The following passage comes from a recent
report by Amnesty International’s historic, 150-page report–United States of America:
Rights for All.
"There is a widespread and persistent problem of police
brutality….Thousands of individual complaints about police abuse are reported each
year….Police officers have beaten and shot unresisting suspects; they have misused
batons, chemical sprays and electro-shock weapons….people have been beaten, kicked,
punched, choked and shot by police officers, even when they posed no threat. The majority
of victims have been members of racial or ethnic minorities. Many people have died, many
have been seriously injured, many have been deeply traumatized."
This report was released on October 6 as part of Amnesty’s first
worldwide campaign on the human rights situation in the U.S. It covers police brutality,
the unjust and racist use of the death penalty, the U.S.’s increasingly brutal prison
system, and the denial of immigrant rights and political asylum.
Pierre Sane, originally from Senegal, was appointed secretary
general of Amnesty International in 1992. He is responsible for Amnesty’s day-to-day
management and serves as the organization’s primary spokesperson worldwide.
BERNSTEIN/EVEREST: What motivated Amnesty to focus on the United
States? Was there an upsurge in violence? Why this report, and why now?
PIERRE SANE: The human rights situation in the United States is bad,
and our research shows it is getting worse. It is getting worse because there is a sort of
warlike mentality in this country. There is a war on crimes, there is a war on drugs,
there is a war on illegal immigrants, there is a war on terrorism. Law enforcement
agencies are given a lot of scope to deal with these issues, which are presented as
national threats. In a context like that, human rights are likely to be a casualty.
We see police brutality on the increase from coast to coast. The
prisons are overflowing. There are now 1.7 million prisoners in the U.S., one of the
highest rates of incarceration in the world. And the death penalty is being used more and
more frequently and with less and less and less mercy. Asylum seekers are treated as
criminals and jailed, some in very bad conditions.
Amnesty’s report paints a very troubling picture of official
violence by police and prison officials in this country. What is the scope and nature of
police brutality in the U.S.?
Police brutality extends from coast to coast and it is happening
every day. The primary focus of the police is on those that they have profiled as being
criminals–mainly young Black males, Asian Americans, or Native Americans. But the problem
is that unless the brutality of the police is kept in check, then nobody is safe. That’s
the risk, that it will continue to spread.
Is police brutality getting worse?
It is getting worse because of impunity. Many incidents of police
brutality are settled out of court. Settlement out of court, of course, is not a
recognition of liability. Police officers are not prosecuted. It is getting worse because
the police are using new technologies such as electroshock, stun belts, stun guns, and
tasers. It will continue to get worse as long as the politicians are using the insecurity
created by the crime wave for political advantage and give the police carte blanche to
deal with crime. In a context where people are told that this is a war against crime,
human rights is likely to be the casualty.
Was there anything that really shocked you in Amnesty’s report on
the U.S., or were you pretty much expecting what you found?
There were a few things that I continue to find shocking. One is the
way women in prison are treated. There are 75,000 women in prison in the U.S. today, which
is a number that has quadrupled since 1980–not because of violent offenses but mostly
because of drug use, drug abuse, and drug trafficking. What I find shocking is that the
some guards and medical staff themselves are committing sexual abuse. What I find shocking
is women being shackled when they are in labor. One thousand pregnant women give birth
every year in U.S. prisons. They are shackled when they are pregnant, they are shackled
when they are taken to the hospital. They are shackled to their beds when they are giving
What a terrible way to come into the world.
Clearly this country has moved away from looking at prisons as
centers for correction or rehabilitation, to look at prisons as a place where people go to
be further punished and further dehumanized.
Was there anything else that stood out to you as particularly
The treatment of mentally impaired people. There are many people who
end up in prison instead of being sent to mental institutions. Those people are not
criminally responsible. But some of them are executed. For instance, Bill Clinton went
back to Arkansas during his 1992 campaign to sign the death warrant for Ricky Ray Rector
who was totally mentally impaired. Actually, when he was taken from his cell to be
executed, he left his desert and said "I’ll finish it later." He had no idea
what was going on.
So people who are mentally impaired have been executed. People who
are mentally impaired are sent to these prisons. Of course they have totally unpredictable
attitudes, so they are being restrained. We have a case of someone mentally impaired who
was restrained on for 12 weeks.
It seems that a new class of prisoners is being created in the
United States–children. One gets the feeling that pretty soon we are going to start
seeing high chairs being electrified and people being locked up as soon as they are diaper
trained. I’m being facetious here, but this seems to be where we’re going.
