On 1 June, Oliver Feeley-Sprague, Amnesty International U.K.’s Military, Security and Police Programme Director, warned there is a risk of U.K.-manufactured tear gas or rubber bullets being used against anti-racist protesters in ‘dangerous and highly inappropriate ways’.
After the killing of George Floyd in the U.S., thousands of protesters have taken to the streets across the States and other countries including the U.K., to demonstrate against a range of issues including police brutality against black people.
In his statement, Mr. Feeley-Sprague urged ministers to assess requests for equipment from individual U.S. police forces and to withhold exports from any that have acted irresponsibly towards protesters.
‘The U.K. has a dreadful track record of looking the other way when U.K. arms and security equipment is misused overseas’, he stated. ‘Now is the time to start changing that’.
The use of tear gas as a means to control BLM protesters has sparked particular concern. A New York Times article last week revealed evidence which links exposure to tear gas with an increased risk of respiratory illness. Sven-Eric Jordt, a researcher at Duke University who has studied the effects of tear gas agents, expressed his shock that a number of police forces are using tear gas during this public health crisis.
In light of this evidence, the U.K. should review exports of security equipment to U.S. police forces. With the U.K. health secretary Matt Hancock urging people not to protest during the pandemic, it is shocking to see the U.K. continuing to support police tactics that are increasing the risk of transmission.
The health secretary also received criticism for recently suggesting that the protests were simply a response to events in the U.S. while denying that the U.K. itself is racist. Although a number of ministers in the U.K. have condemned the murder of George Floyd by police officers, not enough is being done to address the issues raised by the BLM protesters in the U.K.
Protesters are calling for a thorough investigation into the recent findings that people of colour are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus, as well as tackling a host of structural inequalities that underpin systemic racism in the U.K. – including the ongoing Windrush scandal and police brutality against black individuals, which is not unique to the U.S.
Benjamin Ward, the U.K. Director of Human Rights Watch, insisted that the U.K.’s fight against structural racism should ‘begin at home’. In his report on 3 June, Mr. Ward stated that although the killing of George Floyd has received wide condemnation in the U.K., ‘showing real solidarity requires reflection on the U.K.’s own record of racism and injustice while charting the steps needed to tackle it’.
For the U.K. government to proclaim that ‘black lives matter’, ministers must ensure that they listen to the criticisms raised by the protesters on the streets of their own country, and to ensure that measures are implemented to address their specific concerns.
The government needs to demonstrate that it is genuinely committed to fighting racism, and it must also put pressure on U.S. police forces to respond to protesters in a safe manner. By supplying the U.S. with the means to violently quell the protests, the U.K. is sending the complete opposite message.
This shows a disregard for the democratic right to peaceful protest, fuelling further tensions between police and demonstrators. It also indicates the U.K. government’s complicity in the irresponsible handling by U.S. law enforcement of one of the largest civil rights movement in recent times.
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