USA: police have failed to protect protesters from violence - new report

Protest in Washington DC in June © Amnesty International (Alli Jarrar)

Police in half of US states failed to protect protest participants from violent counter-protesters

With Trump telling white supremacists to ‘stand by’, states should restrict weapons at polling stations and peaceful assemblies

‘Law-enforcement officials should be on high alert to prevent political violence in this explosive moment’ - Brian Griffey

Law-enforcement agencies across the USA are failing to facilitate people’s fundamental right to freedom of peaceful assembly or to protect protests and counter-protests from violent disruption by armed groups, Amnesty International said today in a new report. 

Since the police killing of George Floyd in May, there have been thousands of peaceful anti-racism and political protests and counter-protests across the USA. 

Yet in nearly 200 incidents where violence occurred between participants in conflicting protests, Amnesty found that police forces frequently failed to take preventive measures to avoid disruption, and failed to protect protesters from violent attacks when they did occur.

From May to September, Amnesty documented violent confrontations between protesters and counter-protesters in approximately 75% of all US states. In about half of states, police forces failed to keep assemblies peaceful or to protect participants from violent confrontations with counter-protesters.

A frequent catalyst for violent confrontations between protesters and counter-protesters was the presence of armed vigilante groups. The Trump administration’s rhetoric, policies and practices appear to have encouraged armed groups to assault protesters and counter-protesters around the country. In one example, an anti-racism protest organiser, Tony Crawford, told Amnesty that “people could have gotten killed” during a violent confrontation his community had with armed counter-protesters at a demonstration calling for the removal of a Confederate civil war statue in Weatherford, Texas in July.

In a series of text messages to the Weatherford police chief, reviewed by Amnesty, Crawford wrote:

“The patriots [armed group members] are surrounding us to force confrontation. We are surrounded by guns and people talking about shooting us loudly ... Where are the police, Chief? This is ridiculous. We are being abused. Where are y’all ... Y’all abandoned us Chief. You abandoned us. You let us get dragged and attacked while you did nothing.”

Brian Griffey, North America regional researcher at Amnesty International, said:

“As President Trump calls on his supporters to ‘go to’ and ‘watch’ the polling stations, and white supremacist armed groups to ‘stand by’ during the elections, law-enforcement officials should be on high alert to prevent political violence in this explosive moment. 

“Government authorities and the police forces they direct must adopt new policies, strategies, and tactics to facilitate and protect peaceful protests, and prevent their disruption by armed groups or other violent actors.”

Amnesty’s 33-page report - Losing the Peace: US police failures to protect protesters from violence - shows that law-enforcement agencies in the USA often neglected to:

*Deploy appropriately trained police in adequate numbers to address potential violence between protesters and counter-protesters; 
*Separate protests and counter-protests, and de-escalate tensions to avoid violent confrontations; 
*Prohibit and prevent threats of violence by armed individuals at peaceful assemblies;
*Intervene in disputes between protesters and counter-protesters;
*Differentiate between the violent and non-violent in response to violent incidents, including by avoiding the dispersal of assemblies when they remained otherwise generally peaceful.

Amnesty is calling on US government and law-enforcement authorities at all levels to reform their police forces’ policies and practices to better facilitate freedom of peaceful assembly, and protect protesters from widespread threats of preventable violence. 

In the marked absence of federal protection, local-level governments should safeguard protests from violence by issuing temporary executive orders to restrict the presence of weapons in public properties, parks, polling stations and peaceful assemblies; and by instructing their law-enforcement agencies to prevent armed individuals and groups from disrupting peaceful protests and civic activities during the elections period.

Police forces at city, county, state and federal levels should all immediately reform their conduct and implement training on the human rights-compliant facilitation and protection of freedom of peaceful assembly, in line with their obligations under the US Constitution and good practices in policing of assemblies.

Call for freeze of UK exports 

In addition to the failures of US policing outlined in the Losing the Peace report, Amnesty has previously documented excessive and disproportionate policing of Black Lives Matter protests since George Floyd’s killing. In June, Amnesty International UK called for the UK authorities to “immediately freeze all policing and security equipment export licences to the US where there’s a clear risk of further misuse” of exported equipment. The UK government reportedly suspended licensing decisions for a limited period, before deciding that exports could resume.

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Losing the Peace: US police failures to protect protesters from violence