Amnesty International finds U.S. police violated protesters’ human rights

PSU professors weigh in on geopolitical implications

Since the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on May 25, the Black Lives Matter movement has swelled to become one of the largest social movements in United States history, according to The New York Times. Protests, which are ongoing in Portland, erupted across the country in May and June. Soon after, solidarity protests spread around the world. Protesters demanded large scale reforms or wholesale abolition of police departments, as well as an end to police violence against Black people. 


In many cases, U.S. protests were met with violent repression by state and local authorities. A recent Amnesty International report documented 125 human rights violations committed by U.S. police and federal troops responding to protests in 40 states and the District of Columbia between May 26–June 5. 


Released on Aug. 4, the report cited “widespread and egregious human rights violations by police officers against protesters, medics, journalists and legal observers.” Among the violations cited were “beatings, the misuse of tear gas and pepper spray, and the inappropriate and, at times, indiscriminate firing of less-lethal projectiles,” such as rubber bullets. The report offers an interactive online map charting each of the alleged infractions. 


While Amnesty’s report covered only 10 days of protests, many of the abuses flagged by the group as human rights violations—such as the indiscriminate use of tear gas and less-lethal impact munitions—continue to be experienced by protesters on a nightly basis in Portland. 


According to Amnesty International, most U.S. protests since late May have been peaceful. However, the organization stated in some instances “a minority of protesters have committed unlawful acts,” and added, “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 acts.” 


While property damage and vandalism occurred at some Black Lives Matter protests over the last several months, a recent article in Current Affairs warned against conflating non-violent property crime with bodily violence against individuals or groups. 


“If protesters can be classified as violent, it’s easier to justify police violence as proportionate or defensive,” Editor-in-Chief Nathan J. Robinson wrote. “The word ‘violence’ should be reserved for harm done to people. Otherwise, we risk making the term conceptually incoherent and—much more importantly—conflating acts that do very serious physical harm to people with acts that have not physically harmed anyone.”


Amnesty International’s report highlighted the fact that in the case of recent demonstrations, police have repeatedly engaged in acts of violence, whereas illegal conduct on the part of protesters tends to be limited to property crime. Recent incidents in Seattle, Portland and Kenosha, WI also show a pattern of disproportionate violence against Black Lives Matter supporters emerging among right-wing counter-protesters. 


American citizens possess a constitutional right to free speech and peaceful assembly. This prerogative is also recognized as an international human right by Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights


The Inter-American Commission of Human Rights considers the police repression of political dissent to be an authoritarian move, and American journalists, pundits and lawmakers routinely criticize America’s geopolitical adversaries, such as Russia and China, for such infractions. Portland State Professor of International Studies Dr. Gerald Sussman called this an “obvious double standard in U.S. foreign policy.” 


“Efforts on the part of the U.S. to discredit other countries, even those that lack democratic foundations, is quite hypocritical,” Sussman said. “If the U.S. were serious about human rights, [it] would not be supporting regimes such as Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and others, including Israel’s illegal settlements in Palestinian territory.” 


Dr. Priya Kapoor, professor of International and Global studies at PSU, concurred. Kapoor said human rights “are things the U.S. has always upheld as ideals for other nations, but over the years it has not felt it needed to uphold some of these protections for its own citizens.” 


“We are in a nation-state where citizenship itself has come under fire,” Kapoor said. “The nation-state has become weaker than ever before, and whenever nation-states lose their hold, the main way they uphold authority is through brute force, through the constabulary, or the police, or the military.” 


According to Amnesty International, the group’s report constitutes the most comprehensive analysis of police violence against protesters ever compiled by an international human rights group. Unprecedented in its scope, the report also demonstrates a growing willingness on the part of the international community to hold powerful states accountable for human rights violations. 


“It has previously been assumed that the Western democracies were beyond reproach when it comes to human rights,” Sussman said. “But when compared to the Western democracies in northern Europe, the U.S. fares very badly on almost every measure of basic human rights, including the rights to housing, health care, education, security and even press freedom. The U.S. is currently 45th in press freedom, as reported by Reporters Without Borders.”  


In Sussman’s view, the report does not go far enough in its inquiry into basic human rights violations in the U.S. “I think [Amnesty International] should go further than just investigating police violence against Blacks, BLM and other activists,” Sussman said. 


According to Sussman, Amnesty International “should also investigate the denial of voting rights to people of color through the mechanisms of gerrymandering; reducing voting stations in Black communities, resulting in extremely long waiting lines; the use of voter ID laws and the current efforts to block vote-by-mail during this pandemic. These practices directly violate the 15th Amendment to the Constitution.” Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights likewise guarantees the voting and electoral rights of citizens. 


