UEA experts offer context on the unrest in America

Published by  News Archive

On 1st Jun 2020

cracked USA flag

The protests over the past week across cities in the United States and other countries have brought into focus historical injustices and inequality suffered by people in the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities, and demanded systematic change.

University of East Anglia experts across a range of related areas – from lived experience of racism to human rights laws and the history of the Civil Rights movement – have offered context and analysis on this developing situation.

Dr Claire Hynes is a lecturer in literature and creative writing in UEA’s School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing. Her research interests include the black British experience and questions of identity and belonging. 

Dr Hynes said: “I heard the words “I can’t breathe” uttered by a young black man at Notting Hill carnival last year. He was being carried violently towards a van by five police officers, one of whom was holding him by squeezing his throat.

“I have witnessed many incidents of police brutality towards black people over the years in this country. The racial problems we see in America are very much alive here. Black communities in the UK are protesting up and down the country because we understand and experience police brutality and systemic violence.”

Dr Michael Hamilton is a senior lecturer in public protest law in UEA’s School of Law, where his research focuses on the legal protection and regulation of freedom of assembly. 

Dr Hamilton said: “From the perspective of international human rights law, the fundamental obligation of the police is to protect and facilitate peaceful protest – even when protests are directed against the police.

“A demonstration should not be dispersed simply because of isolated or sporadic acts of violence – instead, the police must distinguish those who remain peaceful in their behaviour and continue to afford them protection.

“Moreover, any use of force and deployment of public order weaponry must strictly be a measure of last resort and must always be guided by the cardinal principles of legality, necessity, proportionality, precaution and accountability. Such interventions must also be non-discriminatory.

“Even those who engage in violence or property damage do not by their actions relinquish other rights – including the right to life and freedom from inhuman or degrading treatment.

“New guidance on the use of weapons and equipment in law enforcement operations has just been published by the International Committee of the Red Cross. This emphasizes again the importance of these principles for the protection of the right to life and also highlights the grave risks associated with the use of so-called ‘less-lethal weapons’ if their use is not carefully controlled.

“The shocking attacks on journalists reflect a further problem where the police (in the US and elsewhere) essentially treat those reporting on or monitoring protests (and any police response) as protest participants. This failure to distinguish between protest participants and non-participant journalists, monitors and observers – even when they are clearly displaying press credentials – fails to recognize the fundamental role of the media in any democratic society, and as protected in the US under the First Amendment.

“The UN Human Rights Committee is currently drafting guidance on the right of peaceful assembly. This draft guidance states: The role of journalists, human rights defenders and others involved in monitoring, including documenting or reporting on assemblies, is of special importance, and they are entitled to protection under … the [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights]. They may not be prohibited from exercising these functions, also in respect of the actions of law enforcement officials. The equipment they use must not be confiscated or damaged. Even if the assembly is declared unlawful or is dispersed, that does not terminate the right to monitor it. No one should be harassed or penalised as a result of their attendance at demonstrations. It is a good practice for independent national human rights institutions and non-governmental organizations to monitor assemblies.’”

Dr Malcolm Mclaughlin is an associate professor in American studies and history, and head of UEA’s School of Art, Media and American Studies. His research focuses on race, class and the culture of 20th Century America. 

Dr Mclaughlin said: “The protesters have been very clear about their cause. This is a matter of police brutality, too-long suffered, too-long left to fester. The number of black people dying at the hands of police officers is a long-standing problem of social injustice. It is now rapidly growing into a national crisis of legitimacy for the rule of law. 

“Police brutality is a problem that has hounded the United States for generations, even as it has come and gone as an issue of political contention. The danger is that the current crisis of police brutality is eroding the legitimacy of the law—people would not be out in the streets protesting and putting themselves in harm’s way if they did not feel an earnest sense of outrage at the situation. 

“But what is really remarkable is the vacuum of national leadership. Throughout the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, President Trump has been ineffective—or has actually tended to confound the work of public health officials and state governors. But worse than that, he has a habit of picking sides rather than bringing the nation together. We saw this in his response to the anti-lockdown protests. We discerned it in his deliberately ambiguous comments after Charlottesville (“very fine people on both sides”). Now, he seems to be more outspokenly using the current protests to rally his far-right supporters.

“He has encouraged a culture of impunity that will make resolving the situation harder. Right now, America needs a thoroughly professional police response, but there have been some ragged edges on show. A more aggressive response will not bring the crisis to an end. I suspect that if some police officers feel able to harass and intimidate the press, or to use excessive force during this crisis, it is in no small part because the president’s words have insidiously undermined confidence in institutional oversight.

“The United States needs national leadership right now, but it has a highly divisive president either unwilling or unable to bring the country together.

