The First Amendment gives people freedom of speech and the right to peacefully assemble, but those constitutional guarantees may be under siege in the United States.
That’s the assessment of a United Nations human rights expert after visits from July 11 to July 27 U.S. protest hot spots, including the Philadelphia, site of the Democratic National Convention this week; Cleveland, which hosted the Republican National Convention last week; Baltimore; Ferguson, Mo.; Jackson, Miss.; New Orleans; and Phoenix.
Often the United States sends experts into other countries to monitor elections and other democratic processes. It is unusual to have the tables turned — particularly when the results don’t portray the U.S. to be the pillar of freedom, which it always projects to the rest of the world.
Maina Kiai of Kenya is a U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and of association. His goal was to investigate how the U.S. upholds its citizens’ rights of assembly and association. His full report will be done and published in June 2017.
At the invitation of the government, Kiai’s visit is the first information-gathering mission to the United States by an independent expert mandated by the U.N. Human Rights Council to monitor and promote freedom of peaceful assembly and of association worldwide.
In his preliminary findings, Kiai brought up permits and other requirements set by the government for protests. He said such restrictions should meet standards established in international law. Under that system, citizens notify authorities when they will assemble, rather than the government having to grant permission.
During the Bush administration, authorities established “free-speech zones,” where protests were allowed. Often they were removed quite a distance from where then-President George W. Bush was speaking or some other event was taking place.
That government practice has not changed much during the Obama administration. Permits have been required in many cities.
Kiai appropriately notes that when permits are required, they turn the “right” to assemble for residents into a “privilege,” which governments then can deny or restrict. “Rights,” he said, “do not need permission from anyone to be exercised.” The process of issuing permits could result in discrimination against certain groups.
His assessment makes the government requirement look rather totalitarian.
Kiai also was right to raise concerns about the hardened armor that police officers wear and their firepower during protests. The U.S. after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks began supplying police departments and other law enforcement agencies with military equipment.
That equipment has been used during many Black Lives Matter movement protests in Ferguson and other cities. It can change the tone of rallies from peaceful assemblies to angry confrontations with authorities.
Kiai urged police to limit arrests and punishment to those who act outside of the law, saying the presence of such people does not take away the rights of those who are assembled peacefully.
“It is absolutely, manifestly unwise to go into a largely peaceful, grieving crowd with riot gear, random arrests, flimsy charges, rough physical handling, verbal insults and other things like that,” Kiai said. “It is not only a right of the violation of peaceful assembly, but it is dangerous to participants, the general public and to police officers.”
People certainly saw unrest erupt during protests in Ferguson after the Aug. 9, 2014, fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown. That slaying by a white police officer of an unarmed black man inspired the Black Lives Matter movement, which has spread throughout the United States.
Kiai expressed concerns about relations between protesters and police. He warmed of overpolicing and militarization.
Unfortunately in many cities, we are already there.