Amnesty’s report comes in an international context marked by protest movements from Hong Kong to Belarus which have faced police violence and state repression. The rising tide of social movements responds to a global shift rightward on the part of governments, according to Kapoor. “There is an almost opaque authoritarian situation set up through either police structures or military structures, but people [are] penetrating nevertheless,” Kapoor said. 


“Protests are taking cues from each other. We’re seeing Hong Kong, parts of Europe, parts of South Asia, parts of Latin America have very similar patterns of protest,” Kapoor added. When the Black Lives Matter movement reignited in the U.S. in late May, protesters from Hong Kong to Lebanon began sharing protest tips online, mirroring acts of solidarity between American and Palestinian activists following the 2014 killing of Michael Brown by Ferguson police. “We are seeing protests become more coherent, borrow from each other, act in ways that are transnational,” Kapoor said.


Yet amid burgeoning international solidarity among dissident movements, governmental strategies used to police and surveil activists are also beginning to converge. “We see the U.S. and Russia dovetail into very similar tactics when it comes to [their] own citizenry and [their] neighbors,” Kapoor told the Vanguard. 


Kapoor noted the situation in Hong Kong is also similar. According to her, when federal officers came to Portland, her students actively participated in protests. “[Federal officers] would just pick people up and create these long dossiers on them, so that they would know who they were in the future. For young people to have that sort of record that has been taken by the authorities is a very big deal. And the same thing is happening in Hong Kong.” 


Lengthy prison sentences faced by Hong Kong activists mirror the arrests of Black Lives Matter organizers like Tiana Arata, who faces charges that could result in a 15-year prison sentence, and Urooj Rahman and Colinford Mattis, New York attorneys and activists whose federal charges are backed by 45-year mandatory minimum sentences. 


Additionally, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s mobilization of military forces in defense of national monuments recalled similar deployments by the Trump administration earlier this summer, including in Portland. “We are living this nightmare of authoritarian leaders around the world,” Kapoor said.


Amnesty International offered specific guidelines for reforming U.S. police toward compliance with international human rights standards. “In order to prevent impunity and the repetition of abuses, authorities in the U.S. must investigate, prosecute, and punish the unlawful use of force by police or others, and provide full reparations to the victims of such violence,” according to the organization’s website.


Yet non-governmental human rights organizations exercise no legal authority, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not a legally binding document, according to the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights at the U.N. 


Still, the report may have significant implications, according to Sussman and Kapoor. “Amnesty International reports may not have any enforcement mechanisms behind them,” Sussman said, “but they are highly influential, often indirectly, in shaping public opinion.” In this way, human rights reports can have both domestic and international effects. “[Amnesty International] reports do reach the media, which in turn can embarrass governments that act in blatant violation of human rights.”


According to Kapoor, reports such as the one released by Amnesty International can have a serious impact on countries’ geopolitical positions. “An Amnesty International report that has this long list [of allegations] against U.S. authorities is very important at this time, before the time of the election,” Kapoor said. According to her, the report could influence the way foreign leaders choose to create diplomatic relations or alliances with the U.S.


Amnesty’s report came in the wake of a U.N. Human Rights Council decision to open an investigation into anti-Black racism and racial violence, sparked by George Floyd’s killing in late May; and last year, the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, called the conditions in U.S. immigrant detention facilities “appalling.” Mounting concerns about human rights violations by the U.S. government may “define the path of how the rest of the world will respond to U.S. leadership and relate to the U.S. as a nation-state,” according to Kapoor.


While human rights reports influence public opinion and geopolitics, U.S. lawmakers may not take the recommendations of international human rights groups seriously. “The U.S. government would never admit to [Amnesty International]’s influence,” Sussman said. “We have to recognize that the U.S. acts as an imperialist power that will not be deterred in its pursuit of what it considers its national interests.”


According to Sussman, this state of affairs can’t be reduced to the politics of a single party. “As long as the Senate and White House are controlled by the right wing in this country, little attention will be given to [Amnesty International] reports,” Sussman said. “But one should not assume that the Democrats have a good record on human rights.” 


Sussman highlighted major violations of human rights and the perpetuation of war crimes in Korea and Vietnam under the aegis of Democratic administrations. “Clinton and Biden both voted for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and have been ardent supporters for military intervention in Syria,” he added.


Kapoor concurred with Sussman’s view of U.S. lawmakers’ regard for human rights reports. “It is true that within the U.S. some of these reports do not have much value. That has got to change,” Kapoor said. “It is going to change. It must change, if the U.S. is to regain its moral authority in the world.”