In an election year marked by pandemic, massive unemployment, and widespread protest against entrenched racial inequality that has pervaded nearly every aspect of life in the United States, Human Rights Watch and partners provide insight and analysis to make sense of the human rights developments unfolding across the country.
Curbing Political Threats by Law Enforcement in the US
by Letta Tayler
Recent politically motivated threats and calls for violence by local law enforcement officers in the United States underscore the need for government authorities to ensure police equally protect all members of the public, including at protests in the wake of the November 3 elections.
On November 6, an Arkansas police chief with reported ties to an anti-government militia called for recruits to “fight [their] way” into the US Congress to “arrest” Democratic lawmakers, and “shoot and kill” Democrats and Black Lives Matter and Antifa members to stop a “coup” against President Trump.
Two days earlier in Alabama, a police captain, also on social media, wrote that people who voted for President-elect Joe Biden should get “a bullet in their head for treason.”
In October, an on-duty police officer in Phoenix, Arizona, allegedly threatened to seriously harm the city’s Democratic mayor, Kate Gallego.
The police departments in each of these cases have responded promptly.
With protests against Biden’s presidential victory scheduled for this weekend and beyond including by far-right groups, and counter-protests possible, it’s essential that law enforcement officials uphold their international and domestic legal obligations to protect all members of the public from harm, without bias, while upholding the right of all to peacefully protest.
US Voters Choose Biden as President
US President-elect Joe Biden should reverse four years of regression on human rights and immediately work to place respect for rights at the forefront of US laws and policies, Human Rights Watch said today.
As the Associated Press, Fox News, and other media organizations project that Biden has won the US presidency, US officials should ensure that the voters’ will is respected and not undermined by baseless lawsuits. President Donald Trump has made unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud, and his campaign has asked courts to intervene in Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Georgia.
The people have spoken through the power of the ballot box, their will is done and @JoeBiden has been elected the next President of the United States. This is what respect for the right to vote and Democracy looks like. https://t.co/gU4iRgpE4f— Nicole Austin-Hillery (@NicoleAustinHil) November 7, 2020
“In a democracy, the will of the people, not of politicians, determines the outcome of an election. Now President-elect Biden needs to govern on behalf of all Americans,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “People came out in record numbers to vote. The electoral process must ensure that their choices are respected. This is a moment to heal the nation and end the divisiveness.”
Exactly 100 years after women in the United States gained the right to vote and 55 years after the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Kamala Harris, the daughter of parents who immigrated from India and Jamaica, has become the first woman, first Black American, and first Asian-American to be elected vice president of the United States.
Trump’s reckless allegations of voter fraud in the November 3, 2020 presidential election have met with bipartisan condemnation. Candidates have the right to pursue the legal avenues available to them, but pursuing baseless claims unnecessarily prolongs the electoral process and may serve to undermine confidence in the outcome of the election. The Trump campaign has signaled an intent to seek a recount in Wisconsin and the Georgia secretary of state announced on November 6 that the tally of votes in the presidential race there would end with a margin small enough to prompt a recount.
Both campaigns, the political parties, and all officials in the US should urge the public to respect the electoral process. Election-related lawsuits should be resolved in a manner that centers the right to vote and focuses on ascertaining the will of voters. A record number of Americans of all backgrounds participated in the election amid a pandemic and other structural obstacles to casting a ballot. International human rights law requires that each vote be counted, Human Rights Watch said.
New York Police Revert to Abusive Tactics Against Post-Election Demonstrators
Last night New York police appear to have “kettled” protesters in with nowhere to go. After chanting “let us disburse” over and over again, NYPD still arrested people, body-slamming & tackling some to the ground who appear to have posed no threat. https://t.co/S5jxhIZJ72— Laura Pitter (@Laurapitter) November 5, 2020
By Laura Pitter
The New York Police Department (NYPD) appears to have used excessive force and abusive tactics on Wednesday night in response to demonstrators marching in support of protecting the results of the November 3 US general election and ending police brutality. The incident comes as the NYPD remains under scrutiny for its June 4 attack on peaceful protestors in the Bronx, for which it has yet to be held accountable.
Videos posted on social media showed police officers surrounding and trapping demonstrators in Manhattan, using a tactic known as “kettling,” while protesters chanted “let us disperse.” It appears that the police did not allow the demonstrators to disperse before moving in to arrest more than a dozen people, in some cases using excessive force.
The NYPD issued announcements over loudspeakers at some point Wednesday night, telling marchers that they were unlawfully walking in a roadway and to move to the sidewalk or be subjected to arrest. Police officers nonetheless arrested those who complied with the order, pushing them to the ground first in some cases. Ultimately, the police made 20 arrests and issued more than 30 summonses after rounding people up and detaining them, though it is unclear if those summonses were issued after people were taken into custody and to police stations afterwards.
