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Police Use “Less Lethal” Weapons to Crush Social Movements Across the World

A new report finds that more than 121,000 people globally were injured or killed by crowd-control weapons since 2015.

Washington State Police use tear gas to disperse a crowd in Seattle, Washington, on May 30, 2020, during a demonstration against the police-perpetrated killing of George Floyd.

This week, the City of Philadelphia agreed to a $9.25 million settlement with protesters who were brutalized with tear gas and pepper spray during demonstrations following the murder of George Floyd in late May 2020.

Such accountability for police who crush protests with crowd-control weapons is rare both in the United States and across the world. The settlement comes as researchers report that police in dozens of countries have routinely injured and even killed demonstrators with crowd-control weapons since 2015 as governments cracked down on protests.

Injuries from crowd-control weapons are increasing and widespread both in authoritarian nations such as Iran and China as well as “democratic” countries that supposedly tolerate dissent and public assemblies, according to a new report from Physicians for Human Rights and the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations (INCLO). The report, “Lethal in Disguise: How Crowd-Control Weapons Impact Health and Human Rights, found that more than 121,000 people globally were injured or killed by so-called less lethal crowd-control weapons such as chemical irritants, “flash bang” grenades and rubber bullets since 2015, although many other injuries likely went unreported.

From the uprisings in Iraq and Chile in 2019, to mass movements against regimes in Iran, Myanmar and Peru, clashes between police forces and social movements challenging government corruption and demanding basic rights are now a worldwide public health concern, according to the report. So far this month, crowd-control weapons were reportedly used against protesters in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, France, Georgia, Greece, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Lebanon, Italy, Kenya, Mozambique, Pakistan, Peru, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and the U.S.

“The repression of demonstrations remains as global as protest itself,” said INCLO Program Coordinator Lucila Santos in a statement. “In addition to the growing violent use of crowd-control weapons, since 2016 we have seen new technologies deployed by governments with next to no accountability or oversight whatsoever.”

In Philadelphia, peaceful protests turned violent on June 1, 2020, as police fired rubber bullets and tear gas canisters at demonstrators who blocked traffic on an expressway, a widespread activist tactic for drawing public attention during the Floyd protests. As part of the settlement, the city will pay $9.25 million to 350 demonstrators and their attorneys, according to reports.

“I think about June 1 daily,” said plaintiff Erin Zegar during a press conference on Monday. “It was chaos and pain like I personally have never experienced. And then after being tear-gassed, pepper sprayed, struck with rubber bullets, it was an incredible slap in the face to watch the city deny accountability over and over and over again.”

The number of reported injuries from “kinetic impact projectiles” shot from firearms, such as rubber bullets and “pepper balls,” is on the rise globally and in the U.S., where such weapons caused a surge in serious injuries during the 2020 uprisings for racial justice. Since 2015, at least 2,190 people worldwide were injured by projectiles fired from “non-lethal” weapons, including 945 who were permanently disabled and at least 12 who died.

“Even as someone who has studied crowd-control weapons and their impacts for the past decade, I continue to be stunned by the total absence of data or transparency from the manufacturers of these weapons, who operate and profit with total impunity,” Rohini Haar, an emergency physician and lead author of the report, said in a statement.

As in Philadelphia, police across the U.S. “indiscriminately deployed” crowd-control weapons such as “foam/sponge bullets, rubber bullets, pepper balls, beanbag rounds, chalk grenades and flashbang grenades against protesters, the vast majority of whom were peacefully assembled,” according to the report. Journalists and bystanders were brutalized and arrested, and at least 950 incidents of police-perpetrated violence were reported, resulting in broken bones, traumatic brain injuries and even blindness. Police firing projectiles partially blinded eight people across the U.S. on May 30, 2020, alone.

At the time, the nation was erupting in angry protest following the police-perpetrated killings of Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black people. Unlike a demonstration in front of a corporate headquarters or a government office, these protests challenged the legitimacy of the same police sent to corral and break them up.

In multiple cities, protesters and police blamed each other for the escalation when tear gas and rubber bullets filled the air. The report warns that police in the U.S and across the world are not properly trained to deescalate and respect the rights of protesters, and the mere presence of crowd-control weapons in the hands of riot cops can cause tensions in the streets to escalate.

The report also points out that crowd-control weapons are often deployed against social movements fighting for the rights of Black, Indigenous or LGBTQ people and other marginalized groups, while far right protests such as the January 6 attack on the Capitol notoriously receive a muted response.

Based on interviews with 22 civil liberties experts, the report concludes that Black Lives Matter protests against police violence were met with a “disproportionately high levels of violence.” Violence against environmental protesters is on the rise globally, including in the U.S., where police wielding traditional firearms recently shot and killed a forest defender in Atlanta known as “Tortuguita” under suspicious circumstances.

The use of tear gas and pepper spray to disperse public assemblies remains widespread in countries across the world. While purportedly meant to disperse crowds without causing serious harm, at least 119,000 people were injured by “chemical irritants” since 2015 globally. The data is drawn from available medical literature, and the actual number of injuries — including disabling, long-term injuries and deaths caused by the impact of tear gas canisters fired off as projectiles — is likely much higher.

While crowd-control weapons are billed as “less lethal,” deaths and debilitating injuries are reported across the globe, particularly when police shoot military-grade tear gas canisters at individual protesters or into crowds.

There are few international standards for determining what makes a crowd-control weapon “less lethal,” and the vast majority of countries do not regulate the industry that produces the weapons or provide public data on how the weapons work, what chemicals they may contain and how they are used against civilians in real life.

“It is past time that governments ban rubber bullets in all crowd-control settings — kinetic impact projectiles can never be used safely in protest environments,” Haar said. “Additionally, governments must bring crowd-control weapons out of the shadows and mandate public reporting on their use and accountability for their misuse.”

The industry is only growing, with “novel” and hybrid weapons such as water cannons containing pepper spray, electronic-shock devices or Tasers (which have resulted in at least 100 deaths in police custody in the U.S. alone), and sound cannons increasingly finding their way into the hands of riot police.

“Despite how often they are used in protests around the world and the thousands of injuries and deaths as a result, there are next to no meaningful regulations or reporting requirements for law enforcement agencies on crowd-control weapons in the vast majority of countries,” Haar said.

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