Ever since its founding to fight for “prisoners of conscience” back in 1961, Amnesty International has taken on the worst of the worst of the world’s human-rights abuses — war crimes in Sri Lanka, torture in Egyptian prisons, “disappeared” activists in Chile, political prisoners in the former USSR ... you name it. When it won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977, the judges said “the defense of human dignity against torture, violence, and degradation constitutes a very real contribution to the peace of this world.”
This week, Amnesty International cast its harsh spotlight on violence and degradation by the police right here in Philadelphia — our city, which continues to bill itself as the cradle of liberty — and in too many other corners of the United States.
On Tuesday, its Crisis Evidence Lab released a remarkable map and detailed analysis — an all-hand-on-deck effort that involved Amnesty staff here in the U.S. and at its global headquarters in London — that documented 125 separate incidents of police violence in American cities during the protests against racial injustice sparked by May’s police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
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The “widespread and egregious human-rights abuses” right here on U.S. soil chronicled by Amnesty International included beatings, reckless and often indiscriminate use of tear gas or pepper spray, and the firing of projectiles such as rubber bullets that have injured and even permanently blinded protesters and journalists. The report maps four cases here in Pennsylvania and gives considerable attention to a now notorious incident in Philadelphia — the June 1 tear gas assault by city and state police against trapped and terrified demonstrators on the Vine Street Expressway.
“They were dragging people down the hill and forcing them down on their knees, lining them up kneeling on the median on the highway with their hands in zip ties, and pulling down their masks and spraying and gassing them again,” a Philadelphia activist and rabbinical student, Lizzie Horne, told Amnesty’s researchers.
The Amnesty International research wasn’t even the only report last week that aimed to jar Americans into seeing that our modern way of policing isn’t normal — that it’s a crime against humanity. Addressing a broader issue, University of Chicago law school researchers found that none of the 20 largest police departments in the United States are complying with the bare-minimum international human-rights standards when it comes to use of lethal force. “The fact that police forces in the biggest U.S. cities don’t meet very basic human rights standards is deeply concerning,” said Claudia Flores, the director of the law school clinic that conducted the study, told the Guardian.
“Concerning?” Apparently Flores has a Susan Collins-ian gift for understatement. We should be shocked that police forces in the United States are acting like the so-called “state security forces” in an authoritarian banana republic. Tear gas is banned in warfare under the United Nations, yet police commanders don’t think twice about lobbing it into crowds of Americans from Seattle to the gates of the White House. Other nations like the United Kingdom stopped using rubber bullets because too many people were getting killed or maimed, yet U.S. cops have been firing them like they’re at home playing video games.
What’s truly disturbing is that over the last few decades, and especially in the “homeland security” years after 9/11, we’ve been numbed to think these responses are OK, and not what they really are — domestic war crimes.
It’s particularly galling that some of the worst abuses are happening in Philadelphia, in the shadows of where Thomas Jefferson and the other Founders created an American Experiment in the name of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The unhappiness and violation of civil liberties caused by the Vine Street tear gassing — a day of growing infamy that was dissected Thursday by a team of New York Times reporters with a thoroughness you might find for an assault in Tiananmen Square or some other dictatorial palace — is the worst but not the only gross offense in the City of Brotherly Love (and Sisterly Affection).
My sister in journalism — Inquirer criminal justice reporter Samantha Melamed — wasn’t shown much affection on Tuesday by the Philadelphia cops wearing “counter-terrorism” uniforms who ignored her plea, six times, of “I’m a reporter” as they slapped her with painful plastic cuffs and then mocked her while dragging her down a staircase and briefly detaining her. Melamed is just one of several Philadelphia working journalists arrested or pushed around by cops during the last month of protests. Nationwide trackers have chronicled more than 170 cases of police assaults on journalists, and there’ve been dozens of arrests.
Meanwhile, a high-ranking Philadelphia police official named Joseph Bologna has been charged with assaulting a protester, and yet this same police force suddenly turned more tolerant when vigilantes armed with baseball bats, shovels and worse marched through the streets of Fishtown and then roughed up protesters and a black photojournalist near a statue of Christopher Columbus.
I was particularly shocked and dismayed at Lizzie Horne’s account of her tear gassing on the Vine Street Expressway. Less than a year ago, I interviewed the now 29-year-old rabbinical student about her work with Never Again Action, a group of young Jews who often invoke the Holocaust in fighting America’s inhumane treatment of refugees. She told me she had “a moral duty” to protest because of her predecessors — her great uncle’s family, her fiancee’s great-grandmother — killed in Nazi death camps. Now cops were gassing her in the city where the United States was founded.
We should be incredibly ashamed by all of this. And it was less than four years ago, during the Democratic National Convention here, that I was writing about what a good job the Kenney administration had done in winding down the city’s ugly history of police brutality. In Mayor Kenney’s second term, with a new police commissioner in Danielle Outlaw, something has gone horribly south (in the Bull Connor sense of the word). It’s a pretty empty gesture to yank away a statue of Frank Rizzo in the darkness if you’re still showing up to peaceful protests with a nightstick in your cummerbund.
I spoke with Ernest Coverson, who runs the End Gun Violence Campaign for Amnesty International USA and who worked on the policing report, about this downward spiral in domestic human rights in America. He noted that the non-governmental organization (NGO) has been paying close attention since the first Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, when it sent in a team of observers — the first time it had ever done so in the United States.
“The militarization of policing is not acceptable,” Coverson said. “Hopefully this report will help re-educate people that there is a right to protest.” I was struck by one other thing Coverson told me. While my sense six years ago was that part of what made Ferguson such a compelling story was the police response — first snarling dogs, then armored personnel carriers and tear gas — to Amnesty International the cops in the St. Louis suburb were more “cordial” then than today.
The crisis of inhumane policing seems a perfect storm— insane levels of too many military toys in the hands of local police ... and local police with a culture of white supremacy that seethed under America’s first black president and felt unleashed by America’s newer, racist POTUS, who urged them to be “not so nice” with suspects and calls journalists “the enemy of the people.” It won’t be easy to put all of this back in the bottle, but lawmakers are going to need to do much more.
In Washington, Congress has been debating — and so far getting nowhere — on proposals that would address some of the worst day-to-day police practices exposed by the deaths of Floyd and Louisville’s Breonna Taylor. They need to go deeper — somehow — and address the violent response to protesters and journalists exercising their 1st Amendment rights. Coverson said Amnesty believes there should be “a federal mandate” against tear gas, rubber bullets, and other violent policing, and I could not agree more.
But why wait for Washington? Philadelphia can try to cradle its suppressed liberties by banning the use of tear gas here, to guarantee that the nightmare scenes we saw on the Vine Street Expressway will happen here never again. On Thursday morning, City Council members Helen Gym and Curtis Jones Jr. called for public hearings this summer on systematic racism within the Philadelphia police. Gym aides told me she’s working toward a bill restricting tear gas and other less-than-lethal weapons this fall. Later on Thursday, on the heels of the New York Times video, Commissioner Outlaw and Mayor Kenney apologized for what happened on the Vine Street Expressway and announced a moratorium on the use of tear gas by Philadelphia law enforcement, unless a suspect is armed and dangerous. That moratorium should become a permanent law.
Unfortunately, groups like Amnesty — over its 59-year history — and other human-rights fighters constantly remind us there’s a big bad world out there, full of tinhorn dictators and their violent toy soldiers. A nation like the United States that was once conceived in liberty at Independence Hall now needs to get its own house in order, so Amnesty can stopping mapping crimes on American soil and go back to all those other problems.
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