Ferguson police violence the latest indication of United States’ deteriorating human rights situation
Law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, shall, as far as possible, apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms. They may use force and firearms only if other means remain ineffective or without any promise of achieving the intended result. – UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officers
For the fourth straight night, demonstrations rocked the St. Louis, MO, suburb of Ferguson on Wednesday in protest of the police murder of an 18-year-old unarmed black man named Mike Brown. The youth was gunned down last Saturday as he raised his hands to demonstrate compliance with police orders, according to witnesses, raising serious questions of adherence to international norms as they pertain to the use of force by law enforcement.
The killing of Brown was the latest in an epidemic of police murders across the United States, including at least 18 people killed so far in the month of August, and an estimated 130 throughout 2014.
As the demonstrations continued in Ferguson this week, the police repression has intensified. The over-the-top police response has included the use of armored vehicles, tear gas, rubber and wooden bullets, and the deployment of officers wearing combat fatigues, making them virtually indistinguishable from armed forces in countries under U.S. military occupation such as Afghanistan.
In an article at Business Insider on Tuesday, Paul Szoldra, an Afghanistan veteran, wrote:
While serving as a U.S. Marine on patrol in Afghanistan, we wore desert camouflage to blend in with our surroundings, carried rifles to shoot back when under enemy attack, and drove around in armored vehicles to ward off roadside bombs.
We looked intimidating, but all of our vehicles and equipment had a clear purpose for combat against enemy forces. So why is this same gear being used on our city streets?
The police confronting demonstrators in Ferguson are armed with short-barreled 5.56-mm rifles based on the military M4 carbine, “with scopes that can accurately hit a target out to 500 meters,” Szoldra points out. “On their side they carry pistols. On their front, over their body armor, they carry at least four to six extra magazines, loaded with 30 rounds each.”
On Wednesday, these heavily armed police officers fired tear gas and rubber bullets to force hundreds of protesters out of the city center.
“Dozens of officers,” The Guardian reported, “some carrying assault rifles, advanced with a pair of armoured trucks on the young and predominantly African American crowd, after two glass bottles were thrown at their lines from a largely peaceful protest against the shooting of Michael Brown by a city policeman.”
The police viciously attacked both demonstrators and journalists covering the demonstrations, including by firing tear gas directly at TV camera crews, such as these unfortunate reporters from the Al Jazeera network who were attacked Wednesday night:
After the reporters fled, their equipment was dismantled by police.
The systematic police repression of the freedom of the media on Wednesday also included arresting individual reporters, including one from the Washington Post and one from the Huffington Post.
The Washington Post condemned the detention of its journalist, Wesley Lowery, as “illegal” and an “assault on the freedom of the press to cover the news.” The Huffington Post criticized the arrest of its reporter, Ryan Reilly, as “militant aggression.” Reilly said that the “police resembled soldiers more than officers.”
The assaults on press freedom by the police in Ferguson – not to mention the murder of the unarmed black youth that set the protests off in the first place – are just the latest of a long list of escalating violations of rights committed by rogue police forces across the country, including the systematic militarization of police and what is being called a nationwide epidemic of police brutality.
Even establishment publications such as the Wall Street Journal have noticed the troubling trend of rising police violence, which is widely understood as inextricably linked to the war on terror. The Wall Street Journal dubbed the new breed of U.S. police officers “the warrior cop.” As a feature article put it in August 2013,
Driven by martial rhetoric and the availability of military-style equipment—from bayonets and M-16 rifles to armored personnel carriers—American police forces have often adopted a mind-set previously reserved for the battlefield. The war on drugs and, more recently, post-9/11 antiterrorism efforts have created a new figure on the U.S. scene: the warrior cop—armed to the teeth, ready to deal harshly with targeted wrongdoers, and a growing threat to familiar American liberties.
This rapidly deteriorating human rights situation is depicted well in this short film released last October called “Release Us”:
Earlier this year, the United Nations Human Rights Committee issued a scathing report documenting serious human rights abuses in the United States, with a particular focus on police violence.
In a section on “Excessive use of force by law enforcement officials,” the Human Rights Committee found that across the United States, there is an unacceptably “high number of fatal shootings by certain police forces, including, for instance, in Chicago, and reports of excessive use of force by certain law enforcement officers including the deadly use of tasers, which have a disparate impact on African Americans.”
In order to bring its practices in line with international norms on law enforcement, the UN recommended that the U.S. government should:
(a) step up its efforts to prevent the excessive use of force by law enforcement officers by ensuring compliance with the 1990 UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officers; (b) ensure that the new CBP directive on use of deadly force is applied and enforced in practice; and (c) improve reporting of excessive use of force violations and ensure that reported cases of excessive use of force are effectively investigated, alleged perpetrators are prosecuted and, if convicted, punished with appropriate sanctions, that investigations are re-opened when new evidence becomes available, and that victims or their families are provided with adequate compensation.
The Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officers that the Human Rights Committee referenced contains a number of guidelines that the U.S. would do well to implement in the interest of avoiding the unnecessary killings of civilians by police. For example,
Law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, shall, as far as possible, apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms. They may use force and firearms only if other means remain ineffective or without any promise of achieving the intended result.
5. Whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is unavoidable, law enforcement officials shall:
(a) Exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and the legitimate objective to be achieved;
(b) Minimize damage and injury, and respect and preserve human life;
(c) Ensure that assistance and medical aid are rendered to any injured or affected persons at the earliest possible moment;
(d) Ensure that relatives or close friends of the injured or affected person are notified at the earliest possible moment.
When tragedies do occur and police unnecessarily kill innocent people, the UN Basic Principles call for governments to “ensure that arbitrary or abusive use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials is punished as a criminal offence under their law.”
This is one area that is sorely lacking in the United States, with a general climate of impunity across the country for killer cops. This climate has led the hacktivist collective Anonymous to call on congressional representatives of Missouri to introduce legislation called “Mike Brown’s Law.”
“Anonymous demands that the Congressional Representatives and Senators from Missouri introduce legislation entitled ‘Mike Brown’s Law’ that will set strict national standards for police conduct in the USA,” the collective announced in a press release on Sunday. “We further demand that this new law include specific language to grant the victims of police violence the same rights and prerogatives that are already enjoyed nationwide by the victims of other violent criminals.”
As the police repression has intensified since Sunday, the Anonymous collective is now calling for an escalation of tactics in response to the ongoing human rights violations, including by holding nationwide demonstrations in solidarity with Ferguson.
As outraged citizens in the United States stand up bravely against out-of-control police forces, it is also imperative for the international community to step up in demanding that the U.S. begin implementing minimal standards for police conduct as called for in the UN Basic Principles and other human rights documents such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.