Following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25, 2020, hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. and around the world protested against racism and police violence and to demand accountability for the unlawful killing of Black people by law enforcement personnel. However, these protests against police violence were met with more police violence as police across the U.S. committed widespread and egregious human rights violations against people protesting the unlawful killings of Black people.
The rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. As such, police have the obligation to respect, protect and facilitate these rights.
Amnesty International recorded 125 separate incidents of police violence against protesters, in 40 states and D.C., between May 26 and June 5, 2020, that were committed by a range of police officers across federal agencies, state and local police departments, as well as military forces. In the face of peaceful protests, law enforcement in cities across the country responded with tear gas, pepper spray, batons, kinetic impact projectiles such as rubber bullets and sponge rounds, 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.
In some instances, the use of chemical irritants can constitute torture or other ill-treatment. Furthermore, their widespread, unnecessary and excessive use against largely peaceful protesters raises additional concerns during a pandemic involving a respiratory illness such as COVID-19. The natural response by people when exposed to these chemicals is to remove their masks in order to flush their eyes, noses and mouths and expectorate the chemicals from their mouths and lungs, potentially spreading the virus.
In numerous incidents across the U.S., law enforcement personnel targeted media representatives with chemical irritants, kinetic impact projectiles and arrest and detention. In several circumstances, journalists sustained serious injuries resulting from kinetic impact projectiles and/or were detained and arrested without proper access to medical care. Legal observers were subjected to the use of excessive force and arbitrarily arrested as they monitored protests. Street medics were also targeted. In some cases, law enforcement destroyed clearly identified medic stations and subjected clearly identified street medics to excessive force, such as physical assault, pepper spray and rubber projectiles, and arrest.
- Police must protect, respect and facilitate the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
- Protest is a human right, and police must ensure that the type of equipment used for the purpose of dispersing protesters is carefully considered and used only when necessary, proportional and lawful.
- It is the legitimate right of people to carry their opinion to the streets. Public assemblies should not be considered as the “enemy.”
- Equipping officers in a manner more appropriate for a battlefield may put them in the mindset that confrontation and conflict are inevitable rather than possible and may escalate tensions between protesters and police.
- The President should rescind the Presidential Executive Order on Restoring State, Tribal, and Local Law Enforcement’s Access to Life-Saving Equipment and Resources, which revoked Executive Order 13688, and work with Congress to eliminate the 1033 program that facilitates the transfer of military equipment to law enforcement.
- The President should direct the U.S. Department of Justice to develop national guidelines on the use of tear gas to ensure that there is compliance at all times with the international human rights obligations and with international standards on policing.
- The President should direct the U.S. Department of Justice to develop national guidelines on the use of “less lethal” kinetic impact projectiles (such as sponge rounds), which should be prohibited unless the projectiles have been rigorously and independently tested to ensure that they are sufficiently accurate not to cause unwarranted injury. If such testing finds that they can be deployed, their use should be strictly limited to situations of violent disorder posing a risk of harm to persons where no less extreme measures are sufficient to achieve the objective of containing and stopping the violence.
- The World Is Watching: Mass violations by U.S. police of Black Lives Matter protesters’ rights (2020) (available here)
- Amnesty International Documents Widespread Police Violence Against Protesters for Black Lives Interactive Map (2020) (available here)
- Tear Gas: An Investigation (2020) (available here)
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Deputy Director, Research