On August 14, five days after the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and as images of police in riot gear responding to protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets made headlines worldwide, the human rights watchdog group Amnesty International announced that it was sending a delegation to monitor the situation.
The team, which included organizers to train local activists in non-violent protest tactics, took to the streets of Ferguson wearing distinctive yellow 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.
"Law enforcement, from the FBI to state and local police, are obligated to respect and uphold the human rights of our communities," Steven Hawkins, Amnesty's US director, said at the time. "The US cannot continue to allow those obligated and duty-bound to protect to become those who their community fears most."
Because Amnesty is better known for its human rights advocacy abroad, the group's Ferguson delegation was widely heralded as the "first of its kind." Amnesty had actually already been monitoring a number of human rights issues in the United States, though never in a situation quite like the one in Ferguson.
VICE News caught up with Margaret Huang — Amnesty's deputy director of campaigns and programs, and a member of the Ferguson delegation — to talk about what she saw on the ground, allegations of police abuse, and the militarization of law enforcement.
VICE News: What was so unique about Amnesty's delegation to Ferguson?
Margaret Huang: Actually Amnesty International USA has been working on police brutality issues in the US for a long time, and we have done previous research missions on things like prison abuses, the detention of immigrants — that sort of thing. But what made the response to Ferguson unique is that we actually deployed a multifunctional team to the ground. So it wasn't just researchers or the fact finders that were going out, we also wanted to include specifically some of our staff that do training and organizing efforts because we had been requested by local community organizers to help support their effort. The number of community organizations in Ferguson was not as large as if this had happened somewhere else, so there was a real sense of, 'We need support in doing the organizing work and mobilizing of the community to think about a collective response.' So we had some of our field organizers go and join them, offer support, help with the training, particularly around non-violent organizing tactics that organizers were trying to explain to folks. We wanted to make that effort, and that was unusual for us.
What kind of background did the members of the delegation have? Was Ferguson an unusual setting for them?
A lot of our organizers have done a lot of work internationally. At Amnesty their focus is primarily to mobilize people in the US to support human rights work, but it could be human rights work in other parts of the world. They work with Amnesty chapters around the country, student groups, local communities, and activists to provide support and training to help them engage in human rights activism. Our team is pretty active, and often they encourage Amnesty members to join in solidarity with other activism that's happening. For example, in a couple weeks the same organizers that are leading the effort in Ferguson are going to be helping to spearhead the human rights component of the people's climate march in New York. Street activism is part of it. Now, with the protests, and particularly protests where there is the kind of response that we saw from law enforcement in Ferguson, that was obviously rare for everyone. That was certainly a more unusual thing for us to be dealing with.
How big was your delegation, and how long did it stay?
We still have local members in St. Louis, but the delegation that went for that has left. We have a field organizer who has been going back and forth to St. Louis and will continue to do that, but we had about ten people on the ground — some people who were more in a traditional observer role, interviewing law enforcement and community leaders and elected officials and trying to come up with information for our reporting purposes, and then we had the folks that were doing the organizing and training.
What kind of conversations did you have with police, and what access did they give you? We saw observers with the National Lawyers Guild who were getting pushed around just as much as the protesters and the journalists were.
Absolutely, particularly the Lawyers Guild folks. Because their job was to make sure that they were documenting the arrests, they frequently stayed on site when the police were giving orders to disperse, and a number of times there were National Lawyers Guild folks who were arrested as part of the crowd. The police were not recognizing legal or human rights observers in that context, recognizing the distinction, despite the fact that everyone was identified as such with hats or T-shirts or whatever. In conversations with law enforcement, they professed to understand the role that we were playing, but in terms of their mindset, they were determined to disperse and keep people from congregating along the main strip there, and they were clearly not making distinctions between observes and protesters.
So did your observers disperse, or were they able to stick around and see what happened?
It varied a little bit. Earlier in the week our team did try to stay in places where they could be visible observers both for the community and for law enforcement, but our goal was not to get arrested — because we couldn't do our job if we did get arrested! Similar to you all, there were points when it was very clear that if you didn't move you were going to be arrested, so our delegation would move to the next possible place where we could try to stay engaged and still have an opportunity to keep an eye on things. But it varied a little bit, and certainly there were nights when the organizers who were supporting the local community groups were definitely out in the midst of things, were helping people who had been tear gassed, and were much more part of the mix. The observers tended to be in a different place, trying to keep an eye on things and monitoring things.
In terms of what you actually observed, what stood out the most? Is there anything that you think would actually qualify as human rights abuse? And what does that mean, for your purposes?
Many of these issues are quite complicated under international human rights law. In fact, human rights law does recognize the authority of police to use certain tactics at certain times because of potential threats they perceive. So it's not a universal rule that police can't use tear gas, for example, in human rights law. They would be allowed to use tear gas under certain circumstances. The issue is whether the circumstances on the ground merited that sort of response, and I think that's where we have a lot of questions. I'm not sure we're prepared yet to make definitive statements one way or the other. I think part of that is the analysis we are trying to do by understanding what went into the police decision-making, and that's difficult. They're not being terribly responsive on the inquiries that we sent them. But we certainly have concerns, particularly over the use of tear gas, and specifically in the early days, when it wasn't clear that there was a particularly high-level threat to either the police or the community.
