Amnesty International USA deployed a team of human rights observers to Ferguson, Missouri to monitor protests and law enforcement response in the wake of a grand jury decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Michael Brown.
While it is not possible to make sweeping conclusions still this early in a fluid situation, here is what we know has happened so far in Ferguson:
1. There is clear evidence that tear gas, which is banned as a chemical weapon for use in warfare, has been used.
Its flagrant use in the presence of clearly marked Amnesty International observers underlines our previous concerns about its unnecessary or excessive use.
2. In particular, there was an incident where several of our Amnesty observers were at MoKaBe’s coffee shop, a designated safe house for activists, which was tear gassed by the police.
Amnesty staff were inside MoKaBe’s coffeehouse along with several dozen other protesters and community members. The coffee shop was distributing free coffee and hot chocolate to those who needed a quiet and welcoming place to gather or refresh themselves.
It was staffed by community volunteers and clergy. There was a small protest taking place in the street outside, but it was peaceful.
At approximately 1:00am, a large militarised police vehicle sped around the corner and fired tear gas and undetermined projectiles at the people running from the protests, hitting one in the back.
The police then turned to MoKaBe’s and fired on the building. Amnesty International staff inside MoKaBe directly observed the entire interaction.
The police again fired tear gas several minutes later, despite the presence of two Amnesty monitors clearly marked with bright yellow “human rights observer” T-shirts.
The patrons, including people who came outside to recover from the initial tear gas and some children, were overcome with gas.
There was no evident provocation for this action and no prior warning to disperse. One Amnesty observer was struck with three or four projectiles of unknown composition.
Meanwhile, a column of police in riot gear lined up in a column outside, preventing anyone from leaving or entering the coffee shop for approximately 20 minutes.
3. Other scenes observed by our monitors raise questions about whether law enforcement were fulfilling their official obligation to de-escalate and facilitate peaceful assembly and protect demonstrators from violence.
These observations and the remaining questions are precisely why human rights observation is so critical. While millions watched from afar, Amnesty International USA was on the ground sorting through the gas and the confusion.
While there are certainly elements of violence and unrest among the protesters, there are countless others who are there to exercise their human rights to peaceful assembly, freedom of expression and freedom of movement.
When these rights are threatened for anyone, they are threatened for everyone.
Now is the time where it is more important than ever to guard against abuses. Join us in urging Missouri officials to be vigilant in making Ferguson a protected space for peaceful protesters.
It is time for leaders in Ferguson, throughout the US and across the globe to stand up for human rights – the world is watching.