Police grapple with ‘non-lethal’ weapons as protests heat up

By Jessica Klein

Protests abound as groups took to the streets in Hong Kong, Puerto Rico, Oregon, and Hawaii to denounce politicians, white supremacists, and the desecration of a sacred mountaintop (respectively). These disparate protests all had something in common—police used “non-lethal weapons” to control crowds.

This past week in Hong Kong, the Legislative Council condemned police for using “excessive force” on protesters. Officers deployed tear gas and fired rubber bullets and beanbags into crowds of people protesting Chinese political influence in the region. “Largely peaceful” protestors in Puerto Rico succumbed to tear gas and rubber bullets in front of the governor’s mansion Monday, where they stood outside demanding his resignation after a slew of troubling leaked texts.

These incidents follow protests in Georgia last month, where 240 people were injured (80 of them cops) during a demonstration against a Russian MP speaking at the capital. Two protestors lost an eye due to police using rubber bullets—and it’s happened before. A teenager in Venezuela lost both eyes when police shot rubber bullets at him as he protested gas shortages on July 2.

Non-lethal weapons can be lethal. An opinion piece from the South China Morning Post insists that rubber bullets and beanbags “are perfectly capable of causing the penetrating and blunt ballistic injury patterns characteristic of their full-metal jacketed counterparts, and death.” By and large those weapons are manufactured in North America, which has racked up the highest revenue in the world for non-lethal weapons sales.

Tamer protests took place in Hawaii at the top of Mauna Kea this week, a mountain considered sacred by Native Hawaiians where locals oppose the erection of a telescope at its summit. Smaller and less politically charged, the protests may have avoided violence for another reason. The state’s governor “deployed unarmed National Guard troops” to the mountain, and local law enforcement “recently received crowd management and de-escalation training.”

Physical concerns aren’t the only ones endangering protesters. Both public and encrypted messaging apps have been used by and against protesters in Hong Kong, and a New York Times reporter covering the protests says he’s noticed participants growing increasingly wary of social media—though he’s received a couple of anonymous AirDrops during demonstrations. The fear is real in the U.S., too. Civil liberties groups caution that facial recognition could be “easily misused to disproportionately pursue…protesters.”

This is worth considering now that video has become an integral part of protest culture. Take Andy Ngo, the Portland, Oregon-based “conservative media personality” who videos antifa (anti-fascist) protesters and was recently attacked in the process. After these violent conflicts between antifa protesters and white supremacists, Portland’s assistant police chief issued an understatement, calling demonstration management “complex.”

But police in Washington, D.C. insisted they were better prepared than their Portland counterparts for the Rally for Free Speech, which occurred there shortly after. Indeed, there was less physical violence in D.C. than Portland when hate group Proud Boys took to the streets. Police, after all, had cordoned off the area, blocking the rally with cop cars, trucks, and fencing.


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