On the Streets of America: Human Rights Abuses in Ferguson

October 24, 2014

On the Streets of America: Human Rights Abuses in Ferguson

Orders to disperse:
Often dispersal tactics were used without a clear order to disperse, but rather in response to protesters violating the five-second rule. Amnesty International noted a clear lack of consistency and transparency from night to night and officer to officer in policing practices regarding dispersal of protests or arrests of protesters.

For example, on the night of Aug. 19, Amnesty International inquired with three different police officers throughout the night about why the crowd was being dispersed and was told "I don't know" or "I can't answer that question" and directed to ask officers at the other end of West Florissant while another officer characterized the protest as "a riot situation." According to Amnesty International observers, on nights such as Aug. 18, the time that elapsed between announcing that a group of people was "unlawfully assembled" and some form of use of force varied enormously, from anywhere between approximately five minutes to approximately half an hour. In the case of formation of police lines and some form of kettling, the police usually only gave an order to disperse just before advancing on protestors and either using force or making arrests, or not at all - withdrawing back and moving out of a formation.

Restrictions on the Media as well as legal and human rights observers at protests
Representatives of civil society organization and other types of monitors have a right to be present at public assemblies and can have a positive role to play in observing compliance with human rights. Similarly, the media have a right to attend and report on peaceful assemblies, and law enforcement officials have a responsibility not to prevent or obstruct their work. However, legal and human rights observers as well as members of the media have repeatedly been obstructed from carrying out their roles and responsibilities by law enforcement in Ferguson. From Aug. 13 through Oct. 2, at least 19 journalists and members of the media have been arrested by law enforcement with others subjected to tear gas and the use of rubber bullets. Reporters for CNN, Al Jazeera America and other outlets report being harassed or physically threatened. Likewise, legal and human rights observers have also faced arrest for carrying out their roles.

In the early morning hours of Aug. 19, Intercept journalist Ryan Devereaux and Bild reporter Lukas Hermsmeier were arrested and jailed overnight for allegedly "failing to disperse." Earlier that night, police officers ordered a dispersal of the protest areas. As Devereaux and Hermsmeier were attempting to leave, they stopped to interview one of the peaceful protestors leaving the scene. The police then began firing heated metal canisters of tear gas in their direction, driving the group away from their car. After attempting to return to the safety of their car, armed police officers drove up in armored vehicles and blocked their passage. After coming out behind a cover with their hands in the air, shouting, "Press!" and "Journalists" and "We're media!", the officer allowed them to pass. However, as Devereaux and Hermsmeier continued walking with their hands in the air, shouting "Press!" the same officer shot rubber bullets at them, hitting both journalists in the back. Out of fear, they dove behind a car. The officers approached with guns pointed and arrested them without reading their rights or notifying them of their charge despite their continuous announcements that they were from the media. Devereaux and Hermsmeier placed in a jail cell with other protestors and were not released until the next morning.

Failures of accountability for law enforcement in policing protests
Several times when Amnesty International delegates witnessed actions taken by police officers they requested the name of the officer or attempted to determine which law enforcement agency the officer belonged to when affecting an arrest or issuing an order to protesters. However those requests and questions often went unanswered by law enforcement personnel. Under international law, officers need to be accountable to the public and, in order to facilitate accountability, officers should be identifiable during public order operations.

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