On the Streets of America: Human Rights Abuses in Ferguson

October 24, 2014

On the Streets of America: Human Rights Abuses in Ferguson

Intimidation of protesters
In the days following Michael Brown's death, the St. Louis County Police Department initially took over the responsibility for providing security in Ferguson. The St. Louis County officers lined the march routes on West Florissant on Aug. 13 with officers outfitted in riot gear and armed with semi-automatic weapons that were pointed at demonstrators.

The change in responsibility from the County Police to the Missouri Highway Patrol on Aug. 14 helped de-escalate the tension between residents/protesters and police in Ferguson. However, the resumption of violence by some protesters in the late night hours of Aug. 15 brought a response where, the Highway Patrol, with assistance from the County Police as well as smaller law enforcement agencies from across the state, confronted protesters in riot gear of helmets and vests along with carrying shields and batons, some were armed with semi-automatic weapons, and leashed police dogs.

Late in the evening on Aug. 18, following the use of tear gas and stun grenades, often known as flash bangs or concussion grenades, to disperse the crowds on the south end of W. Florissant Avenue, Amnesty International decided to leave the scene for the purpose of securing delegation members' safety. The delegation needed to cross a police line in order to reach their automobiles on the other side and approached the police line next to the media staging area with their hands up and clearly wearing shirts which identified them as human rights observers. One officer directly in front of the delegation pointed his weapon at the delegation and shouted "get on the ground!" A staff member at the front of the delegation knelt on the ground and informed the officer, "We are human rights observers." A St. Louis County commanding officer immediately waved the delegation through the police line with his gun in hand. As the police line parted, officers nearest the delegation kept their guns trained on the delegation until they passed through.

Shortly before midnight on Aug. 19, Amnesty International witnessed an officer with the St. Ann Police Department in Missouri point his AR-15 semi-automatic rifle at a group of journalists and threatened to kill them. The incident was filmed by a journalist and went viral on Aug. 20. The video shows the officer walking toward a group of protestors with his rifle raised. Voices can be heard telling him to put his gun down. The video shows the officer approaching the crowd with his rifle raised yelling, "I'm going to fucking kill you! Get back, get back." A voice in the crowd asks, "What's your name, sir?" To which the officer responds, "Go fuck yourself!" Another officer quickly approaches and escorts the officer away from the crowd. The officer was immediately placed on indefinite, unpaid suspension and resigned several days later.

The use of heavy-duty riot gear and military-grade weapons and equipment to police largely peaceful demonstrations intimidates protesters who are practicing their right to peaceful assembly and can actually lead to an escalation in violence. Equipping officers in a manner more appropriate for a battlefield may put them in the mindset that confrontation and conflict is inevitable rather than possible, escalating tensions between protesters and police.

Dispersal of protests
The enforced dispersal of a public assembly should only take place as a measure of last resort, when violence occurs or there is an imminent threat of violence. The police should not intervene aggressively simply in response to the actions of a small number of participants. Assemblies are always diverse gatherings, and participants do not lose their individual rights simply because a small number of people are behaving violently.

The methods used by law enforcement in Ferguson to disperse crowds often employ the use of police in riot gear - equipped with helmets, vests and carrying shields and batons - and has led to the repeated the use of "chemical irritants" (tear gas/pepper spray) and "kinetic impact projectiles" (rubber/plastic bullets) against demonstrators. Oftentimes it is unclear whether an order to disperse was given, whether that order was in fact lawful, and whether that was made clear to the protesters before law enforcement forcibly ended the protests.

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