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Amnesty Int'l Denounces Human Rights Abuses in Ferguson as Police Gather Riot Gear Ahead of Grand Jury Decision

The watchdog group criticized the use of tear gas, rubber bullets, and intimidation during the Ferguson protests, while local law enforcement prepares for renewed unrest.
Photo by Alice Speri/VICE News

On August 14, five days after the killing of 18-year-old Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Amnesty International announced that it was sending a delegation of observers to monitor the situation as images of police in riot gear responding to protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets made headlines worldwide.

In a highly anticipated report released on Friday, the watchdog group charges that police committed human rights abuses in responding to protests that broke out after the shooting.


The report says that law enforcement's use of rubber bullets, tear gas, and military equipment violated international standards. It also documents intimidation by police officers and widespread restrictions of movement imposed on local residents — including a curfew and the enforcement of a "five-second rule" stipulating that protesters who did not move would be arrested, which a court recently declared was unconstitutional.

"What Amnesty International witnessed in Missouri on the ground this summer underscored that human rights abuses do not just happen across borders and oceans," Steven W. Hawkins, Amnesty's executive director, said in a statement accompanying the report. "No matter where you live in the world, everyone is entitled to the same basic rights as a human being — and one of those rights is the freedom to peacefully protest."

The report detailed the mistreatment of journalists and legal rights observers, several of whom were also tear gassed and arrested by police.

"Standing on West Florissant Avenue with my colleagues, I saw a police force, armed to the teeth, with military-grade weapons," Hawkins said, referring to the stretch of road where most protests took place. "I saw a crowd that included the elderly and young children fighting the effects of tear gas. There must be accountability and systemic change that follows this excessive force."

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The report notes that because Brown was unarmed, his death "calls into question whether the use of lethal force was justified," regardless of whether there was a physical confrontation between him and Officer Darren Wilson. Besides calling for a transparent investigation into the shooting, Amnesty also called on Missouri's legislators to review the state's statute regarding lethal force.

"Lethal force is only to be used to protect life when there is an immediate threat," Rachel Ward, Amnesty's director of research, told Reuters. "The Missouri statute goes far beyond that. It is of grave concern."

"The St. Louis County Police Department and the Unified Command had one mission, and that was the preservation of life," St. Louis police Sgt. Brian Schellman told VICE News in a statement responding to the Amnesty report.

.— Alice Speri (@alicesperi)August 19, 2014

Amnesty's team in Ferguson, which included organizers to train local activists in non-violent protest tactics, took to the streets wearing distinctive yellow T-shirts. The deployment sent a clear message to the community that the world was watching Ferguson, and put the police on notice that they were being watched as well.

"I've never seen anything like what I saw in Ferguson," Margaret Huang, Amnesty's deputy director of campaigns and programs and an observer who has documented human rights abuses all over the world, later told VICE News. "It was an incredible response to constitutionally protected activity."


"I'm personally deeply concerned, and I think we as an organization are deeply concerned, about what happens with the decision about the indictment," she added. "I'm anticipating that we may have to think about providing some additional support to the local community groups that we've been partnering with, because I think they're going to have a lot on their hands when this decision emerges."

VICE News speaks with a member of the Amnesty Int'l d*elegation to Missouri. Read more here.*

But protesters and human rights observers are not the only ones preparing for the large unrest that many predict will follow a grand jury announcement expected in November, should Darren Wilson not face any charges.

Missouri police departments have also been gearing up for possible protests by stocking up on riot gear and reviewing practices for interacting with protesters without violating their constitutional rights — something that Amnesty and protesters said happened frequently during the Ferguson protests.

"I know there's a lot of anxiety, there's a lot of fear, anticipation" about the indictment decision, Missouri State Highway Patrol captain Ron Johnson told the Associated Press.

"We've also learned we have to have a dialogue with our demonstrators, so they know what to expect from us, and we know what to expect from them," St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar added.

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Local authorities have offered few details about their preparations.

"We are going to be prepared regardless of what the grand jury returns," Sgt. Schellman told VICE News. "Commanders from the St. Louis County Police Department not only meet amongst themselves daily, they meet weekly if not daily with members of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, St. Louis City Police Department, and several municipal police departments in the region."

Several police departments, as well as officers from towns well outside the St. Louis metropolitan area, patrolled the streets of Ferguson during the August protests. Few wore nametags despite being required to do so, and it was often unclear to protesters and journalists who was in charge.

"We had many, many occasions when we were talking to police who said, 'I can't answer,' or, 'I don't have the authority to make those decisions, somebody else does' — and yet the question of who this somebody else was, was never clear or consistent," Huang said. "Just not having a clear line of command, a clear authority to direct questions to, not getting responses — never mind in a timely manner, not getting them at all in some cases — was very concerning, because obviously you have an expectation of accountability that is difficult to be met when you can't get information."

Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi