The killings of Black people in the United States have sparked mass movements across the country as people have taken to the streets to demand accountability, long overdue reforms to policing and criminal justice systems, and end to systemic racism. While the video-taped killing of George Floyd, as well as the killings of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, fueled the protests, the use of deadly force against communities of color is tragically not new. It is part of a historic pattern of discrimination by law enforcement, including unjustified stops and searches, racial profiling, and excessive use of force.
This newest research documents how law enforcement responded to protests about the use of deadly force with shocking amounts of excessive force against protesters and shows that there has been a disturbing lack of progress over the past five years in ensuring police officers use deadly force only when there is an imminent risk of death or serious injury to themselves or others. Amnesty International USA recorded 125 separate incidents of police violence against protesters, in 40 States and D.C., between May 26 and June 5, 2020. The report chronicles the stories of more than 50 people in cities across the U.S. affected by police violence as Black Lives Matter has grown into the largest social movement in U.S. history. The report is the most comprehensive human rights analysis of police violence against protesters to date.
In the face of peaceful protests, law enforcement in cities across the country responded with tear gas, pepper spray, batons, kinetic impact projectiles, and flash grenades — in many cases with little or no warning. Rather than being a necessary and proportionate response to any specific threat, the use of force became a matter of first resort to enforce a curfew, to end an ongoing demonstration, or clear a park for a photo op, all in violation of international law and standards on the policing of protests. Protesters suffered serious injuries, including loss of sight, through the indiscriminate and excessive use of force by police. In many instances, protesters calling for systemic change and accountability for the killings of Black people were repeatedly viewed as the “enemy.” Peaceful demonstrations were often greeted from the start by armored vehicles and police outfitted in riot gear. Law enforcement officers equipped in a manner more appropriate for a battlefield created an atmosphere of fear and terror that was confrontational and intimidating in cities across the country, and, in the case of Portland, seemed to have the effect of inflaming tensions rather than de-escalating the situation.
As protesters took to the streets, wearing masks and attempting to socially distance due to COVID-19, police fired excessive amounts of tear gas and pepper spray. The natural response by people exposed to the chemicals, which was to remove their masks to flush out their eyes, noses, and mouths, and remove the chemicals, might have led to the spread of the virus among protesters, many of whom live in communities already disproportionately affected by COVID-19.
17 year-old Elena Thoman, who was tear gassed by 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.
Amnesty International documented how law enforcement used excessive force not only against peaceful protesters but also against journalists, legal observers, and street medics across the country. Amnesty International interviewed journalists in Minneapolis, Minnesota; Columbus, Ohio; Des Moines, Iowa; and Raleigh, North Carolina, and found that law enforcement engaged in a deliberate attack on the media and interfered with their ability to do their jobs. Law enforcement tear gassed and pepper sprayed members of the media, shot them directly with percussion grenades, used unnecessary physical force against them, inflicted serious injuries with kinetic impact projectiles, and detained and arrested them without proper access to medical care or disclosure of their legal rights — a violation of the rights to freedom of expression and assembly, and the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Law enforcement agencies also repeatedly prevented legal observers from fulfilling their roles, subjecting them to excessive force despite their easily identifiable brightly colored clothing and, at times, arresting and detaining them in Chicago, Illinois, and Atlanta, Georgia, Las Vegas, NYC, as well as other cities. Legal observers play a vital role in ensuring protesters’ rights are protected and should never be targeted for arrest due to the conduct of protesters or in order to prevent their monitoring, which are both essential to hold police accountable if and when they abuse their authority and also serve as a necessary public check on their actions.
In addition to singling out journalists and legal observers, law enforcement agencies targeted medical volunteers that attended protests across the country to support the health and medical needs of the protesters. They were clearly identified by red crosses taped on their backpacks, shirts, white coats, hard hats and other visible areas, yet law enforcement repeatedly, and deliberately, targeted both the volunteers and the clearly identified aid stations, endangering not only the protesters, but also the medics that were treating them. Amnesty International spoke with street medics who were volunteering in cities such as Seattle, Washington; Columbus, Ohio; and Minneapolis, Minnesota and found that law enforcement physically assaulted, tear gassed, pepper sprayed, and shot at medics with flash grenades and kinetic impact projectiles such as rubber bullets. Under international law, law enforcement is to avoid targeting medical crews to allow them to provide treatment and first aid.
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.
President Trump’s recent actions to encourage more excessive force in policing represent a slippery slope more befitting an authoritarian system than a democracy. The country’s approach to the policing of protests must be changed from the ground up at the local, state, and federal levels.
Amnesty International USA is calling on all law enforcement agencies to revise their policies and practices for the policing of protests, and to comply with international human rights standards, and for the Department of Justice and all state Attorneys General to investigate, effectively, impartially, and promptly, all allegations of human rights violations by police officials during public assemblies, bring all those found responsible, to account, and provide redress to victims.