Tens of thousands of people have demonstrated against police brutality in dozens of cities across the United States over the past few days, sparked by the killing of George Floyd, a black man who died in law enforcement custody in Minneapolis on May 25. While many of the ongoing protests have been peaceful, videos shared on social media and in news reports have shown police using “crowd-control” weapons like pepper spray, tear gas, and rubber bullets. The footage captures officers deploying the tools against demonstrators, journalists, bystanders, and at least one child, often unprovoked and without any prior warning. While similar weapons have been used by police around the world for decades, research shows that these “nonlethal” tools are not safe—and can be deadly.
“Calling tear gas and rubber bullets nonlethal weapons is flat-out wrong,” says Rohini J. Haar, an emergency medicine physician at the Kaiser Medical Center in Oakland and a lecturer at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health who has studied the use of crowd-control arms. “Like all weapons, their lethality depends on how they are used or misused. When you see that their use is so widespread, so prevalent, you will inevitably get fatalities and serious injuries.”
Over the last several days, numerous people have reported being injured by police using crowd-control weapons. In Seattle, police reportedly sprayed a child in the face with mace. In New York, a cop removed a young man’s protective face mask and pepper-sprayed him as he held his arms in the air. Police in cities including Los Angeles, San Antonio, and Dallas have used tear gas against protesters. And on Monday night, during peaceful protests outside the White House in Washington, demonstrators were also sprayed with tear gas to clear the area for President Donald Trump to take pictures in front of a church.
In many instances, law enforcement targeted members of the media. Freelance photographer Linda Tirado was shot in Minneapolis by what she believes was a rubber bullet, permanently blinding her in one eye. In Louisville, Kentucky, local reporter Kaitlin Rust shouted, “I’m getting shot! I’m getting shot!” on live television while a police officer targeted her and photojournalist James Dobson with what appeared to be rubber bullets or pepper balls, projectiles containing skin and eye irritants. Adolfo Guzman-Lopez, a reporter for the California radio station KPCC, was shot in the neck by a rubber bullet during protests in Long Beach, California, causing bruising and bleeding. Photojournalist Andre Mercharles described to New York magazine what it was like to be shot by rubber bullets during protests in Minneapolis, calling it “100 times worse” than being hit by a baseball.
Haar says it’s likely that police departments have used a variety of weapons during the recent protests, though they’re frequently conflated. The term “rubber bullet” is often used to refer to a class of arms researchers call kinetic impact projectiles (KIPs), many of which are not actually made of rubber. “Most of the weapons that are used these days are mixtures of metal and foam—hard, dangerous foam—or shards of metal inside rubber,” Haar says. KIPs can include plastic bullets, bean bag rounds, sponge rounds, pellet rounds, and more.
KIPs are significantly harder to aim from a distance than metal bullets. There’s little available scholarship on the effects of rubber bullets, but researchers as far back as the 1970s warned of their inaccuracy. “Unlike a traditional bullet, KIPs tend to be oddly shaped or large, which causes tumbling rather than direct forward movement,” according to a 2016 report on the health consequences of crowd-control weapons coauthored by Haar and published by Physicians for Human Rights and the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations. “Put simply, while losing speed (to lessen the risk of penetrating injury) KIPs often also lose accuracy.” At close range, the same research found, KIPs “are likely to be lethal.”
A separate study published in 2002 looked at outcomes for 151 people struck by rubber bullets used by Israeli police forces during protests in 2000. Israeli researchers who conducted the work similarly found that the “inaccuracy of rubber bullets and improper aiming” resulted in “severe injury and death in a substantial number of people.” Three people died as a result of their injuries, while a number of others suffered serious complications such as blindness. The researchers concluded that “this ammunition should therefore not be considered a safe method of crowd control.”
Tear gas is dangerous as well, an indiscriminate weapon that impacts everyone nearby, including children, the elderly, and those with chronic conditions. It’s also not technically a gas; instead, metal canisters release powders that disperse through the air as a mist. There are several varieties, but all target one of two pain receptors, irritating sensitive tissues in the eyes, nose, mouth, and lungs. The chemicals cause victims to become disoriented, and are often used to clear out crowds.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that “riot agents” like tear gas can cause blurred vision, difficulty swallowing, skin burns, nausea, vomiting, and more. Prolonged exposure can lead to more serious symptoms, including blindness and respiratory failure, possibly resulting in death. A video from Monday in Philadelphia shows cops deploying tear gas on demonstrators trapped on the side of a road, screaming and apparently unable to safely flee.
During the coronavirus pandemic, the use of tear gas may be particularly disastrous. When victims are hit with the weapon, it causes fits of coughing and sneezing—a potentially potent recipe for spreading the virus, though there’s no data yet connecting the protests to spikes in cases of Covid-19.
In addition to risk from tear gas itself, there are the metal, aerosolized canisters it comes in. Balin Brake, a 21 year-old protester in Indiana, lost an eye during a protest over the weekend, where he says he was struck in the head by a tear gas canister. The disorientation and panic that comes with tear gas can also cause stampedes, as happened in a Venezuelan night club in 2018, where 17 people died.
Like other chemical weapons, tear gas was banned in almost every country for use in warfare under the Chemical Weapons Convention treaty ratified in 1997, but it’s still commonly used in many places to control crowds, and not only at protests. In 2018, civil rights groups condemned US Border Patrol agents for using tear gas on a group of unarmed migrants, including children.
Haar says scrutinizing the weapons that police are using to control protesters shouldn’t distract from why the demonstrations are happening in the first place. Excessive use of crowd-control weapons is ultimately a symptom of the very issue that has driven thousands into the streets: unaccountable police violence, especially toward black people. “The protesters are protesting police violence, and that’s really the focus here,” says Haar. “I hope that the attention stays on that.”
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