Human Rights Watch issued a report in September about an episode of police violence in June, when the NYPD also “kettled” people protesting against police brutality in the Mott Haven area of the Bronx without giving them any chance to disperse. The police then violently assaulted the protesters while rounding up more than 250 people for arrest. While the Wednesday night incident was much smaller in scale, the police tactics appear similar.
On Wednesday, New York police officers claimed that weapons, including knives, fireworks, and some sort of electronic control device, were found. These claims should be treated with skepticism given the NYPD’s history of misinformation, not just related to protest violence, but about crime more generally. After the Mott Haven incident in June, in an apparent attempt to justify the NYPD action, Police Commissioner Dermot Shea said that violence was planned prior to the demonstration and weapons confiscated, which other NYPD officials refuted, and media outlets reported was untrue.
Social media and other media outlets reported Wednesday that some trash fires appear to have been set, and some protesters got into confrontations with police, but these incidents appear to have taken place separate from the kettling operations.
Following the release of Human Rights Watch’s report, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio promised that he would hold those responsible for wrongdoing to account, acknowledging that the NYPD was wrong to arrest legal observers. However, de Blasio still has not done so. In fact, an investigation he initiated in June that was supposed to be finished in August is still pending. Ensuring timely accountability for past abuses is critical to showing there are consequences for such actions and to deter further abuse. The fact that no one has been held to account for the abuses against Mott Haven protesters only emboldens officers to use the same tactics – as was apparent this week.
During Brian Lehrer’s Ask the Mayor segment on WNYC on November 6, Lehrer and callers questioned de Blasio about the abusive police tactics, including the use of kettling.
Brian Lehrer describes police violence this week, and asks @NYCMayor: Do you acknowledge that those things happened and say the NYPD acted wrongly?— Jake Offenhartz (@jangelooff) November 6, 2020
"I don’t have information that tells me that."
De Blasio has this info because his press secretary witnessed it. He's lying, again
De Blasio replied that some protesters aimed to carry out acts of violence. But he also said: “Kettling is not an acceptable practice. It’s not a part of NYPD tactics in the patrol guide. It’s not something I want to see.” If this is the case, why has he not taken disciplinary action for the abusive tactics this summer, and why has he allowed the NYPD to use the tactic again?
What Three US Ballot Results Mean for Poverty and Inequality
1/ @LenaSimet and I @hrw are deeply concerned about the result of #Prop22. #Prop22 threatens to create a class of workers scraping to get by. #Election2020 #NoOnProp22 https://t.co/SBS9UFOhkr pic.twitter.com/bXg0DCixhv— Amos Toh (@AmosToh) November 4, 2020
The US elections took place amid a recession, record unemployment, and rising poverty. The economy was the top issue for voters in the election; one in two voters said that economic inequality was very important in their decision about who to support in the presidential election. But decisions that affect poverty and inequality are not only taken at the federal level. High-stakes ballot initiatives in Florida and Colorado could go a long way in improving workers’ living standards, but a California proposition raises alarm about rights in the gig economy.
Voters in Florida agreed to raise the state minimum wage to $15 an hour by approving Amendment 2. Under it, nontipped employees will see their minimum hourly wage increase from $8.56 to $15 by 2026. The Florida Policy Institute says this would increase wages for 2.5 million workers in Florida, more than a quarter of the workforce. It may help lift millions out of poverty and reduce racial and gender disparities in pay, as women and people of color are overrepresented in lower-wage work.
In Colorado, voters approved Proposition 118 to create a state-run paid family and medical leave program. Colorado residents will now be entitled to 12 weeks of paid leave if they need to care for a sick loved one, recover from illness, or care for a baby or adopted child. This stands to overwhelmingly benefit lower-income workers, who are less likely to have access to paid time off, and is an important step to address economic gender gaps.
However, in California, voters approved Proposition 22, exempting gig companies (five of which poured more than $200 million into a campaign for the initiative) from a state law that would have treated many gig workers as employees. Human Rights Watch research shows that without the protections granted to employees, gig grocery delivery workers could face severe financial hardship in the event of illness or injury, or when algorithms that determine pay drive down earnings. Prop 22 denies workers a minimum wage for the time they spend working because it allows companies to exclude waiting time between gigs. Prop 22 stands to increase precarious work and may contribute to economic inequality by creating a class of workers scraping to get by, many of whom identify as people of color.
California's outcome is alarming but the results in Florida and Colorado give hope.
Several US States Advanced Gender Equality on Election Day
With all eyes seemingly on the US presidential election, it’s easy to miss some of the exciting progress made on gender equality at the state level.
