Across the US, demonstrations against police brutality are being met with more police brutality

Richard Hall
Protesters raise their hands on command from police as they are detained prior to arrest and processing at a gas station on South Washington Street, Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Minneapolis: AP

It is an irony not lost on those who have taken to the streets in the past few days that their demonstrations against police brutality have been met with even more police brutality.

Across the United States, protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd and years of inaction over black people dying at the hands of law enforcement have served up a plethora of incidents that have appeared to reinforce the central justification behind the unrest.

To name a few: In Atlanta, a video of two police officers using tasers to forcefully pull two black college students from a car as they drove home from a protest quickly went viral. In Philadelphia, police used batons to beat back protesters with their arms in the air. In Denver, police shot a pepper pellet at a man’s face as they were leaving the scene of a protest. And in Louisville, Kentucky, on Sunday evening, police shot another black man — local business owner David McAtee — in what police said was "return fire" from a group of protesters.

In perhaps the most symbolic incident of police violence since the protests began, one officer in Seattle was caught on camera kneeling on the neck of a suspected looter — the very same action which led to Mr Floyd’s death.

The response of US police to the protests prompted a damning statement from rights group Amnesty International, which accused law enforcement of endangering lives.

“US police across the country are failing their obligations under international law to respect and facilitate the right to peaceful protest, exacerbating a tense situation and endangering the lives of protesters,” said Rachel Ward, National Director of Research at Amnesty International USA.

“In city after city, we are witnessing actions that could be considered unnecessary or excessive force. We call for an immediate end to any such use of force and for law enforcement to ensure and protect the legal right to protest,” she added.

New York, which has generally seen less looting than other hotspots, has also witnessed a number of incidents of police violence against apparently peaceful protesters.

One person who has been volunteering as a medic at protests told The Independent he was targeted by police during a demonstration in Brooklyn, despite wearing clear markings identifying himself as a medic.

“I was treating people coming away from the police. I had pulled someone to the side and we started running as the police charged us and I was tackled to the ground,” said the volunteer, who wished to remain anonymous.

The officer then grabbed a carton of milk the volunteer was carrying to treat protesters who might be exposed to tear gas.

“I said ‘I’m a medic. I’m just here to give people aid.’ He said: ‘You think you’re gonna treat people with this milk?’ And he tried to unscrew the milk and pour it on my face and told me he was gonna drown me with it,” they added.

At a demonstration in another part of Brooklyn on Friday evening, one protester said the police were failing to listen.

“I think things have gotten worse, we’re not being listened to at all,” Dia Soyer, a 22-year-old Brooklyn resident.

“The problem is the excessive force applied on black people and people of colour. We need police that care about us, we don’t need this,” she added, pointing towards an area where scuffles between police and protesters were ongoing.

Journalists have also reported being caught up in police violence during the protest, despite being clearly marked and credentialed. Press Freedom Tracker, an organisation that catalogues press freedom violations in the United States, said it had recorded the same number of violations in the past three days as it had in the past year.

Among the more than 100 violations it documented was the arrest of 19 journalists between 28 and 31 of May. In the same time, it said at least 36 journalists have reported being shot at by police with projectiles such as rubber bullets — half of which were in Minnesota, where Mr Floyd was killed. It also recorded 76 assaults against journalists, 80 per cent of which were by police.

Linda Tirado, a 37-year-old journalist from Nashville, was left blind in one eye after being struck with what she believed was a rubber bullet fired by police during protests in Minneapolis on Friday.

Many critics of the police response to the protests point to the militarization of police forces across the country over the past few decades, much of which was achieved through transfers of military surpluses from the Pentagon.

Between 1997 and 2014, the Department of Defense transferred some $4.3 billion in military equipment to local law enforcement agencies, including more than $1bn in tactical military equipment — the kind of vehicles that would have been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.

Ms Ward, of Amnesty International, added in her statement that “the use of heavy-duty riot gear and military-grade weapons and equipment to police largely peaceful demonstrations may intimidate protesters who are practising their right to peaceful assembly.”

“These tactics can actually lead to an escalation in violence. Equipping officers in a manner more appropriate for a battlefield may put them in the mindset that confrontation and conflict are inevitable.”

The result of that transformation has been visible on US streets in the past week. Local law enforcement agencies in charge of responding to protests have looked more akin to occupying soldiers than police.

Patrick Skinner, a former CIA officer who became a beat cop and later a detective in Savannah, Georgia, said the militarisation of local police had caused “infinite grief and trouble.”

“A sign that the militarisation of local police is a national cancer is that people are understandably confusing police officers for National Guard forces,” he wrote on Twitter, in response to recent protests.

“We are not warriors because we must not be at war with our neighbours. We aren’t sheep dogs because our neighbours aren’t sheep. We aren’t Spartans or Punishers. We are fortunate neighbours in a position to help other neighbours. That’s it. That’s the ‘trick’,” he added.

The volunteer medic, who is currently facing charges after being arrested, said many of the clashes taking place at protests were the result of overbearing police actions to contain them.

“If the police weren’t there agitating, nothing would happen. The confrontation happens because the police are present.”

“As a medic it has become difficult to remove people to safety. On Friday night I was carrying a semi-conscious person to safety. They wouldn’t even let me pull them to the side. I could barely carry the person as they were battoning me.”

Authorities in some areas are taking action in response to police brutality during the protests: two police officers were fired over the incident in Atlanta, as was the chief of police in Louisville over the shooting.