On 25 May, 2020, George Floyd died in Minneapolis, United States, after he was stopped by police on suspicion of using counterfeit money. Floyd was pinned by officer Derek Chauvin, who kneeled on his neck, despite Floyd repeatedly saying he couldn’t breathe, and died shortly after.
Floyd’s death sparked a series of protests across major US cities regarding systemic racism and excessive force used by police officers against the black community. While many protests were and continue to be peaceful, there were individuals participating in violence, such as burning and looting stores. However, it has become evident that police forces have utilised indiscriminate and excessive violence against demonstrators, seemingly failing to distinguish (as legally required) between peaceful protestors and those individuals acting unlawfully.
Amnesty International documented 125 acts of excessive force committed by state personnel, local police departments, National Guard troops, and federal security forces from the 26th of May till the 5th of June. These violations include beatings, indiscriminate use of tear gas, pepper spray, and inappropriate firing of less-lethal projectiles such as rubber bullets. Acts of violence against peaceful protestors have been documented across 40 states and the District of Columbia, displaying their broad geographical scope across the US. For instance, on 1 June in Lafayette Park, Washington DC, DC National Guardsmen and National Park Police committed a range of human rights violations against protestors. These include tossing ‘stinger ball’ grenades and firing rubber pellets in all directions. In Iowa City, Iowa, local police used tear gas and flash-bang grenades against kneeling protestors. Police in Huntington Beach, California fired pepper balls at crowds who were similarly lying on the streets.
Instances of police violence against journalists have also been recorded. Ed Ou was reporting protests in Minneapolis, where curfews and riot control measures were imposed after a surge in looting and theft of stores when he was targeted by concussive grenades and tear-gassed. As of 4 June there were 192 reports of attacks on journalists, including an Australian news crew. The attacks received international condemnation, such as Australian politician Anthony Albanese calling them harassment against members of the media.
However, this is not the first time that US police face accusations of violating international human rights through overuse of deadly force. A recent study from the University of Chicago found that none of the police departments in the 20 largest cities are complying with the minimum standards of conduct set out by international laws. Specific requirements under scrutiny are that lethal force should only be used as a last resort, or when facing an immediate threat. Reports of recent deaths of black people under police custody demonstrate prior – and continuing – violations of the aforementioned requirements across the US. For instance, on 13 March 2020, Breonna Taylor was shot in her home by Louisville Metro Police Department officers, who entered without knocking or announcing a search warrant. Floyd was pinned under Chauvin’s knee for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, although video footage displays him seemingly complying with his arrest. On 12 June, Rayshard Brooks was shot twice while running away from a police officer, although prosecutors state that he posed no immediate threat. By contrast, policing policies across Europe require an escalating series of measures prior to deadly force. In Spain, officers must use verbal cautioning and fire warning shots before directly aiming at anybody, while chokeholds have been long banned across Europe. The study concludes that US police officers are given too much deadly discretion, which has contributed to police killings of unarmed black people in non-threatening situations.
Responses to the protests have been significant on a local, national and international level. Lawmakers and city councils began enacting a series of measures to prevent deadly police conduct when Black Lives Matter protests began back in 2013, but their effectiveness has been widely questioned in the recent demonstrations. Despite the requirement for police officers to wear body cameras, research shows that the killings have not stopped, the cameras have almost never yielded charges or convictions, and have instead been more readily used in prosecuting civilians. Elijah McClain died after being put in a chokehold in Colorado last year. The three officers involved in the incident later reported that each of their body cameras had fallen off during the encounter. Charges against them were subsequently dropped. The potential for police tampering of body cameras and the lack of accountability in such measures has since been recognised. “Not only is it ineffective in stopping police violence, it actually expands the powers and surveillance capabilities of police,” said Mohamed Shehk, of the abolitionist group Critical Resistance. Recent scrutiny of the failure of previous reforms to stop brutality has led to a significant increase in abolitionist groups. Following calls to defund the police, the Minneapolis City Council pledged to disband their police department.
However, on a national level, the Trump administration faces widespread criticism and accusations of encouraging unlawful use of force against peaceful demonstrations. On 1 June, 2020, police and National Guard troops allegedly used tear gas and other riot control agents to forcefully clear protestors from Lafayette Square, so that Mr Trump and other senior officials could walk from the White House to St John’s Episcopal Church. In his speech outside the White House, Mr Trump also threatened to use the US army to tackle the “violent mobs” who he said are drowning out peaceful protests, in order to stop the “rioting, looting and wanton destruction of property.” This prompted condemnation by several former US military chiefs such as James Mattis, John Allen, Martin Dempsey, and Michael Mullen, while the clearing of protestors in Lafayette Square was criticised as an injustice against the First Amendment right to freedom of assembly.
Floyd’s death has sparked worldwide protests, and the United Nations Human Rights Council held an Urgent Debate on 17 June regarding police violence against demonstrators and killings of black people in the US. The final resolution pledges to investigate systemic racism and human rights violations committed by law enforcement agencies against the black community. Most notable are the criticisms expressed by the UN regarding the government’s response to protests. The resolution calls upon the High Commissioner to investigate the US government’s “alleged use of excessive force against protestors, bystanders and journalists.” UN independent experts criticised US Attorney General William Barr’s use of the term “domestic terrorism” to denote alleged violence committed by Antifa and other protest movements, in a statement that “terrorism rhetoric” undermines the legitimacy of the protests and freedom of expression. Special Rapporteur Fionnuala Ní Aoláin said that responding to protests and violence through a lens of “counter-terrorism” could fuel further tensions, and urged the US government to instead adopt a “human rights-based approach” to the protests.
George Floyd: Why are there huge protests in the US and around the world? : https://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/52813673
Teargassed, beaten up, arrested: what freedom of the press looks like in the US right now: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/06/george-floyd-protests-reporters-press-teargas-arrested
‘State-sanctioned violence’: US police fail to meet basic human rights standards : https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/22/us-police-human-rights-standards-report
George Floyd protests: Has policing changed? : https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/world-us-canada-53092557/george-floyd-protests-has-policing-changed?intlink_from_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.bbc.co.uk%2Fnews%2Ftopics%2Fcv7wlylxzg1t%2Fgeorge-floyd-death&link_location=live-reporting-map
Elijah McClain: Colorado to review black man’s death in custody : https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-53182122
Ex-military chiefs add to criticism of Trump over protest response : https://www.ft.com/content/0ce3efa5-c27f-4c45-a55a-a2750be4f855
Human Rights Council calls on top UN rights official to take action on racist violence : https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/06/1066722
Mapping police violence across the USA : https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/06/usa-unlawful-use-of-force-by-police-at-black-lives-matter-protests/
*This blog post discusses sensitive information that may be triggering for some individuals. EIJI is an impartial organisation that seeks to inform people about contemporary issues of international justice. Views, information, and opinions expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect EIJI, its team or Edinburgh University.*
Author: Nikita Nandanwad
Editor: Kelsey Greeff
Editor in Chief: Zora Stanik