The City of New York must take immediate action to correct the clear pattern of abusive policing of Occupy Wall Street protests, legal experts asserted in a complaint filed Wednesday with New York City authorities, the U.S. Department of Justice and the United Nations. The complaint is based on a report providing in-depth documentation and legal analysis of widespread human rights violations in New York City’s treatment of Occupy protests over the past ten months.
The 132-page report—Suppressing Protest: Human Rights Violations in the U.S. Response to Occupy Wall Street—is the first in a series by the Protest and Assembly Rights Project, a national consortium of law school clinics addressing the United States response to Occupy Wall Street. The report is available at: http://www.chrgj.org/projects/suppressingprotest.pdf “Recently, officers repeatedly yanked the broken collarbone of a protester as he begged them to stop hurting him. And just two weeks ago, a phalanx of officers removed a grandmother from a park for the ‘crime’ of knitting in a folding chair, arrested a man trying to help her leave, and then arrested another man filming the incident,” said NYU Law School Professor Sarah Knuckey, one of the report’s principal authors, who also witnessed these incidents. “These are just two of hundreds of examples we document in our report, demonstrating a pattern of abusive and unaccountable protest policing by the NYPD.”
In the report experts catalog 130 specific alleged incidents of excessive police force, and hundreds of additional violations, including unjustified arrests, abuse of journalists, unlawful closure of sidewalks and parks to protesters, and pervasive surveillance of peaceful activists. Yet, to date, only one police officer is known to have been disciplined for misconduct in the context of OWS policing.
“The excessive and unpredictable policing of OWS is one more example of the dire need for widespread reform of NYPD practices. These violations are occurring against a backdrop of police infiltration of activist groups, massive stop-and-frisk activity in communities of color, and the surveillance of Muslims,” said Emi MacLean, a human rights lawyer and primary author of the report. “This report is a call to action.”
The report calls for urgent state action, including:
• The creation of an independent Inspector General for the NYPD;
• A full and impartial review of the city’s response to OWS;
• Investigations and prosecutions of responsible officers; and
• The creation of new NYPD protest policing guidelines to protect against rights violations.
If New York authorities fail to respond, the report calls for federal intervention.
“The U.S. response to the Occupy movement – which itself emerged as part of a wave of global social justice protests—is being closely watched by other governments,” said Fordham Law Professor Katherine Glenn, one of the report’s principal authors. “In the face of this international attention, this report shows that New York City’s response actually violates international law and, as such, sets a bad example to the rest of the world. The city now has an opportunity to set this right through reforms that reflect just and accountable policing practices.”
This report is the first in a series by the Protest and Assembly Rights Project. This report focuses on New York City, and was authored by the Global Justice Clinic (NYU School of Law) and the Walter Leitner International Human Rights Clinic (Fordham Law School). Subsequent reports will address the responses in Boston, Charlotte, Oakland, and San Francisco. Participating law clinics are at NYU, Fordham, Harvard, Stanford, Rutgers-Newark, Charlotte, and Loyola-New Orleans.
See below for the executive summary of the report:
In September 2011, waves of protests against mounting socioeconomic injustice broke out across the United States, capturing the attention of the country. The Occupy Wall Street movement, inspired by similar protests around the globe, used the occupation of public space and mass demonstrations to call attention to a wide array of shared concerns. The movement also used public assemblies to debate concerns and promote direct democratic participation. Within weeks of their emergence, the protests dramatically expanded and deepened U.S. political discourse around the widening gap between rich and poor, bank bailouts and impunity for financial crimes, and the role of money in politics.
The response of U.S. authorities to the protests also received significant attention. Images of police using pepper spray on seated students, the arrests of thousands of peaceful protesters across the country, midnight raids on encampments, baton-swinging officers, marches accompanied by phalanxes of riot police, and officers obstructing and arresting journalists were beamed around the world.
