Freedom Now condemns the forceful means by which the authorities in the United States are policing and disrupting protests in U.S. cities these past weeks. We call on federal and state officials to honor their commitment to respecting human rights and ensure protesters are able to peacefully exercise their rights to freedom of expression and assembly without threat of violence.

The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25 has set off mass protests across the country and the world. Police from all levels of government – federal, state, and municipal – have responded to the outpouring of public frustration and grief, with tactics that are often employed by authoritarian governments, such as those in China, Azerbaijan, and Cameroon. While there have been breaches of law – including vandalism and looting – committed ostensibly by protesters, these crimes have been committed by a small minority, and do not impugn the peaceful message being carried around the country by people calling for accountability and respect of authorities.

The aggressive show of force from law enforcement and the use of military reserves are of particular concern. In Washington, D.C., U.S. National Guard units from other states and agents from various government law enforcement bodies were deployed. Many wore tactical gear without an insignia, badge, or means of identification of any kind, rendering it difficult to confirm and assign responsibility for their actions. These officers used rubber bullets, pepper spray, and tear gas to disperse protesters – munitions the United States banned for export to China seven months ago out of grave concern for their use against protesters in Hong Kong. More recently, President Trump threatened to deploy active duty military in areas of the country where protests continued to take place.

During these events, journalists have been targeted and freedom of the press is under threat. Between May 26 and June 8, the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker cataloged 383 violations of press freedom, including at least 56 arrests of journalists and more than 200 assaults committed by law enforcement.

Freedom of expression and assembly are American values. These rights are enshrined in the Constitution of the United States. US officials and policymakers regularly call on governments abroad to respect these rights. We urge the US government to respect these rights, and to protect civilians from harm. Protesters must be allowed to peacefully exercise their right to petition their government for change without the constant specter of bodily harm. Anything less would be a betrayal of the fundamental principles on which the United States was founded.