U.N. expert warns racism, police threaten civil rights in U.S., slams biased justice system
"People have good reason to be angry and frustrated at the moment," Special Rapporteur Maina Kiai wrote in a report
Police wearing riot gear walk toward a man with his hands raised Monday, Aug. 11, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. (Credit: AP/Jeff Roberson)
A United Nations human rights expert has warned that racism threatens Americans’ basic civil rights.
“African-Americans are subjected to systematic police harassment — and sometimes much worse — often for doing nothing more than walking down the street or gathering in a group,” wrote Maina Kiai, U.N. special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, after a recent trip to the U.S.
“People have good reason to be angry and frustrated at the moment,” he said. “And it is at times like these when robust promotion of assembly and association rights are needed most.”
Kiai, a lawyer and human rights activist from Kenya, took a 17-day trip to the U.S., from July 11 to 27.
He published a detailed, 6,500-word summary of his experience, which warns of extreme “racial, social and economic inequality, which are often intertwined.” It also shows how harsh, police state-like conditions in the U.S. are threatening the basic rights of Americans, particularly Americans of color.
The report was mostly ignored by the U.S. media.
The focus of Kiai’s trip was to study the situation of these civil rights in the U.S. “But it is impossible to discuss these rights without issues of racism pervading the discussions,” he noted. “Racism and the exclusion, persecution and marginalization that come with it, affect the enabling environment for the exercise of association and assembly rights.”
For black Americans, the discrimination “is particularly grave,” Kiai added. Centuries of systemic subjugation of black Americans, through slavery and Jim Crow, “marginalized the African-American community to a life of misery, poverty and persecution.”
Since Jim Crow laws were dismantled, this systemic racism has persisted in other forms. The U.N. rights expert condemned “the so-called ‘War on Drugs'” and “broken windows” policing as racist programs that disproportionately hurt Americans of color.
Kiai also said the harsh crime laws passed under the Bill Clinton administration “implemented aggressively against people of color have contributed to the huge rises in incarceration and exclusion of the black community further fueling discontent and anger.”
He highlighted the double standards of the U.S. justice system. “Wall Street bankers looted billions of dollars through crooked schemes, devastating the finances of millions of Americans and saddling taxpayers with a massive bailout bill,” Kiai wrote.
But no Wall Street executives were punished. “Instead, criminal justice resources go towards enforcing a different type of law and order, targeting primarily African-Americans and other minorities.”
“There is justifiable and palpable anger in the black community over these injustices. It needs to be expressed,” the U.N. rights expert said. “This is the context that gave birth to the non-violent Black Lives Matter protest movement and the context in which it must be understood.”
“In discussions with activists, it is clear that ‘Black Lives Matter’ does not mean that other lives… do not matter,” Kiai stressed. “The Black Lives Matter movement is simply a reaffirmation that black lives do in fact matter, in the face of a structure that systematically devalues and destroys them, stretching back hundreds of years.”
Black Lives Matter “is not about granting African-Americans special status or privilege,” he said. “It is about a historically and continuously targeted community seeking to elevate itself to the same level that everyone else enjoys.”
Police repression and intimidation
During his trip, the U.N. special rapporteur met with officials at the federal, state and local levels of government, as well as with members of civil society.
He also met with hundreds of activists, and observed the protests at the Republican and Democratic national conventions.
In his statement, Kiai detailed police state-like repression of activists. He noted U.S. police sometimes use “intimidatory and discriminative tactics” against protesters.
Responding to peaceful protests with militarized police, riot gear and mass arrests “is not only a violation of the right to peaceful assembly, it also dangerous for participants,” the U.N. rights expert said.
Police also restrict Americans’ civil rights by arresting protesters on arbitrary charges, he added. “Petty charges and high numbers of arrests further chill and undermine the right to peaceful assembly,” Kiai said. “Law enforcement officers have extremely wide and often unaccountable discretion to detain, arrest and formulate certain charges.”
He cited cases in which police order protesters to clear the road at a point where the road has no sidewalks, or in which protesters can be charged with “battery of a law enforcement officer,” a hate crime, for accidentally touching a police officer.
This harsh atmosphere also prevents observers and journalists from doing their jobs, Kiai noted.
“Protesters also expressed concern about growing intimidation by law enforcement,” the U.N. rights expert wrote.
Kiai visited 10 cities during his trip — not just major cities like Washington, D.C. and New York, but also smaller cities that have recently seen large protests, including Baltimore, Ferguson, Phoenix, New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Jackson, Cleveland and Philadelphia.
