeding, and weeping.
Civil unrest has a consistent visual language across continents and political contexts. What is not consistent, however, are the standards by which Americans evaluate political dissent as justifiable or insupportable. The righteous eruption of protest in Mexico over the massacre of 43 normalista students is the latest instance to draw out a particular American tendency when it comes to watching unrest from afar; a NIMBY attitude to revolution.
In Guerrero, where the "disappeared" students lived and learned, the headquarters of the ruling PRI party was torched and a state official was temporarily held hostage. In Mexico City, the grand wooden door to the National Palace was set alight. Normalistas and their allies are unwavering in their message, "Fue el estado!" ["It was the state!"] The radical intensity of the protests speaks to Mexico's rich history of leftist struggle and the violence of the current context — a brutal narco state in which, according to a suspect in a missing students case, people are executed simply "because they are unruly." It's a manifestation of ur-state power: If the state's business is to rule, the unruly must be removed. Totalitarianism, if you will.
With this in mind, the tactics currently being deployed by protesters are remarkably mild. We are not watching an armed revolt, at least not yet. (In 1994 the Zapatistas took up arms against the Mexican state, but only after less radical tactics failed to gain traction.) The trajectory of this current wave of protest is unknowable, but certainly we are watching the death of any denial about the depths of corruption in Mexico; the tragedy of the disappeared 43 laid bare to an international audience the commonplace brutalities of a narco state. Little wonder that the escalating protests are garnering global support.
It would be drawing a false equivalence to suggest that the precise sort of unrest we are seeing in Mexico should be echoed in the United States. Corruption and impunity certainly run through American law enforcement, but this cannot be compared to the brash gruesomeness with which cartels unopposed by government forces and government forces bought off by cartels kill without consequence.
Still, if the world believes the state's killing of dozens of young people is sufficient grounds for violent unrest in Mexico, that logic should apply north of the border — but the rioters who fought cops and set fires in Ferguson are not accorded the same support. Rather, they are condemned as criminal elements. In upholding the trope of "bad protester" in US protests while celebrating the same tactics employed in foreign struggles, those with NIMBY attitudes tacitly assert that serious unrest is illegitimate on home soil. But a list of names alone — Mike Brown, Ezell Ford, Oscar Grant, Ramarley Graham, Kimani Gray, Kelly Thomas, Sean Bell, Eric Garner, Amadou Diallo — points to ample grounds for escalating protests here too.
Furthermore, there is no escaping America's role in bolstering the Mexican narco state. Without the disastrous war on drugs in the US and its thriving illicit narcotics market, Mexican cartel power would not have consolidated into a narco state. Human Rights Watch estimated that violence related to the drug trade in Mexico claimed 60,000 lives between 2006 and 2012 alone — but the missing 43 are the gruesome straw that broke the camel's back.
If Americans believe the fury in Mexico right now is justified, they are equally obligated to push for a swift end to the war on drugs at home. Yes, there are arguments to continue US drug prohibition, but none of them trump the proliferation of mass slaughter in Mexico. Corruption and state-sanctioned violence there is very much in Americans' backyard — and Americans should not distance themselves from the struggle against it.
Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard