Defending Human Rights Means Defunding the Police

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The situation in Portland makes it clear: Over-militarization of police is dangerous for human rights

In Portland, Oregon, new reports show federal agents snatching Black Lives Matter protesters off the streets, pulling them into unmarked vehicles, and not identifying themselves or where they’re taking people. The over-militarization of the police and massive overreach of the federal government in the Black Lives Matter protests has boiled over. This continues to be a human rights crisis. 

Trump deployed federal law enforcement to protect property, statues, and monuments, and ultimately crackdown on the protests. Federal law enforcement has since tear-gassed, assaulted, and arrested protesters in cities across the country. Now, as law enforcement has further escalated by forcibly removing people suspected of being protesters, the situation has become even more dire. Oregon Governor Kate Brown said: “[Federal law enforcement] are provoking confrontation for political purposes.” 

The end of July marks two months of sustained protests in the United States, as people continue to take to the streets to demand justice for state-sanctioned violence against Black people. Extreme police violence sparked the protests at the end of May with the murder of George Floyd, and police violence against protestors has continued. 

Like many other human rights and environmental groups, EarthRights stands in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. At EarthRights, we’ve spent 25 years advocating for communities around the world who challenge injustices that favor the wealthy and powerful at the expense of people and the planet. Many of our cases have involved abuses by security forces. We know the importance of shifting power from global elites to communities. 

As we continue to follow the lead of Black leaders in the movement, we join the call to defund the police. We’ve long investigated the link between police overreach and violence against communities. For instance, in our report about extractive companies contracting with state police forces in Peru, we noted that these contracts protect the economic interests of the extractive industry, while encouraging violence against the people of Peru. Many of the companies utilizing these contracts have projects in regions where there have been community-led social movements against the projects. 

Colorado-based Newmont Mining Corporation is one example. Its Peruvian subsidiary, Minera Yancocha, has contracted with a specially-trained anti-riot division of the Peruvian National Police to provide security services for its controversial gold mines, which have generated strong opposition from local communities. In 2011, members of that special unit of police — acting in accordance with a contract with Minera Yanacocha — fired tear gas, rubber bullets, and live ammunition at the protesters. In total, an estimated 24 protestors were injured. We represented one of those protestors, Elmer Campos, who was paralyzed while peacefully protesting after being struck with a bullet in the spine. That action forced Newmont to hand over thousands of documents relating to its use of police and private security against protestors. Mr. Campos is now using that information in legal proceedings in Peru to hold Newmont and the police accountable. 

Despite this, Minera Yanacocha continues to use the police against communities in Peru, including against renowned Goldman Prize Winner Maxima Acuna Atalaya, who Newmont is trying to force from her home in order to build a $5 billion goldmine. EarthRights has filed an action against Newmont to hold it accountable for its abuse against Maxima as well.    

In Colombia, Indigenous communities depend on a network of volunteers for self-protection against paramilitary forces and other dangers. The Indigenous Guard, as they are called, is dedicated to nonviolence, and emerged as a way for communities–who have a long history of experiencing violence by both State and private actors–to assert power and territorial defense. 

Energy Transfer, a natural gas and oil pipeline company, has a well-documented record of hiring off-duty police officers to patrol pipelines, and infiltrate pipeline protests, including ones at Standing Rock in North Dakota and the Bayou Bridge Pipeline in Louisiana. When police are paid to protect property and not the people protesting, this creates blatant conflicts of interest. 

Our client, Krystal Two Bulls, is an Oglala Lakota/Northern Cheyenne woman from Montana who was dragged to court for her involvement in the Standing Rock protests. Companies can sue people for speaking out. When property and profit are valued more than human rights, people and communities suffer. 

We must take a long, hard look at the true beneficiaries of state-sanctioned force–whose interests is this really serving?  Frivolous arrests, protester intimidation, and violence do not serve the people. In fact, police often serve the interests of extractive industries and oppressive institutions at the expense of communities. 

In the U.S. and beyond, when we fund police and carceral systems, we often fund violence. 

Defunding the police is a call to shift power and resources from the state to communities. It is a community-led solution responding to the legacy of white supremacy, racism, and violence that marginalized groups of people have had to endure. What does defunding the police look like? It starts with reallocating funds from the police to social service agencies, like housing and youth services, that address the root causes of crime. 

“We want investments in Black communities, determined by Black communities, and divestment from exploitative forces including prisons, fossil fuels, police, surveillance and exploitative corporations,” states the Movement for Black Lives.

This moment calls for intersectional solidarity between movements. We’ve spent 25 years calling attention to the climate crisis, exploitative industries, and human rights defenders fighting for a more just world. When we work to protect and expand human rights, we stand in solidarity with the calls to defund the police.

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