Colorado voters had two big initiatives on their ballot, one to expand paid family and medical leave, and the other to severely restrict access to abortion. The lack of federal paid family and medical leave in the United States contributes to parents delaying babies' immunizations, postpartum depression and other health problems, and leads some parents to end breastfeeding early, while employer bias against working mothers can derail women’s careers. Colorado joined nine states and the District of Columbia that have filled this gap, by passing a state ballot measure to adopt a permanent paid family and medical leave insurance program. Likewise, Colorado voters rejected a harmful ballot initiative that would have reduced access to abortion services after 22 weeks of pregnancy and imposed criminal penalties on doctors.
Other good news came out of Washington state, where voters adopted a ballot initiative on mandatory sex education starting in kindergarten – a first in the United States. Under the new law, all the children in the state would receive comprehensive sexual health information that is medically and scientifically accurate. Recent Human Rights Watch research demonstrates that teaching sex education in schools helps young people make safer decisions to protect their health.
Oregon Decriminalizes Simple Possession of All Drugs
By Brian Root
Oregon voters have made history by making it the first US state to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of all drugs for personal use. The new law will invest resources in voluntary treatment and other support for people who struggle with problematic drug use, while removing criminal penalties that cause devastating harm.
Oregon Measure 110 reclassifies personal possession of small amounts of drugs from a Class A misdemeanor to no more than a violation. Now, instead of arrest, possession will result in either a $100 fine or a health assessment, including a substance use disorder screening by a certified counselor. The measure funds treatment and other services through a portion of the substantial tax revenue Oregon is receiving as a result of cannabis legalization. It also reduces penalties for possession of larger quantities of drugs, reducing most offenses from felonies to misdemeanors.
Good news!— EmmaDaly (@EmmaDaly) November 4, 2020
Oregon decriminalizes possession of street drugs, becoming first in nation https://t.co/R1FjsipwlU
This @hrw report explains the human cost of criminalizing personal drug use: https://t.co/2rqEjzLwMY pic.twitter.com/3IsYGAEgfb
Human Rights Watch supported the measure and has long advocated for states and the federal government to decriminalize the use and possession for personal use of all drugs and focus instead on harm reduction and health-based approaches to problematic substance use.
Pandemic’s Toll on Young Black Women
By Annerieke Daniel and Amanda Furdge
(Originally published in The Progressive)
Earlier this year, as part of our work with the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative and Human Rights Watch, we spoke to a young woman from rural Bolivar County, Mississippi. She had been planning to attend college this fall, the first in her family.
Then came COVID-19 and she found herself caring for her ailing grandmother and setting up a K-5 classroom in the family’s trailer for her siblings. She had to quit her job for college money at Dollar General.
“I thought I had it all figured out for the first time in my life and then all of this stuff started happening,” the 17-year-old recently told us. “I just want to be happy … to go to school and go back to my job.”
The pandemic has exposed systemic inequalities and structural racism. It has taken a disproportionate toll on Black people, especially in the rural South, where limited access to medical care and high poverty rates lead to some of the country’s worst health outcomes.
Being out of school for months on end, young people — especially in areas without reliable internet or phone services — are cut off from friends, teachers, and school communities. Many struggle with isolation and loneliness. They missed out on milestones, such as class trips and graduations; they fear for their health as they return to classrooms.
Many, like the young woman we spoke with, have taken on caregiver responsibilities. They struggle as jobs and working hours are cut and small businesses close.
In June, we joined almost 100 young Black women and girls from Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi at the virtual gathering for the 15th annual Unita Blackwell Young Women’s Leadership Institute, a program of the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative. The young women described the pandemic’s effect on their health and lives.
The pandemic is creating new hardships for already overburdened healthcare systems. In the rural South, hospitals in communities that already have restricted services are closing or reducing care at alarming rates.
After Historic Turnout, Counts to Show Will of the People
The United States electoral process needs time to tabulate the vote in the November 3, 2020 general election, Human Rights Watch said today. News organizations and social media companies should be vigilant in preventing their platforms from being used to disseminate misinformation and disinformation about the electoral process, while respecting freedom of expression.
Remember: U.S. election officials need more time to count the record-breaking number of ballots, which means no outcome in the presidential race on Election Day. That's totally expected. Officials are taking the time to #CountEveryVote and get it right.— Gerry C. Johnson (@gerrychronicles) November 4, 2020
“Millions of US voters turned out to cast their ballots in recent weeks and during a day of largely trouble-free voting,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “Politicians don’t decide who wins. Election officials are carrying out an impartial and transparent counting process so that the will of the people decides.”
The huge increase in mail-in ballots because of the Covid-19 pandemic has added to normal delays in the vote tally, with results in several states too early to call. Early in the morning of November 4 President Donald Trump falsely claimed that he had won the election and raised unsubstantiated and reckless allegations of fraud.
