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Demonstrators face police armed with military equipment at a recent racial justice protest. (Photo: Amnesty International USA)

'The World Is Watching': Amnesty Report Details Human Rights Violations by US Police During Racial Justice Protests

The use of force detailed in the report "is ultimately a symptom of the very issue that started these protests: unaccountable police violence."

Julia Conley

In a report titled "The World is Watching," Amnesty International USA revealed on Tuesday that U.S. police violated the human rights of protesters, medics, journalists, and other people at least 125 times in the first weeks of the current U.S. racial justice uprising. 

Between May 26 and June 5, police in 40 states and Washington, D.C. responded to protests with "shocking amounts of excessive force," according to (pdf) the organization. 

Amnesty recorded the widespread "use of militarized equipment [and] excessive force including the use of batons, kinetic impact projectiles, and tear gas and pepper spray."

Demonstrations over the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless other Black Americans by police officers have continued across the country since Amnesty compiled its data, and videos posted to social media have shown hundreds of other violations by police at protests.

"I do think we were targeted as legal observers... Police act differently when they know they are being watched. Similar to the arrest of journalists—at the end of day, we need people who can tell this story, collect this information, or the government can do whatever it wants."
—Megan Harrison, National Lawyers Guild

The report illustrates how "little has changed in how police respond to protests against police violence in the six years since Ferguson," Justin Mazzola, Amnesty's deputy director of research, told The Hill, referring to demonstrations against the killing of Michael Brown in 2014 which drew national attention to the Black Lives Matter movement. 

The organization reported at the time that U.S. laws governing excessive force by police did not comply with international standards, which stipulate that tear gas and "less lethal" projectiles such as rubber bullets must only be used by police as a last resort.

"There has been a disturbing lack of progress over the past five years in ensuring that police officers use lethal force only when there is an imminent risk of death or serious injury to themselves or others," Tuesday's report reads. "Just three states—California, Washington, and Missouri—have taken important but incremental steps, such as by bringing their state laws on lethal force into compliance with U.S. constitutional standards."

Amnesty interviewed 50 protesters, journalists, medics, and legal observers who faced human rights violations at protests in late May and early June.

Seventeen-year-old demonstrator Elena Thoman described being tear-gassed by police in Denver, Colorado, saying the experience was "like the feeling when you are chopping onions and then escalates to the point where your skin is burning." 

Actions by the police directly contributed to conditions that may have made Covid-19 more likely to spread at demonstrations, as public health experts warned when the protests began. 

"It made me cough a lot—I had to take my mask off because the mask had tear gas in it," said Thoman. "The tear gas got stuck under my mask and made it much worse. So even though there is Covid, I had to take my mask off."

The use of tear gas on protesters "is ultimately a symptom of the very issue that started these protests: unaccountable police violence," the report reads. 

Amnesty released its report two weeks after the ACLU sued the Trump administration and the city of Portland, Oregon over federal and local law enforcement agents' attacks on volunteer street medics at ongoing protests in the city.

Amnesty's report included accounts of violence against street medics in Columbus, Ohio; Seattle; and Minneapolis.

National Lawyers Guild (NLG) legal observers Asia Parks and Megan Harrison also described being targeted in Atlanta. The women were clearly identified as legal observers, counseling protesters while wearing green NLG hats, when they were arrested and detained for 16 hours on June 1. 

Within a few minutes of the city's curfew, Parks and Harrison were leaving the protest when they heard an officer say, "Get the girl in the green hat."

"I do think we were targeted as legal observers," Harrison told Amnesty. "I think there's no way they didn't know who we were. Police act differently when they know they are being watched. Similar to the arrest of journalists—at the end of day, we need people who can tell this story, collect this information, or the government can do whatever it wants."

The organization called on Congress to pass the PEACE Act, which would prohibit the use of lethal force by police except as a last resort and which was included by House Democrats in the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. The law has stalled in the Republican-led Senate.

"Federal, state, and local authorities must urgently take decisive action to address systemic racism and systemic misuse of force in the U.S. policing and criminal justice system, including by launching independent investigations and ensuring accountability in all cases of unlawful lethal use of force by police," wrote Amnesty, adding that the U.S. Justice Department should develop national guidelines on the use of tear gas and "less lethal" projectiles to bring the U.S. into compliance with international standards. 

"What our analysis shows is in comparison especially with international law and standards, state statutes are far too permissive and so it's incredibly hard to hold law enforcement criminally liable when they use lethal force in an unjustified manner," Mazzola told The Hill. 


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