USA: Police failing to protect protesters from violence, as volatile elections near

Law enforcement agencies across the USA are failing to facilitate people’s fundamental right to freedom of peaceful assembly, and to protect protests and counter-protests from violent disruption by armed groups among others, Amnesty International said today in a new report, Losing the Peace: US Police Failures to Protect Protesters from Violence.  

Since the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020, there have been thousands of peaceful anti-racism and political protests and counter-protests across the USA. Yet in nearly 200 incidents where violence occurred between participants in conflicting protests, Amnesty International found that US police forces frequently failed to take preventive measures to avoid the disruption of peaceful assemblies and failed to protect protesters from violent attacks when they did occur.

“Amidst unprecedented rises in political volatility and violence, US government and law enforcement authorities at all levels must meticulously protect people’s human rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International. “In the context of hotly contested elections and a nationwide civil rights movement, no one should fear for their lives when they try to cast a vote or have their voices heard at peaceful assemblies.”

Amidst unprecedented rises in political volatility and violence, US government and law enforcement authorities at all levels must meticulously protect people’s human rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression
Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International

From May to September 2020, Amnesty International has documented and verified violent confrontations between protests and counter-protests in approximately 75% of all US states, and in about half of all US states it confirmed cases of police forces failing to keep assemblies peaceful and to protect participants from violent confrontations with counter-protesters. In particular, law enforcement agencies often neglected to:

  • Deploy appropriately trained police in adequate numbers to address potential violence between protesters and counter-protesters;
  • Separate protests and counter-protests, and de-escalate tensions, when necessary to avoid violent confrontations;
  • Prohibit and prevent threats of violence by armed groups and individuals at peaceful assemblies;
  • Halt acts of violence by intervening in disputes between protesters and counter-protesters; and
  • Differentiate between violent and nonviolent actors in law enforcement responses to violent incidents, including by avoiding the dispersal of assemblies when they remained otherwise generally peaceful.

“As President Trump calls on his supporters to ‘go to’ and ‘watch’ the polling stations, and white supremacist armed groups to ‘stand by’ during the elections, law enforcement officials should be on high alert to prevent political violence in this explosive moment,” said Brian Griffey, regional researcher and advisor for North America at Amnesty International. “Government authorities and the police forces they direct must adopt new policies, strategies, and tactics to facilitate and protect peaceful protests, and prevent their disruption by armed groups or other violent actors.”

Among the incidents documented by Amnesty International, over a dozen protests and counter-protests erupted in violence with police either mostly or entirely absent from the scene. A frequent catalyst for violent confrontations between protesters and counter-protesters was the presence of vigilante armed groups. The Trump administration’s rhetoric, policies, and practices have appeared to encourage the prevalence of armed groups unlawfully assaulting protesters and counter-protesters around the country.

In one example, an anti-racism protest organizer, Tony Crawford, told Amnesty International that “people could have gotten killed” during a violent confrontation his community had with armed counter-protesters at a demonstration calling for the removal of a Confederate civil war statue in Weatherford, Texas in July.

In a series of text messages to the Weatherford police chief, reviewed by Amnesty International, Crawford wrote: “The patriots [armed group members] are surrounding us to force confrontation. We are surrounded by guns and people talking about shooting us loudly... Where are the police, Chief? This is ridiculous. We are being abused. Where are y’all... Y’all abandoned us Chief. You abandoned us. You let us get dragged and attacked while you did nothing.”

As President Trump calls on his supporters to ‘go to’ and ‘watch’ the polling stations, and white supremacist armed groups to ‘stand by’ during the elections, law enforcement officials should be on high alert to prevent political violence in this explosive moment
Brian Griffey, regional researcher and advisor for North America at Amnesty International

US government and law enforcement authorities at all levels must reform their police forces’ policies and practices to better facilitate freedom of peaceful assembly and protect protesters from widespread threats of preventable violence. In the marked absence of federal protection, local-level governments should safeguard protests from violence by issuing temporary executive orders to restrict the presence of weapons in public properties, parks, polling stations, and peaceful assemblies; and by instructing their law enforcement agencies to prevent armed individuals and armed groups from disrupting peaceful protests and civic activities during the elections period.

Police forces at city, county, state and federal levels  should all immediately reform their conduct and implement specialized trainings on the human rights-compliant facilitation and protection of freedom of peaceful assembly, in line with their obligations under the US Constitution and good practices in policing of assemblies.

Background and context

On 4 August, Amnesty International published the report The World is Watching: Mass Violations by US police of Black Lives Matter protesters’ rights.

On 6 October, the organization called upon US governors to issue executive orders prohibiting non-state actors from possessing firearms at or near polling places during the 2020 general elections. Six states already prohibit guns at polling places: Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas.

On 20 October, Amnesty International also issued a joint letter with Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First and Physicians for Human Rights, calling on US municipal governments to adopt temporary special measures to prevent armed individuals or groups from intimidating or threatening protesters or voters during and following the elections.

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact:

Duncan Tucker (Amnesty International Americas): duncan.tucker@amnesty.org

André Ory (Amnesty International USA): aiusa@fenton.com