THE United Nations Special Rapporteur, Maina Kiai, on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association made a visit to the United States from 11 to 27 July, and made a statement on the state of civil liberties in America.
The statement covers everything from the right to strike and the rights of migrant workers to the US regime’s ‘war on drugs’ and the treatment of black people at the hands of racist police. The statement makes for some very juicy reading into what is happening today in the world’s dominant capitalist power.
Excerpts from the report follow below.
‘During my visit, I have met with hundreds of activists and individuals representing a wide range of perspectives, observed a number of protests at the Republican and Democratic national conventions, and more… ‘During this mission I covered 10 cities in 17 days: Washington, New York, Baltimore, Ferguson, MO, Cleveland, Phoenix, New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Jackson, MS, and Philadelphia…
‘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.
‘Today, unfortunately, America seems to be at a moment where it is struggling to live up to its ideals on a number of important issues, the most critical being racial, social and economic inequality, which are often intertwined. To be clear, the focus of my mission was not race or discrimination. My mandate concerns the enjoyment of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.
‘But it is impossible to discuss these rights without issues of racism pervading the discussions. Racism and the exclusion, persecution and marginalisation that come with it, affect the enabling environment for the exercise of association and assembly rights.
‘This issue is particularly grave in the African-American community, and understanding its context means looking back at 400 years of slavery.
‘It also means looking at the emergence of the Jim Crow laws that destroyed the achievements of the Reconstruction Era, which emerged at the end of slavery in 1865, and enforced segregation and marginalised the African-American community to a life of misery, poverty and persecution.
‘It means looking at what happened after Jim Crow laws were dismantled, when old philosophies of exclusion and discrimination were reborn, cloaked in new and euphemistic terms… The so-called “War on Drugs” is a perfect example. From it, one out of every 15 black men is in currently jail… These discriminatory laws and practices need to be seen in the larger context.
‘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. Yet during my mission I did not hear any suggestions of a “War on Wall Street theft.”
‘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. 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…
‘But racial inequality is not the only inequality inhibiting the enabling environment for association and assembly rights. Although the United States engineered an admirable recovery following the financial crisis of 2007-08, this rising tide did not lift all boats.
‘Productivity and economic output has grown, but the benefits of these have gone primarily to the wealthiest, as the wages of average people have stagnated. This has exacerbated the problem of inequality across all demographic groups, created more resentment, and more tension; providing more reasons for people to become politically engaged – including by exercising their assembly and association rights…
‘In short, people have good reason to be angry and frustrated at the moment… It was disturbing to learn that assemblies organised by African-Americans are managed differently (to other assemblies), with these protests often met with disproportionate force… It was disconcerting to hear the many testimonies revealing that two years after the mismanagement of protests in Ferguson, and a year after the crisis in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray, similar practices were repeated in Baton Rouge in July this year to deal with protests after the police shooting of Alton Sterling…
‘The federal Government’s “1033 Program” – has caused serious harm to the practice of and thinking around management of crowds. The program gives local and state police authorities’ easy access to surplus military equipment, much of it designed for very different settings. Protesters are not war enemies and should never be treated as such…
‘Protesters also expressed concern about growing intimidation by law enforcement. Officers, allegedly from the FBI, have gone to the homes of Black Lives Matter activists seeking to warn them off impending protests… Active protesters, organisers and leaders in communities feel targeted and surveilled. Marginalised groups such as migrant workers and homeless often suffer disproportionately from intimidation practices in Phoenix, Arizona, New Orleans, Philadelphia and DC.
‘I heard testimony, for example, of presence of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents at assemblies in New Orleans… Police surveillance of protests is also an issue. Just yesterday, I witnessed an incident at a Black Lives Matter protest in Philadelphia where protesters identified an undercover officer who was marching with demonstrators and filming them…
‘Many protesters testified of being arrested and charged with offenses such as “obstructing traffic”, “failure to obey a police officer” and “resisting arrest.” These charges then appear on protesters’ criminal records, with devastating effects such as job losses, inability to get public housing, and more. Exercising a human right should not cause such domino effects into misery. In addition, law enforcement officers have extremely wide and often unaccountable discretion to detain, arrest and formulate certain charges.
‘I heard dozens of stories of protesters who said they were detained or cited for obstruction of traffic for simply stepping or stumbling off a sidewalk. In the recent events in Baton Rouge, protesters were allegedly ordered to clear the road at a point where the road had no sidewalks… Testimonies in Ferguson and Baton Rouge about deleted video recordings from devices taken away by the police are worrisome.
‘The recent news that Christopher LeDay, the man who videotaped Alton Sterling’s death, allegedly was handcuffed, jailed, taken in on false charges and is now not allowed back at work is an illustration of such intimidation, harassment and its far-reaching effects on people recording police officers. Similarly, I am tremendously disturbed by the testimonies of many, mainly young black men in Baltimore, Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Philadelphia about similar practices.
‘They reported being questioned and even charged with petty offences when gathering socially at street corners; even just with four people. In Philadelphia, I was informed, the practice of stopping and frisking primarily African-American people – often with no reasonable suspicion – has reached crisis levels… The right to freedom of association includes the right of workers to form associations, including unions, and the right to strike.
‘During this mission, I met with a number of workers and organisations that represent workers who described the challenges they face in asserting their right to freedom of association… The overarching concern expressed by workers was the lack of robust protections of their labour rights…
‘In practice the ability to form and join unions is impeded by a number of factors: the inordinate deference given to employers to undermine union formation; a so-called “neutral” stance on unions by authorities, when in fact international law requires that they facilitate unions; weak remedies and penalties for intimidation, coercion and undue influence by employers; and political interference and overt support for industry at the expense of workers.
‘While employers can hold captive audience meetings and one-on-one meetings with supervisors to dissuade employees from unionising, workers have no right to distribute union literature in the workplace, conduct meetings without management being present or engage in protest activity on the employer’s property. The pervasiveness of employer interference practices are vividly illustrated by the strength of the $4 billion dollar “union-busting” industry.
‘I was shocked to see that in states such as Mississippi, the lack of unionisation and ability to exploit workers is touted as a great benefit for employers. The dangers of this are exemplified by the situation at the Nissan plant in Canton, MS, where the company has aggressively worked to prevent unions from organising.
‘Workers, meanwhile, have suffered greatly. The company no longer even hires new employees directly; they are all outsourced to a temp agency, which pays significantly lower wages and benefits. The figure that stands out for me is this: Nissan reportedly operates 44 major plants throughout the world; all of them are unionised, except for two of them in the US south. Why not Mississippi?…
‘I was informed that in some situations, employers are permitted to replace striking workers permanently – which renders the action ineffective. The right to strike is one of the very few tools that workers can use to leverage their bargaining position with the employer. Where this right is infringed or altogether denied, workers are unable to effectively express their support or opposition to employers’ policies.’