‘Blunt discrimination’ by police and ‘crisis levels’ of racism: A senior U.N. official reflects on America
Nations as well as individuals can profit from learning how others view them. Jaweed Kaleem in the LA Times reports on what the U.N.’s special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association saw in his visit to the US:
It’s not every day that a senior United Nations official reprimands the U.S. for its race relations, saying the country is “struggling to live up to its ideals” on equality, that “blunt discrimination” by police against black Americans has reached “crisis levels,” and that Congress is “dysfunctional” in how it responds to problems.
But after a 17-day visit that included cities that have become flashpoints in police and race relations, such as Ferguson, Mo.; Baton Rouge, La.; and Baltimore, that’s what Maina Kiai concluded.
A Kenyan human rights lawyer, Kiai is the U.N.’s special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, and his trip last month was meant to examine how Americans handle protests.
He had planned his visit with the State Department for months and expected he’d have to search hard for demonstrations when he arrived. Instead, Kiai stepped into a country reeling from back-to-back police shootings of black men and attacks on police in Baton Rouge and Dallas where controversy over race and policing was front and center.
Kiai recently released a letter about his travels in which he credited the U.S. for its “resilience” despite difficulties, and wrote at length about workers’ rights, immigration law debates, counter-terrorism, policing and how each relates to 1st Amendment rights.
“The focus of my mission was not race or discrimination,” he said in his statement, a prelude to a fuller report expected next year. “But it is impossible to discuss these rights without issues of racism pervading the discussions.”
He said he saw such issues first-hand during meetings with police departments in New York, Phoenix, Washington, D.C., and Jackson, Miss. At the federal level, Kiai met with officials at the White House — though the schedule did not include President Obama — and the departments of State, Labor, Homeland Security and Justice. He also went to New Orleans and to the sites of the major political conventions — Cleveland and Philadelphia.
“People have good reason to be angry and frustrated at the moment. And it is at times like these when robust promotion of assembly and association rights are needed most,” Kiai wrote in his initial report.
“I was pleased to observe that police in the states I visited have a good understanding of the best practices of managing assemblies, and that they have the capacity to implement them, which they often do,” he later added. “But they also sometimes ignore these best practices, preferring intimidatory and discriminative tactics.”
The Times spoke to Kiai, who has been the first special rapporteur — an independent, volunteer expert — on freedom of assembly since 2011, and has made similar visits to Britain, Rwanda, Georgia, Oman, Kazakhstan, Chile and South Korea.
Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
The U.S. doesn’t rank high on lists of countries with human rights issues, unlike some of the others you’ve visited. Why here?
I only go where I am given access. I have tried to go to other countries, like Russia, but they have not allowed me in. Meanwhile, the U.S. made it very easy for me to come. There’s an openness and willingness to improve.
That said, there’s no perfect society. There is no country anywhere that’s got a perfect human rights record. There are always concerns and issues. So we try not to make comparisons. It’s not about who is better. What is important is really talking to people who are living there who feel their rights are being violated. You will get people who say, “Why look as us? We are not the worst in the world.” But we need to look.
What stood out in your travels?
Police who work with the community are incredible, and they are out there. If they don’t, there is trouble, and some have at times become oppositional. If a person takes a community approach to policing, there is much more comfort between police and the community.
The other thing that stuck out is the role of the civil rights division of the Department of Justice. It can play a tremendously effective role when it comes in and looks at a police department. The mayor of New Orleans invited the Justice Department in, and it has borne fruit. On the other hand, you have a police force like in Ferguson that had a lot of work to do.
On the civil society side, I have been thoroughly impressed by the doggedness of activists.
Is there a problem with race and policing? . . .
The sidebar to the article is worth looking at.
Whites tend not to actually know the daily experience of what it’s like to be black and how a black person is treated.