Amnesty International Targets Human Rights Abuses in U.S.

Police Brutality, USA:
"Systematic and Widespread"

Revolutionary Worker #978, October 18, 1998

"There is a widespread and persistent problem of police brutality across the USA. Thousands of individual complaints about police abuse are reported each year and local authorities pay out millions of dollars to victims in damages after lawsuits. Police officers have beaten and shot unresisting suspects; they have misused batons, chemical sprays and electro-shock weapons; they have injured or killed people by placing them in dangerous restraint holds."

From Rights for All, a report
by Amnesty International

The United States government goes around the world criticizing different countries and groups for human rights violations. And the U.S. rulers often justify their military and political interventions in other countries by claiming to be protectors of human rights.

A new report by Amnesty International helps to uncover the hypocrisy behind this U.S. posturing on human rights. The report, titled Rights for All, was released on October 6, and it is part of Amnesty International's first worldwide campaign on the human rights situation in the United States.

The introduction to Rights for All says, "This report focuses on several areas where the authorities have failed to prevent repeated violations of basic human rights: the right to freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, the right to life and the right to freedom from arbitrary detention."

The report covers several different subjects: brutality by police and other law enforcement agencies; abuse against prisoners; unjust and racist use of the death penalty; incarceration of people seeking political asylum; U.S. double standard on human rights; export of arms to pro-U.S. governments and groups which carry out torture and murder.

The report contains much information on each of these themes. But with the approach of October 22--the National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation--the section on police brutality is of special interest to many people here in the U.S.

Rights for All begins with a quote from U.S. President Bill Clinton: "I believe that everywhere, people aspire to be treated with dignity.... These are not American rights or European rights or developed world rights. These are the birthrights of people everywhere." This statement is immediately followed by a story which points to how people are really treated under U.S. rule: the 1994 police murder of Anthony Baez in New York. Anthony was playing in the street with his brothers when their football accidentally hit a police car. The cop, Francis Livoti, grabbed Anthony and held him around the neck, while other officers knelt on his back. Anthony was choked to death. It later came out that Livoti had at least 14 complaints of brutality against him before this incident.

The Amnesty International report points out, "Tragically, the story of Anthony Baez is not an isolated incident: the U.S. Justice Department receives thousands of complaints of police abuse each year, which many regard as but the tip of an iceberg.

"There is a persistent and widespread pattern of human rights violations in the USA... Across the USA, people have been beaten, kicked, punched, choked and shot by police officers, even when they posed no threat. The majority of victims have been members of racial or ethnic minorities. Many people have died, many have been seriously injured, many have been deeply traumatized."

Patterns of Abuse

Rights for All analyzes certain "common patterns of ill-treatment by police." For instance, there are clearly high levels of police brutality in inner-city "high crime areas." As the report points out, "Victims include not only criminal suspects but also bystanders and people who questioned police actions or were involved in minor disputes or confrontations. For example, in Pittsburgh people were beaten for asking for an officer's number; complaining about officers' use of racist or profane language; or failing to respond quickly enough to police commands. Brutality following challenge to police authority (widely known as `contempt of cop') has been widely documented."

Another pattern is the targeting of African Americans: "Black people who are arrested for minor offenses appear particularly liable to suffer police brutality. Johnny Gammage, a black businessman, died of suffocation while being subdued by police officers who had stopped him for a traffic violation in 1995. All the officers involved (from two suburban police departments near Pittsburgh) were white...

"Another persistent claim is that black drivers are targeted as suspected drug offenders on the basis of so-called `race-based police profiles'--a practice so common that it is widely known as `driving while black.' Court cases on the issue were being pursued in at least eight states in mid-1998...

"In a number of cases, young black men have been shot by police who believed them to be armed, revealing an apparent readiness to stereotype black people as potential criminals and to disregard their right to life. In November 1997 a deputy U.S. Marshal (a federal agent) shot and wounded 17-year-old high school student Andre Burgess when he walked past an unmarked police car. The agent said he mistook Burgess' candy bar for a gun, and a grand jury acquitted him of criminal wrongdoing. An unarmed African American man, William J. Whitfield 3rd, was shot dead in a New York supermarket on 25 December 1997 by police who said they mistook the keys he was carrying for a gun. Although the officer who shot him was cleared, it was revealed that he had been involved in eight prior shootings but had not been placed on any monitoring program."

As Amnesty International notes, victims of police brutality are not confined to Black people or to the inner cities: "Human rights groups have documented long-standing brutality by law enforcement agents towards people of Latin American origin along the U.S.-Mexican border and in states with large immigrant populations such as California and Texas. There have been complaints of brutality and discriminatory treatment of Native Americans both in urban areas and on reservations. Complaints include indiscriminate brutal treatment of native people, including elders and children, during mass police sweeps of tribal areas following specific incidents...."

Rights for All also points out: "Many communities report that the police unjustly target young black, Latino or Asian males, especially in inner cities, and automatically see them as potential criminal suspects. In Chicago and other cities, youths in particular areas, wearing certain clothes or simply out in the street, are viewed as gang members, regularly stopped by police and often ill-treated." Other particular targets of police brutality identified by Amnesty International include gays and lesbians and mentally ill or disturbed people.

High-tech Repression

Rights for All also discusses the police use of so-called "less-than-lethal" weapons--OC (pepper) spray and electro-shock devices such as stun guns and tasers. In a news release accompanying the release of Rights for All, Amnesty International said the U.S. is the "world leader in high tech repression." Pierre Sané, Amnesty International's Secretary General, said, "Law enforcement officials in the USA--from police to prison staff--have a huge array of equipment at their disposal which at times is contributing to human rights violations."

As part of its campaign on human rights in the U.S., Amnesty International is calling for a ban on stun belts, which deliver 50,000-volt electric shocks. The use of stun belts was highlighted in June of this year when a California judge ordered its use against a defendant--just for interrupting her during a court proceeding. Sané said, "The stun belt is, by its very nature, an instrument designed to instill fear and pain. Even if the button is never pressed, the constant threat of such a jolt is inhumane--and one of the most patent symbols of the current dangerous trend towards the erosion of basic human rights in the USA."

Rights for All points out, "Since the early 1990s, more than 60 people in the USA are reported to have died in police custody after being exposed to OC spray...Electro-shock weapons of the type used in the USA have been used to torture victims in countries around the world." People have died after cops used electro-shock weapons on them. Rights for All cites two examples: "In July 1996, a 29-year-old woman, Kimberly Lashon Watkins, died after being shot by police with a taser in Pomona, California. Just five months later, Andrew Hunt Jr. died when Pomona police reportedly shot him several times with a taser after he had been handcuffed."

Not Just a Few Rotten Apples

Cops who brutalize and kill operate behind a protective shield held up by police and government officials. Inside police departments, a "code of silence" keeps crimes from the light of day. In the rare instances when brutal cops are tried and punished in court, the authorities claim they are only a "few rotten apples."

But a growing body of documented evidence backs up the everyday experience of many people in this country--that police brutality is the rule, not the exception. A few months before Rights for All, another international human rights organization--Human Rights Watch--issued a major report on police brutality in 14 U.S. cities. The list of people murdered by law enforcement officials in the U.S., compiled by the Stolen Lives Project, has 1,000 names--and the list is growing.

In the words of Rights for All, police brutality in the USA is widespread, persistent and systematic.

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