Unlawful Use of Force by Police at Protests Across the US

Scene from the racial justice protests in Washington, DC
following the death of a Black man named George Floyd during a
violent police encounter in Minnesota, USA. Credit: Amnesty
International, Alli Jarrar

By Brian Castner
BUFFALO, New York, Jun 23 2020 (IPS)

Police forces across the United States have committed widespread
and egregious human rights violations in response to largely
peaceful assemblies protesting systemic racism and police violence,
including the killing of Black people.

Amnesty International has documented 125 separate incidents of
police violence against protesters in 40 states and the District of
Columbia between 26 May and 5 June 2020.

These acts of excessive force were committed by members of state
and local police departments, as well as by National Guard troops
and security force personnel from several federal agencies.

Among the abuses documented are beatings, the misuse of tear gas
and pepper spray, and the inappropriate and, at times,
indiscriminate firing of less-lethal projectiles, such as sponge
rounds and rubber bullets.

To evaluate these incidents, Amnesty International’s Crisis
Evidence Lab gathered nearly 500 videos of protests from social
media platforms. This digital content was then verified,
geolocated, and analyzed by investigators with expertise in
weapons, police tactics, and international and US law governing the
use of force.

In some cases, researchers were also able to interview victims
or confirm police conduct using local police department

These human rights violations by US police against peaceful
protesters – which were neither proportionate nor necessary to
achieve a legitimate law enforcement objective – are particularly
egregious as they have occurred at demonstrations denouncing just
such police behavior.

Most of these protests have been peaceful, but in some a
minority of protesters have committed unlawful acts, including acts
of violence. In such cases, security forces have routinely used
disproportionate and indiscriminate force against entire
demonstrations – without distinguishing, as legally required,
between peaceful protesters and individuals committing unlawful

Credit: Amnesty International, Alli Jarrar

Besides the severity of the abuses, what is most striking about
the incidents Amnesty International documented is their broad
geographic scope, indicating the national scale of the problem of
police violence.

On 30 May, a joint patrol of Minneapolis police and Minnesota
National Guard personnel unlawfully shot 37/40mm impact projectiles
at people peacefully standing on the front porches of their homes.
The security forces yelled “light them up” before firing.

The attack appears to have been done in retaliation for the
people being outside after curfew and videotaping the forces with
their smartphones.

On 1 June, Pennsylvania State Police and City of Philadelphia
police confronted a group of protesters on a highway that runs
through the city center. Even after the protesters left the road
bed, police continued to use pepper spray and tear gas to drive the
crowd up a steep embankment and against a high fence.

Lizzie Horne, a rabbinical student who was in that group,
described the experience:

“Out of the blue, they started breezing pepper spray into the
crowd. There was one officer on the median who was spraying as
well. Then they started with tear gas. Someone who was right in the
front – who had a tear gas canister hit his head – started
running back … We were against a big fence that people had to
jump over up a steep hill. The fence was maybe 6 feet tall.

People started putting their hands up – but the cops
wouldn’t let up … We were drooling and coughing uncontrollably
… The police started coming up the hill and continued to harass
people who were still on the hill – they were hitting and
tackling people. They were dragging people down the hill and
forcing them down on their knees, lining them up kneeling on the
median on the highway with their hands in zip ties – and pulling
down their masks and spraying and gassing them again.”

In Washington, DC, also on 1 June, security personnel from a
variety of federal agencies, including National Park Police and the
Bureau of Prisons, plus DC National Guardsmen, committed a range of
human rights violations against protesters in Lafayette Park.

These included misusing a variety of riot control agents, and
tossing “stinger ball” grenades, which contain pepper spray and
explode in a concussive flash-bang effect, throwing rubber pellets
indiscriminately in all directions.

The violations were not limited to the largest cities, however.
Local police inappropriately used tear gas against peaceful
protesters in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Sioux Falls, South Dakota,
and Conway, Arkansas, among others.

In Iowa City, Iowa, police fired tear gas and threw flash bang
grenades at protesters kneeling and chanting “Hands up, don’t
shoot.” In Huntington Beach, California, police fired pepper
balls at protesters lying prone in the street on their

In Charlotte, North Carolina, police used tear gas to trap
protesters between two tall buildings, and then shot pepper balls
at them from above. During a protest in Salt Lake City, Utah,
police held down a homeless man and shot him in the back with a
37/40mm impact projectile.

In Fort Wayne, Indiana, a local journalist lost his eye when
police shot him in the face with a tear gas grenade.

Less-lethal weapons—such as tear gas and pepper spray
grenades, and impact projectiles such as sponge rounds, baton
rounds, and rubber bullets—should never be shot at close range or
aimed at the head, as serious injury or death is possible.

There is no legitimate use for projectiles that cause a blinding
flash of light in public order policing operations, such as the
policing of a protest.

Such weapons are designed to disorientate their targets, which
is antithetical to the purpose of weapons such as tear gas, which
are only to be used to disperse crowds where violence is so
widespread that no other less harmful means will disperse them.

For this reason, weapons that combine a gas and a flash, such as
‘stinger balls,’ can never be legitimately used in the policing
of assemblies.

The US government is obligated under the US Constitution and
international human rights law to guarantee the right to freedom of
peaceful assembly. Law enforcement agencies—at the federal,
state, and municipal levels—have a responsibility to respect,
protect, and facilitate peaceful assemblies.

As such, law enforcement authorities are only permitted to use
force at public assemblies when it is absolutely necessary and in a
proportionate manner to achieve a legitimate law enforcement

Any restrictions of public assemblies, including the use of
force against demonstrators, can never be discriminatory toward any
race, ethnicity, political ideology, or other social group.

The enforcement of a curfew is not, in and of itself, reasonable
grounds to use force, nor do curfews supersede the human right to
peaceful assembly or First Amendment freedom-of-expression

Law enforcement authorities’ main objective in policing
demonstrations should always be to effectively facilitate peaceful

If it does become necessary for law enforcement to disperse a
protest—for example, as a result of individual protesters
perpetrating acts of serious violence—law enforcement officials
can use force only if non-violent means are unlikely to be

In the use of force, law enforcement officials must seek to
minimize harm and injury, and ensure it is proportionate to the
level of resistance by the demonstrators. Even then, authorities
must strictly distinguish between peaceful demonstrators or
bystanders, and any individual who is actively engaged in

The violent acts of an individual never justifies the use of
force against peaceful protesters generally, and force is only
justified for the minimum duration necessary.

In order to prevent impunity and the repetition of abuses,
authorities in the US must investigate, prosecute, and punish the
unlawful use of force by police or others, and provide full
reparations to the victims of such violence.

To date, there is little indication that these obligations have
been taken seriously across the US.

The post
Unlawful Use of Force by Police at Protests Across the US

appeared first on Inter Press


Brian Castner is Senior Crisis Advisor on Arms
and Military Operations, Amnesty International

The post
Unlawful Use of Force by Police at Protests Across the US

appeared first on Inter Press

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