There's also a lot of concern about the number of different police departments that were on the scene and the fact that communication seemed complicated. 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. 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.
How did the state of emergency enable this lack of accountability? Did that give police some kind of a legal way to get away with some of the things they did?
That's something our lawyers are trying to take a look at, because certainly in the imposition of a curfew and the state of emergency there are different rules that kick into place. But I think there are certainly some pieces — like, for example, clear chain of command and transparency and accountability — that would still be necessary regardless of the state of emergency declaration. The question of then using other tactics like the tear gas, like the rubber bullets, those kinds of things, might be different in that kind of context, and those are the things that our lawyers are looking at now.
What about the reports of live fire?
As far as I know, we do not have any direct evidence of that. We certainly have heard that, but we haven't collected anything to substantiate that.
What about the detentions? We saw people being detained by different police departments, with many getting released without being charged or being issued a ticket. We also still don't know how many people were arrested. Is that a standard practice in this context?
This is also something we have had conversations about with the National Lawyers Guild. Some of the instances in which people have been picked up and then released because of the state of emergency and curfew… There are some different rules regarding release without paperwork there, because the rationale for arrest and the charges that are brought are different than in other circumstances. In the context of a state of emergency, when you fail to disperse, that kind of charge may be different than in other contexts. There are some criminal law guidances in these cases that have to be looked at. But we haven't looked at that as much as we've been talking to people who were actually arrested and held for longer. It wasn't clear why they were being held for longer than other protesters, other than the fact that those were people who were helping to organize the protests. We have definitely been looking at those cases and interviewing some of the people who were held for a longer period of time.
A lot of residents worry that once the attention moves on there will be repercussions for protesters. How do you plan to remain involved in Ferguson going forward?
We're going to be coming out with a briefing. It's not going to be a full-fledged report, but a briefing summary of what we did observe on the ground and what our recommendations are. We are absolutely committed to continue monitoring what's happening on the ground, and as I mentioned, we do have field staff who are continuing to work in Ferguson on a regular basis. I'm personally deeply concerned, and I think we as an organization are deeply concerned, about what happens with the decision about the indictment that is anticipated next month. We're having internal conversations about what we at Amnesty can offer to support the community in the context of that decision coming down. 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.
But further than that, we're definitely supportive of the efforts on the ground to call for a new body of oversight. The decision at the city council last night is a welcome one, and we want to make sure that we support the effort to get true civilian oversight of the law enforcement agencies there, as something that not only is promoted in Ferguson but that is in fact promoted far more widely — locally, but also at the national level. And we have been talking with the Department of Justice, trying to lend support to their effort to look at the national picture and to think about how they can use their authority and their funding to law enforcement agencies as a way to encourage better accountability.
Human Rights Watch just published an open letter to Missouri Governor Jay Nixon. Is there a plan for different organizations to get together and push for broader action?
I actually think that human rights and civil rights groups have been pleased with the president's decision to have Attorney General Holder go to the ground, and certainly with the efforts of the DOJ. I think that there's a far greater frustration with the state of Missouri and the city of Ferguson and the leadership there. We've been in communication with our ally organizations, and I think there's definitely some potential for further collaboration around pushing both the governor and the local elected officials in St. Louis to do more to address the issue. It's a challenge, and we have national groups trying to exert pressure on state leadership, who may or may not feel that we're part of the constituency that they have to respond to. But I anticipate there will be more efforts — by Human Rights Watch, the ACLU, the NAACP, and others.
How did your experience in Ferguson compare to your work elsewhere? Did it affect you in a different way, standing in a US suburb witnessing what you witnessed?
I've had the chance to travel quite a bit as a human rights activist in different parts of the world, and I've been in places where there was in fact active civil war underway, or there had recently been a genocide, or other circumstances where you anticipate that you are going to see a level of militarization on the streets because of those circumstances. But I've never seen anything like what I saw in Ferguson. It was an incredible response to constitutionally protected activity. I think the lessons learned from Ferguson for the social justice movement are really important, but I think the lessons learned by law enforcement for years to come are going to be very substantial. Or at least I hope they will be, because I think the decision-making in this case was so poorly done, particularly in the early days, but even throughout the weeks that followed. It really begs for a much more concerted national discussion on what we anticipate from our police, and why we make distinctions between police and military that are starting to get quite fuzzy.
Are you optimistic that actual changes will result from the conversation prompted by the events in Ferguson?
I think there will be some changes. I certainly think that this DOJ is very interested in what they can do to contribute to that discussion, and I believe they are very interested in using their authority and their resources to support that. I think it's a longer-term question now. Because of our system and because law enforcement is so decentralized, there will be a lot of variances between locations. There will be some police departments that will do a review and think about training and think about how to consider their role, and there will be others that will not, and the question of whether they'll have sufficient incentive — carrot or stick — to undertake those efforts will be more complicated and a lot longer-term. I think we're seeing some leadership from the federal government, but unfortunately a lot of this is dependent on the leadership at the local level.
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi