WASHINGTON — The United Nations envoy for freedom of expression is drafting an official communication to the U.S. government demanding to know why federal officials are not protecting the rights of Occupy demonstrators whose protests are being disbanded — sometimes violently — by local authorities.
Frank La Rue, who serves as the U.N. “special rapporteur” for the protection of free expression, told HuffPost in an interview that the crackdowns against Occupy protesters appear to be violating their human and constitutional rights.
La Rue, a longtime Guatemalan human rights activist who has held his U.N. post for three years, said it’s clear to him that the protesters have a right to occupy public spaces “as long as that doesn’t severely affect the rights of others.”
“One of the principles is proportionality,” La Rue said. “The use of police force is legitimate to maintain public order — but there has to be a danger of real harm, a clear and present danger. And second, there has to be a proportionality of the force employed to prevent a real danger.”
And history suggests that harsh tactics against social movements don’t work anyway, he said. In Occupy’s case, he said, “disbanding them by force won’t change that attitude of indignation.”
Occupy encampments across the country have been forcibly removed by police in full riot gear, and some protesters have been badly injured as a result of aggressive police tactics.
New York police staged a night raid on the original Occupy Wall Street encampment in mid-November, evicting sleeping demonstrators and confiscating vast amounts of property.
The Oakland Police Department fired tear gas, smoke grenades and bean-bag rounds at demonstrators there in late October, seriously injuring one Iraq War veteran at the Occupy site.
Protesters at University of California, Davis were pepper sprayed by a campus police officer in November while participating in a sit-in, and in September an officer in New York pepper sprayed protesters who were legally standing on the sidewalk.
“We’re seeing widespread violations of fundamental First Amendment and Fourth Amendment rights,” said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, co-chair of a National Lawyers Guild committee, which has sent hundreds of volunteers to provide legal representation to Occupations across the nation.
“The demonstrations are treated as if they’re presumptively criminal,” she said. “Instead of looking at free speech activity as an honored and cherished right that should be supported and facilitated, the reaction of local authorities and police is very frequently to look at it as a crime scene.”