There are 3,500 children in prison with adults, and this is part of
a pattern in this country of practices moving away from established national and
international standards. That’s why we want to ring the alarm bell. Yes, it is true there
is a constitution, there is a Bill of Rights, freedoms are guaranteed, there is an
independent justice system, and you can sue officials–provided you have the means. But
all of this does not guarantee that rights will be adequately protected.
Take the State of Virginia. It is about to execute a juvenile
offender. The last juvenile that was executed in Virginia was in 1932. So we are going
back to the standards of 1932. We are moving forward technologically, in terms of
communications, and toward the 21st century. But we are keeping forms of punishment from
the 19th century.
Executing juveniles is also against International human rights law,
because those under 18 years old cannot and should not be executed because they aren’t
really criminally responsible. The United States has been one of the key actors in
developing these standards. But these international standards have moved beyond the
standards that obtain in the United States. The U.S. is a member of what I call the G-6.
There is the G-7, the powerful industrialized nations. Then you have the G-6. The G-6
includes Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Nigeria, and the United States of America.
These are the only 6 countries in the world that continue to execute juveniles.
You recently made a trip to the U.S.– Mexico border. What prompted
One of the wars the government has declared is the war on illegal
immigrants. Last May we issued a report looking at human rights violations on the border
between Mexico and the United States, and what we wanted on the occasion of this trip
through our discussion with the human rights organizations, the immigrant organizations,
is to assess to what extent the plan of action that has been implemented by the INS has
led to significant changes and has reduced the level of abuses by the border patrol, has
improved the conditions of detention.
On the side of the INS and the border patrol, we are told that many
of the recommendations have been implemented and the level of abuses has been reduced. But
that is not the story that we are told by the human rights organizations. Some immigrants
have been assaulted, sexually, including sexual assault, some are indefinitely detained,
their rights are stripped completely. They are dehumanized. They are considered as the
enemy where normally they should be offered protection and asylum.
What are you urging people to do to combat the problems you’ve
highlighted in your report?
This is going to be a 12-month campaign in which we will mobilize
our membership worldwide to disseminate this information and to pressure the U.S.
government to bring about the needed changes. We feel that there is a need to raise
awareness about the extent of the human rights violations and the rapid deterioration of
the human rights situation, and we want to ensure that our membership in the U.S.
participates in the mobilization of civil society in America against things like police
This report, of course, should be a contribution to the work that
various organizations are doing. Our actions internationally will demonstrate our
solidarity with the victims, but also with the organizations on the ground who are
struggling to hold the police accountable.
So would you be encouraging your members to unite and participate
with these various groups?
Yes, that’s the strategy. We know that changes will only happen if
we can combine domestic pressure coming from below with international pressure coming from
outside. And that is really what is at the heart of our strategy -þ going to the trade
unions, to the church-based groups, to women’s organizations, to various social
movements–to bring this issue to the table and invite them to join.
Earlier you mentioned that many people from what you called
"good society"–and by that I understood you to mean the middle classes
broadly–feel a distance from the poor, the dispossessed, people of color. How do you see
Amnesty helping to bridge this gap?
First, bridging the gap is really injecting the human rights
discourse and the human rights language into everyday life. Yes, people accept that we are
all born free and equal, that we have equal rights, etc, etc. But the reality, the
structures of injustice in society require that beyond the acceptance of the equality and
the rights, people engage more in action to ensure that others will not be denied their
rights–be it socio- economic rights, or civil and political rights.
Certainly history is a good reminder that unless the rights of all
are protected, our rights individually tomorrow can be confiscated. Certain groups can be
targeted today, which gives police officers a sense of impunity, a sense of being above
the law. And tomorrow it would be members of good society who will fall victim to a police
force which will not be held accountable, and that is not being sanctioned when abuses are
In your travels around the U.S. do you see a growing concern among,
as you put it, the members of "good society"? How do you read the mood of
intellectuals, the middle class, professional people, journalists, and others?
I sense something. I’m not sure that I can talk about it expertly
because my visits are not that frequent. But I can judge something by the enthusiasm of
Amnesty members in joining this campaign. Amnesty is a typical middle class organization.
In the U.S. it is from the white middle class, but made up of people who come with
compassion, who want to help others, mainly victims in other places. But these are people
who have enthusiastically joined this campaign in order to strengthen human rights
protection in their own country.
