It’s no secret that America’s star is fading on the world stage these days, under a president whose authoritarian tactics have outraged allies and enemies alike. But a recent audit by an international human-rights monitor reveals that, even before Trump’s buffoonery took over the White House, Washington was failing dramatically to live up to its reputation as a beacon of democracy. UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Assembly Maina Kiai’s dissection of the nation’s systematic betrayal of basic human rights centers on America’s shrinking public square.
Based on a year-long observation of the country’s governance and civic life that stretches from mid-2016 through the start of the Trump administration, Kiai, whose post recently ended with the publication of the report, sees a massive erosion of the right to freedom of assembly. The concept encompasses the right to organize and protest and other essential forms of civic and public activism. Though it is formally inscribed in the Bill of Rights, the precept has come under assault under the Trump administration, Kiai says, stoked by the president’s “hateful and xenophobic rhetoric during the presidential campaign” and blatant flouting of civil liberties in his policies and governing style.
Kiai concludes that over the past year a growing swath of communities of color, workers and immigrants, and other marginalized groups have felt deterred from engaging in social movements, staging protests and other forms of citizen action, or campaigning to defend community and workplace rights.
One overarching obstacle is the ingrained culture of racism, which has persisted since slavery through Jim Crow and the ongoing struggles with institutionalized discrimination. Citing police-community conflict as a primary illustration of structural oppression, Kiai argues, “Racism and the exclusion, persecution and marginalization that come with it affect the environment for exercising association and assembly rights.” His report directly denounces government agencies’ “hostility towards the Black Lives Matter movement,” contending that “The government has an obligation under international law to protect and promote” the group’s peaceful exercise of the right of free assembly. Similarly, the report describes structural corruption driving the use of perverse incentives in the policing of black communities, with “police departments raising revenue through fines and rewarding or sanctioning police officers based on the number of arrests.” These patterns of aggressive policing, Kiai says, disempower neighborhoods by deterring dissent.
The evaluation, focused on field research conducted in 2016 and analyzing issues that have intensified under Trump, documents increasingly anti-democratic enforcement tactics against immigrant communities at risk of civil-rights abuses. Kiai cites reports of immigration agents “conducting surveillance at assemblies focused on migrant issues,” which he argues “chills the exercise of assembly rights.” As noncitizens who cannot vote and lack other legal rights, he adds, protesting is “one of the only tools they have to voice their concerns. The government should encourage the exercise of this right by everyone, especially marginalized groups.”