This is the first in a series of reports examining the responses of U.S. authorities to the Occupy protests. Through an eight-month-long study of the response in New York City, together with comparative data collected from cities across the United States, this report highlights major policy concerns and serious violations of the rights of protesters. Further detailed studies will be published in the coming months on the response of authorities in Boston, Charlotte, Oakland, and San Francisco. Government responses to Occupy Wall Street in the United States have varied significantly, both within and across cities. Indeed, there have been examples of good practice, including through welcoming assemblies, using modern democratic policing styles that promote negotiation to facilitate protests, and enforcing strict controls on any use of police force. But across the United States, abusive and unlawful protest regulation and policing practices have been and continue to be alarmingly evident. This report follows a review of thousands of news reports and hundreds of hours of video, extensive firsthand observation, and detailed witness interviews. In New York City, some of the worst practices documented include:
• Aggressive, unnecessary and excessive police force against peaceful protesters, bystanders, legal observers, and journalists
• Obstruction of press freedoms and independent legal monitoring
• Pervasive surveillance of peaceful political activity
• Violent late-night raids on peaceful encampments
• Unjustified closure of public space, dispersal of peaceful assemblies, and kettling (corralling and trapping) of protesters
• Arbitrary and selective rule enforcement and baseless arrests
• Failures to ensure transparency about applicable government policies
• Failures to ensure accountability for those allegedly responsible for abuses
These practices violate assembly and expression rights and breach the U.S. government’s international legal obligations to respect those rights. In New York City, protest policing concerns are extensive and exist against a backdrop of disproportionate and well-documented abusive policing practices in poor and minority communities outside of the protest context.
Governments—including U.S. federal, state, and local authorities—are obliged by international law to uphold the rights of individuals to peacefully assemble and to seek to reform their governments. The freedoms of assembly and expression are essential pillars for democratic participation, the exchange and development of grievances and reforms, and securing positive social change. This report provides extensive analysis of the U.S. government’s international legal obligations with respect to protests. The abusive practices documented in this report violate international law and suppress and chill protest rights, not only by undermining individual liberty, but also by causing both minor and serious physical injuries, inhibiting collective debate and the capacity to effectively press for social and economic change, and making people afraid to attend otherwise peaceful assemblies.
For protesters who previously had little interaction with police, these abusive practices have radically altered worldviews about the role of police in protecting citizens. For others who had long experienced official discrimination and abuse, especially those from minority and economically disadvantaged communities, protest experiences have simply reinforced existing negative perceptions.
Protests have long been an important feature of American politics and have been essential to securing fundamental rights and freedoms. Yet the response of authorities has undermined foundational US democratic values, and often seemed to only reinforce Occupy’s core grievances. While federal prosecutions of economic crimes, such as mass fraud, are at a 20 year low, in just 10 months, public authorities across the United States have arrested more than 7,000 and physically injured Occupy protestors seeking social and economic reforms.
While after just two months city authorities dismantled many of the high-profile around-theclock Occupy encampments that initially defined the movement, regular marches, demonstrations, and assemblies continue in many places, including New York City. The government response to Occupy Wall Street in New York City is emblematic of its failure to adequately protect protest rights more broadly. Reform is needed to ensure that U.S. authorities respect and facilitate—rather than suppress—the ability to peacefully protest.
In U.S. cities with significant abuse allegations and no major reviews of police practice, including New York City, independent official reviews are urgently needed to assess past practice, promote accountability for abuse, and reform authorities’ responses to bring them into line with binding international legal obligations and modern democratic policing best practice. In New York, the mayor should urgently announce a major review of the City’s response to Occupy Wall Street, and legislators should establish an independent Inspector General to oversee policing practices. In addition, the police should implement a new protest policing policy that prioritizes respect for civil liberties and human rights. Where city or state authorities themselves fail to take the necessary steps of review and reform, federal authorities should exercise their powers to institute investigations and oversight.
The Occupy protests took place amid an extraordinary period of global social movement mobilization – Egypt’s Tahrir Square, Spain's indignados, Greek anti-austerity protests, Chile’s students, Montreal’s casseroles, and many others have inspired and been inspired by one another. The US government has closely monitored protests in other countries, and has frequently publicly criticized other governments for violating their international legal obligations to uphold protest rights. As the Occupy protests entered the world stage, governments around the world also paid close attention to the U.S. authorities’ responses. Some countries, when pressed about their own mass arrests and beatings of protesters, have justified their actions by pointing to the highly visible and aggressive policing practices in the United States. Some other countries’ responses to protests have been far—and sometimes, incomparably—worse than U.S. authorities’ responses. Yet the restriction of protest in U.S. cities exposes the double standard inherent in frequent U.S. government critiques of other governments for repressing their peoples’ protest rights.
The freedoms to peacefully assemble, to engage in political expression, to march and demonstrate, and to seek socioeconomic reform are not diplomatic sound bites. They are fundamental rights, vital in all democracies, and U.S. authorities are legally bound to respect and uphold them.
These rights must be secured at home.