I think that people are seeing through the propaganda effort of the
government to target and vilify certain groups. And they are not ready anymore to accept
certain abuses which are committed in the name of good society. It is in order to protect
good society from crime that people are being executed and poisoned, that juvenile
offenders are being executed, that mentally ill people are being executed. It is in the
name of the well-being of good society that immigrants are treated like criminals, that
people in the prisons are treated with total, total disrespect for their rights.
So there comes a point where people weigh what is being put to them
in terms of what is needed in order to keep them in comfort, and the price they are paying
in terms of bearing responsibility for the atrocities that are taking place behind the
walls. I think it is difficult to bear. We can see this in the religious movement. Last
weekend we organized a weekend of faith where we reached out to all congregations in the
U.S. to join in a weekend of prayer but also of sermon regarding the death penalty. The
response was enormous, unexpected.
I think there is a moral vacuum that the religious right and the
right-wing groups in the U.S. have tried to fill, but it’s a fraud and people are seeing
through that. And I think what we need to bring back at the center is the human rights
package–the message of equality, of dignity, of respect, of tolerance, brotherhood and
I’m interested in your comment that people are seeing through the
right-wing’s crime agenda. An Amnesty press release states that your report is coming out
at a time when Congress is debating right and wrong in regard to President Clinton’s
actions. Could you comment on this?
Yes, I guess for us it is the whole hypocrisy of a political
establishment that has immersed itself in this soul searching exercise on morality and
politics, and about what is right and what is wrong. At the same time it allows juvenile
offenders to be executed; at the same time it allows mentally ill people to be locked up
behind bars and be subjected to conditions of detention and of restraint which are totally
unacceptable. A political establishment that is extending the use of the death penalty; a
political establishment that legislates three strikes and you’re out; that undermines the
international system of protection for refugees, and which shapes the very society that
the police police.
It is also a very positive development that many of the oppressed
themselves are organizing and speaking out, including the relatives of victims of police
abuse. For example, Amnesty’s new report includes a picture of the group Parents Against
Police Brutality in New York. Is this a development that you’ve noted as well?
Yes, we’ve seen it. As we publicize issues like police brutality, it
strengthens those organizations. It gives them more coverage of their work.
Our experience covering human rights abuses throughout the world is
that associations of families of victims, like the association of the Mothers of the Plaza
de Mayo in Argentina, the mothers of the disappeared in Turkey, in Mexico, in Lebanon, and
so on, are really the organizations that are the most successful in keeping alive the
issue, because those organizations will not disband until such time that they have
Mumia Abu-Jamal is a well-known prisoner on death row here in the
U.S. What’s Amnesty’s position on Mumia?
I visited Mumia last October. I went to Pennsylvania and I spend a
couple of hours with him. Amnesty’s position is that the emergency now is to keep Mumia
alive, to prevent an execution. Many people are under the impression that Mumia will never
be executed because he is so famous and because he has a very strong network of
supporters. I wouldn’t be that confident after having been confronted with the callousness
of the criminal justice system in this country. They have not succeeded in breaking his
spirit. I think that even behind bars he’s able to contribute a lot to all those who are
fighting for respect for dignity, and I think he’s certainly an inspiration for many in
the younger generation.
We think our best contribution to the support of Mumia is to
mobilize our membership world wide to work for a commutation of his sentence–we have to
get him off death row. We have to make sure that he’s not executed.
Is there anything that you would like to add that we haven’t
PS: Maybe just in terms of the message that is sent to the activists
in the U.S. Our message is really that this campaign is a manifestation of our solidarity
with the groups that are fighting for justice in this country, and that change will come
from the groups in this country. We can help from outside, but Amnesty cannot bring human
rights to the people in this country.
Amnesty can contribute in mobilizing public opinion in supporting
the struggles that go on, but if tomorrow people want their human rights protected, they
will have to fight for them, and they will have to harness that tradition of fighting for
civil rights and fighting for union rights and move beyond litigation, which is what the
U.S. civil rights movement is now, to a certain extent, locked into. We need to bring
people into the streets. We need to educate and to mobilize. And that will be for
Americans to do. And for us it is important that change come, because we know that when
change comes to the U.S., then changing the rest of the world will be much easier.
Dennis Bernstein is an associate editor at Pacific News Service and
the senior producer of Flashpoints on Pacifica Radio’s KPFA in Berkeley. Larry Everest is
a correspondent for the Revolutionary Worker and the author of Behind the Poison Cloud:
Union Carbide’s Bhopal Massacre.