In interviews, Kiai was told that alleged FBI officers went to the homes of staff of the human rights organization Amnesty International and activists from the Black Lives Matter movement, warning them not to go to protests.
Based on interviews and observations, he noted “blunt discrimination” against black protesters in particular.
Black “protesters face harsher police encounters in the context of assemblies: police are more likely to be militarized and aggressive; black people are detained longer after arrests; they face more and heavier charges, more intimidation and more disrespect,” Kiai wrote.
The U.N. rights expert also condemned police surveillance of protests. He personally witnessed an undercover police officer marching with Black Lives Matter activists, filming them.
“The decision to place an undercover officer with a camera in the middle of a protest against police violence is unfathomable,” Kiai said. “The only time filming should be done at a protest by the police is to record an actual crime in progress.”
Biased justice system
Once Americans are arrested, the special rapporteur also noted there are many structural problems with the justice system.
“I was struck by the vast and largely unchecked discretion that government authorities enjoy to arrest, to formulate (often petty) charges, to prosecute, to invite or deflect external scrutiny and support from the Department of Justice, and to organize internal complaints handling,” he wrote.
“The outcry for accountability for police shootings is deafening. Given the attention to this issue and its importance, it is incomprehensible that a modern society such as the United States lacks official records that accurately document the number of victims of such shootings, the precise circumstances and the follow-up actions taken,” Kiai said.
The U.N. rights expert also criticized the U.S. government’s time and place restrictions on protests, which he said “not conform with international law.”
Almost all major U.S. cities require permits for protests. These violates international law and standards, he said.
“When a right is subjected to a permit or authorization requirement, it becomes a privilege rather than a right,” Kiai wrote.
The right to peaceful assembly “guarantees that people may conduct assemblies, and restrictions to this right — be it on their time, place or manner — need to meet the standards under international law,” he stressed.
Counter-terrorism restricting civil liberties
On his trip, the special rapporteur also learned how civil liberties are being curtailed in the U.S. in the name of counter-terrorism.
“I am concerned that US counter-terrorism legislation unduly curtails the right of associations to engage in humanitarian and peace building work abroad,” Kiai wrote.
The U.N. rights expert criticized the U.S. government’s Joint Strategy on Countering Violent Extremism, which he noted “is bound to target mainly members of the Muslim community,” even though “the very effectiveness of the strategy is questionable.”
“The fundamental rights of individuals, including the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, should not be forfeited in the name of this struggle,” he emphasized.
He also warned against police surveillance and infiltration of civil rights groups and movements such as Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, as well as police surveillance, infiltration and entrapment in the Muslim community.
“Such activities are counterproductive in the fight against terrorism, and use resources that could be better spent in fighting real terrorists,” Kiai said.
He noted that the U.S. Department of Justice prohibits racial profiling, but makes exceptions for border control and national security. “I find this practice troubling as it is discriminatory by nature and casts suspicion on groups of individuals within society,” he wrote.
“There is considerable anti-Muslim sentiment in this country,” Kiai warned.
He criticized the U.S. Terrorist Screening Center Database, noting it disproportionately affects Muslims. There are an estimated 1 million people reportedly on this U.S. “terrorist” watch list.
“I call on the US Government to bring its counter-terrorism legislation and practices in compliance with international human rights law,” the U.N. rights expert said.
U.N. OHCHR: “Apartheid is flourishing”
Reflecting on the enormous diversity, but also persistence of systemic discrimination in the U.S., Kiai wrote, “The country was founded on land stolen from its indigenous Native Americans; its early economic strength was built on race-based slavery against people of African descent; and successive waves of immigrants have faced discrimination, harassment or worse.”
The U.S. “is a nation of struggle and resilience, home of one of the 20th Century’s most inspiring moments encapsulated by the Civil Rights Movement,” he added.
Kiai will present his full report to the U.N. Human Rights Council in June 2017. His summary report was barely reported on in the U.S. media.
Maina Kiai is not the only U.N. figure to have made these observations.
In 2014, the former U.N. high commissioner for human rights warned that “apartheid” exists in the U.S.
Navi Pillay, who lived through apartheid in South Africa, compared the police crackdown on protests against police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri to what she saw in her own white supremacist country.
“Coming from apartheid South Africa I have long experience of how racism and racial discrimination breeds conflict and violence,” Pillay said.
She added, “These scenes are familiar to me and privately I was thinking that there are many parts of the United States where apartheid is flourishing.”
Ben Norton is a politics staff writer at Salon. You can find him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton.