The CIVICUS Monitor, which reports on the state of freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly in every country in the world in real time, has placed the USA on its Watch List for the second time since the Monitor’s inception in 2017.
The Watch List highlights serious concerns regarding the rapid decline in the exercise of civic freedoms in five countries. Once a country is placed on the Watch List, the CIVICUS Monitor closely tracks developments in these countries for three to four months to “ensure that greater pressure is brought to bear on governments. CIVICUS calls upon these governments to do everything in their power to immediately end the ongoing crackdowns and ensure that perpetrators are held to account,” according to CIVICUS. The USA was one of five countries placed on the Monitor’s original Watch List in April 2017.
The Monitor again placed USA on its watch list on June 29, 2020, after massive protests erupted in cities across the U.S. following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by a Minneapolis police officer on 25th May 2020. A harrowing video from eyewitnesses shows the officer pressing his knee into the handcuffed man’s neck for almost nine minutes while Floyd repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe.” Outrage over entrenched racial injustice and the country’s long history of violence against Black and Brown people by law enforcement brought hundreds of thousands to the streets across all 50 states. Protestors blocked streets, rallied, marched and chanted “no justice, no peace” and “say his name: George Floyd” while calling for an end to police brutality and demanding that law enforcement officers be held accountable.
Enduring pressure from demonstrations has brought important results, including charges brought against officers involved in George Floyd’s killing and commitment to reforming police practices from some authorities. But even as protests sparked important conversations about criminal justice reform and divestment from policing institutions, protestors in many cities were met with police brutality themselves. Militarized law enforcement wearing riot gear often resorted to disproportionate force to control crowds, indiscriminately using less-lethal weapons such as tear gas and rubber bullets. On 18th June 2020, a report by the New York Times showed at least 100 cities where tear gas was deployed despite many health experts questioning the use of this respiratory irritant chemical during the coronavirus pandemic. There have also been several reports of police ambushing protestors and using excessive force in detentions. Six officers were charged after a video surfaced of them repeatedly tasering and dragging two Black students out of a car.
Reports of property fires, looting and vandalism have been widespread, in particular during the first week of protests. Many authorities have fastened on a rhetoric that focuses on violent protest and unrest to delegitimize the demonstrations and justify the extensive use of force. President Donald Trump threatened to mobilize the military to put an end to the protests, blaming Antifa groups for the violence despite lack of evidence of any organized action by such activists. In a statement, Attorney General Barr announced that anti-terrorism powers would be used in response to civil unrest. By 3rd June 2020, over 17,000 members of the National Guard had been deployed in at least 23 states. Over 10,000 people have been detained in the protests, mostly for violating the curfews which multiple cities implemented to limit demonstrations. On 1st June 2020, over 300 people were detained in Washington DC alone for offences such as curfew violation, rioting and burglary. In addition, there have been reports of at least 11 people killed during the wave of protests.
430 incidents of assault against the press covering the protests have been registered by civil society, including cases of journalists detained and deliberately attacked. Mounting hostility against the press in the country has often been documented on the Monitor, with the public vilification of journalists by authorities, arbitrary bureaucratic restrictions imposed on the press, and several cases of harassment, smear campaigns and attacks against journalists from both state and non-state actors.
The USA joins the Philippines, Azerbaijan, Hungary and Niger on the current Watch List.