Autocrats may be happy to undermine democracy in the United States by embracing a premature declaration of victory. But leaders who care about democracy should pay attention to what the voters want, as determined under election rules, rather than what the candidates say. pic.twitter.com/h6zzYsPoFG— Kenneth Roth (@KenRoth) November 4, 2020
Social media platforms should take down, label, or limit the spread of election-related disinformation and misinformation in accordance with their content policies while respecting freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said. News organizations should be critical in their reporting on election-related disinformation and misinformation and provide necessary context.
1/Social media platforms should enforce their policies to limit the spread of election-related disinfo & misinfo (like unsubstantiated claims of fraud & premature claims of victory) while respecting freedom of expression @hrw https://t.co/sdVt0V9mr9 That’s not always happening 🧵— Deborah Brown (@deblebrown) November 4, 2020
Demonstrations occurred overnight and more are expected in the coming days from all sides of the political spectrum. In recent letters to state and local officials, Human Rights Watch and other organizations urged them to ensure that law enforcement – including local police and sheriffs, National Guard and other military units, and federal agents – permit demonstrators to peacefully assemble in accordance with international standards.
Governments and international organizations should be cautious in making any pronouncements about the outcome of the election until a clear winner is determined, Human Rights Watch said. Foreign leaders and international human rights bodies should reaffirm that the institutional process of determining the winner of the US presidential election is ongoing and monitor the human rights situation in the country with a view to speaking out if necessary in support of the rights to vote, freedom of expression, and to peaceful assembly.
“Giving local election officials the time to ensure a rights-respecting ballot count is essential to democratic accountability and respect for human rights in the United States,” Roth said. “Law enforcement needs to respect and protect peaceful demonstrations. And traditional and social media have a responsibility to counter voting disinformation and incitement on their platforms.”
Suspicious Robocalls Spread Disinformation about Voting
Across the country, millions of voters reportedly have received automated, spam calls or texts in recent days apparently aimed at confusing voters and seeking to sabotage their right to vote. The FBI is investigating robocalls, which have been reported in states including Michigan, Florida, Iowa, New York and Kansas, and contain messages such as, “Stay safe and stay home” or maliciously advise voters to cast ballots Wednesday, a day after polls close.
Getting reports of multiple robocalls going to Flint residents that, due to long lines, they should vote tomorrow.— Dana Nessel (@dananessel) November 3, 2020
Obviously this is FALSE and an effort to suppress the vote. No long lines and today is the last day to vote. Don’t believe the lies! Have your voice heard! RT PLS.
The authorities have the tools to keep voters safe while they exercise their rights. Voter intimidation and suppression is illegal under international law as well as US federal and state law. States have strict rules to safeguard the right to vote. And polls are open until publicly announced closure times on Tuesday.
US authorities at all levels should denounce voter disinformation, thoroughly and impartially investigate it, and hold those responsible to account. Voters with any questions or concerns may contact non-partisan hotlines such as 866-OUR-VOTE. No matter what you look like, where you live, or what you believe, you have the right for your voice to be heard and your vote to be counted.
With as Many as 100 Million Early Ballots Cast, Election Day Is Underway in the US
Election Day voting began this morning in the United States, following an early voting period that brought a stunning number of people to the ballot box. CNN reports that more than 100 million people had cast their ballots in this election prior to polls opening today, and the New York Times reports nearly that many.
#ElectionDay in the U.S. is unfolding like no other, with nearly 100 million having cast their ballots before polls opened. Amid a pandemic that has killed more than 230,000 Americans, voters took advantage of absentee and early in-person voting. https://t.co/iYIjdcgRCF— The Associated Press (@AP) November 3, 2020
The surge in early voting shattered records across the US. Before Election Day began, Texas and Hawaii became two of the states in which ballots cast during the early voting period surpassed their 2016 total voter turnouts. Early votes cast in Montana, North Carolina, Georgia, New Mexico, and Nevada added up to more than 90 percent of the total ballots cast in those states in 2016. A record-breaking 2.2 million people voted early in New York, and Black voters alone—a group that has faced a long history of obstacles to the ballot box—made up 1 million of the early voters in Georgia.
US voters are turning out in record numbers in the midst of a pandemic, standing in long-lines, etc. and showing a deep commitment to exercising their fundamental human right to vote. I am volunteering with national Election Protection and see their determination! #CountEveryVote pic.twitter.com/B5JGZ2LjB1— Nicole Austin-Hillery (@NicoleAustinHil) November 3, 2020
Due to the record-breaking numbers of voters, changes made to voting procedures amid Covid-19, and rules barring some jurisdictions from counting or preparing mail-in or other ballots for counting ahead of Election Day, it’s possible that the time needed to count the deluge of ballots will mean that an outcome won’t be available on Election Day. Such a delay would be expected and perfectly normal. Across the US today and perhaps over several days, election officials will need to take the time to count every vote and get it right.
Whoever wins the November 3 presidential election has an opportunity—and a responsibility—to help the United States move forward by making human rights a priority. Read more about the domestic issues that demand the next administration’s immediate attention.