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Today, Amnesty International USA released a report documenting widespread and egregious human rights violations by police officers against protesters, medics, journalists and legal observers who gathered to protest the unlawful killings of Black people by the police and to call for systemic reform in May and June of 2020. The report, The World is Watching: Mass Violations by US Police of Black Lives Matter Protesters’ Rights, builds on Amnesty’s interactive mapping of violence against protesters and new findings on the use of lethal force by the police. It is the most comprehensive human rights analysis of police violence against protesters to date.  

The research consisted of more than 50 interviews conducted by AIUSA over several weeks in June 2020 highlighting people’s experiences in the context of the protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd. It also offers recommendations for local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, government officials and Congress to comply with AIUSA’s best practices for policing protests; hold law enforcement accountable for human rights violations against protesters, journalists, medics and legal observers; and pass laws and policies to ensure the right to peacefully protest. 

“The unnecessary and sometimes excessive use of force by police against protesters exhibits the very systemic racism and impunity they had taken to the streets to protest. The research shows that people who were simply exercising their human right to peacefully protest were met with such violence that they lost eyesight, survived brutal beatings, and suffered seizures and severe wounds” said Ernest Coverson, Amnesty International USA’s End Gun Violence Campaign Manager. 

“The Trump administration is now doubling down on military-style crackdowns against protesters, with Attorney General William Barr’s egregious defense of the use of federal troops in Portland and threats to deploy more agents to other cities. President Trump’s actions represent a slippery slope toward authoritarianism and must immediately stop. We need the country’s approach to the policing of protests to be changed from the ground up at the local, state, and federal levels.” said Justin Mazzola, a researcher at Amnesty International USA.

UNNECESSARY USE OF FORCE 

Law enforcement repeatedly used physical force, chemical irritants such as tear gas and pepper spray, and kinetic impact projectiles as a first resort tactic against peaceful protestors rather than as a response to any sort of actual threat of violence. Violations of people’s rights occurred during arrests and detentions as well. The use of tear gas during the COVID-19 pandemic is especially reckless. As protestors took to the streets, wearing masks and attempting to socially distance due to the virus, police fired tear gas and pepper spray, escalating risks for respiratory issues, and the release of airborne particles that could spread the virus.

Between May 26 – June 5, 2020, AIUSA documented at least six incidents of police using batons, and 13 instances of the use of kinetic impact projectiles such as sponge rounds and rubber bullets in 13 cities across the United States. What’s more, AIUSA found numerous cases of the unnecessary use of tear gas and pepper spray as a first resort to disperse large groups of peaceful protestors: 89 cases of specific use of tear gas in cities in 34 states, and 21 incidents of unlawful use of pepper spray in 15 states and the District of Columbia. Such unnecessary and excessive tactics were also used by law enforcement to target medics, legal observers and media representatives. 

Intensive care nurse Danielle Meehan, who treated 26 year-old student Aubreanna Inda after she was hit in the chest with a flash grenade in Seattle:  At one point, Aubreanna Inda told her, “I feel like I am dying.” Danielle Meehan explained, “[She] lost her pulse 3-4 times after my medic partners and I started treating her. We resuscitated her each time with [cardiopulmonary resuscitation].”

Rabbinical student and protester Lizzie Horne recounted after the authorities pepper sprayed and tear gassed her and a large group of protesters who were trapped on an embankment of a highway in Philadelphia: “Out of the blue, they started breezing pepper spray into the crowd…then they started with the tear gas. Someone who was right in front —  had a tear gas canister hit his head and started running back. We were trying to help him, flushing his eyes and then he just fainted and started having a seizure.” 

17-year-old Elena Thoman, who was tear-gassed by the police in Denver, told AIUSA researchers: “At first it feels like the feeling when you’re chopping onions and then escalates to the point where your skin is burning…I had a lot of open skin and it was burning for an hour. It made me cough a lot — I had to take my mask off because the mask had tear gas in it…so even though there is COVID, I had to take my mask off.” 

NBC News photojournalist Ed Ou, after he and other journalists were attacked by police officers in Minneapolis: “They had enough time to shake the pepper spray and to spray it, despite me and others shouting, ‘Press, press,’ continually.” The group was corralled back into a dead end with nowhere to escape as the officers used batons to beat them and discharged grenades, tear gas, and pepper spray on them. His head was bleeding. Despite his repeatedly asking for help, several law enforcement officers walked past him offering no assistance. Ed Ou was treated at a nearby hospital, requiring four stitches for his head injury. “I’ve literally spent most of my career in places where being a journalist was something I had to hide and something I had to be careful about sharing. And this is one place where I should be able to proclaim this is what I do.”

Legal observer Jack*, who was beaten by the police in Chicago: “Three to four more officers who were behind me pulled me up onto a concrete barrier and threw me over onto a wheelchair ramp. I landed on my back and lost my hat. I was looking around when three or four other officers started hitting me with batons. Another protester tried to stop the police, and they started hitting him. People were yelling ‘legal observer’ as it was happening. I was crouched, trying to protect myself, and telling them, ‘I’m not resisting, I’m not resisting.’” 

* Name changed to protect the interviewee’s anonymity.

RECOMMENDATIONS ON POLICING OF PROTESTS

AIUSA is calling on Congress to pass the Protect our Protestors Act of 2020 (HR 7315). The organization is also calling on all law enforcement agencies to revise their policies and practices for the policing of protests, and comply with international human rights standards, including the UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials and the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, the guiding principles underpinning all operations before, during and after demonstrations. 

The Department of Justice and all state Attorneys General should investigate, effectively, impartially, and promptly, all allegations of human rights violations by police officials during public assemblies, including unlawful use of force, and bring all those found responsible, including commanding officers, to account through criminal or disciplinary proceedings as appropriate, and provide full redress to victims.