Amnesty International has come to Ferguson


Protesters stretch across the street in Ferguson, Mo., on Sunday. (Robert Cohen/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via Associated Press)

In an unusual move, the global rights organization Amnesty International has dispatched a delegation of observers and organizers to Ferguson, Mo., to provide direct support to community members and to observe the police response to protests. The 13-person delegation, which arrived late last week, was the first of its kind deployed by Amnesty within the United States, the organization said.

The St. Louis suburb has been filled with unrest since since Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed on Aug. 9 by Darren Wilson, a white police officer. That unrest intensified once again on Sunday, with reports of gunshots prompting law enforcement officials to respond with tear gas.

Overnight, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) announced that he’ll send the National Guard into Ferguson.

Amnesty decided to send a delegation to the city last week — a day after Amnesty International USA’s Executive Director Steven Hawkins sent a letter to law enforcement officials there expressing “deep concern” about Brown’s death and the way in which the police responded to protesters in the following days.

On Saturday, Hawkins criticized Nixon’s decision to impose a mandatory midnight-to-5 a.m. curfew on Ferguson. Nixon on Monday rescinded the curfew, following another night of violence on Sunday and his decision to deploy the Guard.

Jasmine Heiss, an Washington-based campaigner for Amnesty International, was part of the delegation that traveled to Ferguson. Her previous deployment? Palestine.

“What was unprecedented and is unprecedented,” Heiss said of Ferguson, “is the scope of [Amnesty's] mission.” Amnesty’s response in Ferguson, she added, was more akin to the organization’s work during the 2013 protests in Turkey than it was to any previous action the group has taken in the United States.

Amnesty International routinely sends research teams to report on potential human rights abuses during and after crisis situations in the United States, such as the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. And the group provides ongoing organizational support to certain communities in the U.S. — Hess, for instance, has worked on prisoners’ rights issues in Louisiana.

But this is the first time the organization has sent delegates to support and observe a community in the middle of a crisis.

Heiss, who returned to Washington on Sunday, said the most striking thing she saw during her time in Ferguson was the “overall lack of transparency” from law enforcement.

“Reflecting on our time there, one of the most troubling things is what we didn’t see,” she said, referring to limits placed by law enforcement officials on access to the protests. “When you see this kind of restricting of people protesting … it seems clear that the authorities are using the ill will of some to undermine the rest.”

Some members of the Amnesty delegation, including Heiss, worked as observers during the protests. Others provided direct training and support to the community, including non-violent direct action and “street medic” training.

Heiss is planning to return to Ferguson soon. The Amnesty team, she said, would remain in place in the community until local organizers there determine they are no longer needed.

Abby Ohlheiser is a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post.
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