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USA: scale of police violence during Black Lives Matter protests revealed

Unlawful police violence has occurred in four out of five states right across the country © Amnesty International

Interactive map based on open-source research shows police violence in 80% of states

Protester in Philadelphia describes police pulling down protesters’ masks, then spraying and gassing them

Amnesty has called on UK to halt exports of security and policing equipment to US 

‘The time for applying band-aids and making excuses for a few “bad apples” has passed’ - Brian Castner 

Police forces across the USA have committed widespread human rights violations against Black Lives Matter protesters, Amnesty International said today, as it launched a detailed interactive map of more than 100 incidents of police violence.

Amnesty has documented 125 separate examples of police violence against protesters in 40 states and the District of Columbia between 26 May and 5 June (see examples below), a period when hundreds of thousands of people in the USA and other countries protested against racism and police violence.

The mapped analysis reveals a dizzying array of violations by police forces across the country in 80% of US states. 

In light of disturbing images of US police violence in the week immediately following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Amnesty UK called on the UK Government to halt exports of all security and policing equipment to the USA. However, despite considerable public and political support for the export freeze, the Government has not halted sales.

Amnesty’s new research shows how US law-enforcement officers’ use of unlawful force included beatings, misuse of tear gas and pepper spray, and the inappropriate firing of less-lethal projectiles such as rubber bullets and sponge rounds. The abuses were committed by a range of security forces - from state and local police departments, to federal agencies and the National Guard.

Amnesty’s mapping shows the violations were not limited to the largest cities. Local police inappropriately used tear gas against peaceful protesters in Louisville, Kentucky; Murfreesboro, Tennessee; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; and Albuquerque, New Mexico, among other towns and cities. And in Fort Wayne, Indiana on 30 May, a local journalist lost his eye when police shot him in the face with a tear gas grenade.

Amnesty’s Crisis Evidence Lab gathered almost 500 videos and photographs of protests from social media platforms. This digital content was then verified, geolocated, and analysed by investigators with expertise in weapons, police tactics, and international and US laws governing the use of force. In some cases, researchers were also able to interview victims and confirm police conduct with local police departments.  

While the majority of the protesters have been peaceful, some have used violence. In many cases, however, rather than respond to individual violations, security forces have used disproportionate and indiscriminate force against entire demonstrations.

Brian Castner, Amnesty International’s Senior Crisis Advisor on Arms and Military Operations, said: 

“The analysis is clear: when activists and supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement took to the streets in cities and towns across the USA to peacefully demand an end to systemic racism and police violence, they were overwhelmingly met with a militarised response and more police violence.

“The time for applying band-aids and making excuses for a few ‘bad apples’ has passed. 

“What’s needed now is systemic, root-and-branch reform of US policing that brings an end to the scourge of police use of excessive force and extrajudicial executions of black people.

“Communities should not live in fear of being harmed by the very officers that have sworn an oath to protect them. Officers responsible for excessive force and unlawful killings must always be held accountable.”

Examples of police abuse

On 30 May: a joint patrol of Minneapolis police and Minnesota National Guard personnel unlawfully shot US-manufactured 37/40mm impact projectiles at people peacefully standing on the front porches of their homes. After encountering people recording with their phones, the forces ordered people to “get inside” and then shouted “light them up” before firing. 

On 1 June: security personnel from a variety of federal agencies - including National Park Police and the Bureau of Prisons, as well as DC National Guard personnel - committed a range of human rights violations against protesters in Lafayette Square in Washington. They used riot shields to shove protesters and media workers, misused a variety of crowd control agents, and threw US-manufactured Stinger Ball grenades - which contain pepper spray and explode in a concussive “flash-bang” which sprays rubber pellets indiscriminately in all directions. The attack, which preceded a photo-op by President Trump in front of a nearby church, was widely reported by media, including a lengthy Washington Post video featuring Amnesty analysis. 

Also on 1 June : state and city police in the Center City area of Philadelphia used large amounts of tear gas and pepper spray to remove dozens of peaceful protesters from the Vine Street Expressway. One protester, Lizzie Horne, a rabbinical student, told Amnesty: 

“Out of the blue, they started breezing pepper spray into the crowd. There was one officer on the central reservation 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. And we were trying to help him, flushing his eyes and then he just fainted and started having a seizure. He came to pretty quickly. As we were finally lifting him up and start getting him out of the way, they started launching more tear gas; that’s when people started to get really scared. They started gassing in a kettle formation - we were against a big fence that people had to jump over, up a steep hill. The fence was maybe six feet tall. People started putting their hands up - but the cops wouldn’t let up. It was can after can after can. We were encapsulated in gas. We were drooling and coughing uncontrollably. Then the cops came from the other side of the fence and started gassing from that direction. After that, the police started coming up the hill and … 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 central reservation on the highway with their hands in zip ties, and pulling down their masks and spraying and gassing them again.” 

Growing calls for major reforms

In a 16 June executive order, President Trump called for incentives to limit the use of chokeholds of the kind that killed George Floyd in Minneapolis on 25 May, as well as a national database on allegations of excessive force by police.

Some state and city police forces have introduced partial reforms since the protests began, such as suspending the use of certain crowd control weapons like tear gas. In Minneapolis, a majority of the City Council has pledged to disband the police force and replace it with more effective public safety institutions. 

Amnesty is demanding comprehensive reforms to US policing to stop police extrajudicial executions of black people and bring accountability for their deaths through independent, impartial investigations that lead to reparations for the victims and survivors. Amnesty is also insisting that the right to peaceful protest against police violence should be enabled, without the threat of protesters, journalists or bystanders being targeted by further police violence. 

Amongst other reforms, Amnesty is calling for:

*Federal legislation, including the PEACE Act, as well as new state laws to restrict police use of force to what is strictly necessary and proportionate; 

*An end to the “qualified immunity” doctrine, which prevents police from being held legally accountable when they break the law;

*Federal legislation to demilitarise US police forces.

Human rights standards

Security forces can only resort to use of force at public assemblies when it is absolutely necessary and proportionate to achieve a legitimate law enforcement objective, in response to serious violence threatening the lives or rights of others. Even then, authorities must strictly distinguish between peaceful demonstrators or bystanders, and any individual who is actively engaged in violence. The violent acts of an individual never justify the disproportionate use of force against peaceful protesters generally, and force is only justified until the immediate threat of violence toward others is contained. Any restrictions of public assemblies - including use of force against demonstrators - must not discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity, political ideology or other category.

Excessive use of force against peaceful protesters violates both the US Constitution and international human rights law. Law-enforcement agencies at all levels have a responsibility to respect, protect, and facilitate peaceful assemblies.


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