“At least Joe Biden’s intervention the other day was a reminder of what presidential leadership can be. It would be good to see him go further and cash in on his credentials as a law-and-order liberal by supporting some national action on policing and criminal justice.”

Dr Marina Prentoulis is an associate professor in politics and media, in the School of Politics, Philosophy, Language and Communication Studies. Her research interests include political communications and contemporary social movements.

Dr Prentoulis said: “There is a big difference between the systemic violence of the state and the ‘violence’ of those taking the streets to protest against authoritarianism, racism and fascism. Not only because in the second case the charges usually refer to minor incidents against property (like looting) but also because in the current situation, the American people have been forced to use violence as the only way of opening up a space for politics. Trump has ridiculed politics and democracy. The people resisting in the US streets are doing exactly the opposite.”

Dr Nicholas Grant is a senior lecturer in American studies, in UEA’s School of Art, Media and American Studies. He researches white supremacy and racism globally, as well as how activism/protest travels.

Dr Grant said: “It's important that the media does not simply use the current situation to reinforce exceptionalist myths about American racism – i.e. that the U.S. is the only place facing these protests. Instead, we need to think about how these protests are connected to a range of demands for racial justice around the world.

“In the UK, as solidarity protests have emerged in London, Manchester and Cardiff, it is vital that we better understand why activists have chosen to connect their struggles internationally.”

Dr Emma Long is a senior lecturer in American Studies in UEA’s School of Art, Media and American Studies. Her research interests focus on the history of the US Constitution and the Supreme Court and she has taught African American history of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Dr Long said: “The Warren Court, considered the most protective of minority rights, in many ways laid the foundation stone of the kinds of discriminatory and overbearing policing that have resulted in the deaths of so many young black men in recent years.

“Chief Justice Earl Warren served as chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, 1953-69, and the Warren Court is often held up for protecting and expanding the civil rights of African Americans. But often overlooked in the rush to praise its legacy is the one crucial way the Court reinforced the constitutionality of one of the key practices for overbearing policing: stop and search. 

“In Terry v. Ohio in 1968, the Court held that the warrantless search of an individual by the police based on a police officer's ‘reasonable suspicion’ of criminal activity did not violate the constitutional rights of the suspect. This despite the fact the case arrived at the Court against the background of overwhelming evidence that white-dominated police forces were using such practices to target minority communities. 

“Somewhat unusually for the Warren Court, it largely failed to explore the wider social and community implications of legtimising stop-and-search techniques.”

Prof Lee Marsden is a professor of faith and global politics, and head of UEA’s School of Politics, Philosophy, Language and Communication Studies. His research explores religion and international relations, security and politics. 

Prof Marsden said: “The death of George Floyd at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer witnessed across the world has caused consternation among white evangelicals and caused prominent church leaders to revaluate their approach to race and racism in the United States. 

“In the past when videos of black Americans dying at police hands the refrain has been ‘let's wait until all the details come out’ – but no longer. White church leaders including Jonathan Falwell, son of a founder of the Moral Majority and brother of leading Trump supporter Jerry Falwell, have called out racism and acknowledged that racism needs to be rooted out of white evangelical churches, declaring 'racism is a sin and it must stop' in his Sunday sermon. Other white church leaders are reaching out to fellow leaders in the African American community and members are joining protests remembering George Floyd, a fellow believer and community worker.”

Prof Lee Jarvis is professor of international politics at UEA, and is currently working on the Australian Research Council-funded project The Proscription of Terrorist Organisations in Illiberal States.

Prof Jarvis said: “Donald Trump’s threat to ban antifa has obvious immediate problems. First, it assumes that antifa engages in ‘terrorism’. Second, that antifa has the organisational coherence to designate it a terrorist organisation. And, third – most importantly – that the organisation could even meaningfully be banned within the US’ current listing regime given its focus on foreign organisations.

“Because of these problems, we might, therefore, argue that this is an empty or meaningless threat: an attempt, simply, to excite his support base.

“However – some of these problems are not unique to antifa; similar concerns often accompany attempts to ban contemporary organisations considered ‘terrorist’, many of which are more fluid or nebulous than their predecessors.

“More importantly, the threat matters because the act of banning of terrorist groups is an inherently symbolic practice: it is a way of drawing a boundary between self and other – of distinguishing ‘us’ from ‘them’. Even if this cannot be done to antifa in the US regime, the very threat to do so serves to delegitimise the movement and its motives.”

“It does so not only by the crude labelling of antifa ‘terrorist’. But, in addition, by creating an impression of similarity between antifa and those groups that are already designated within the US listing regime. This augments the sense of threat posed by antifa, depoliticises its actions, and marks antifa out as potentially ‘foreign’ given the regime’s focus.

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