What to Know About Military-Grade Weapons at Protests

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Over roughly the past week, protests have broken out nationwide. These protests began as local calls for justice in the Minneapolis Police Department’s on-camera killing of George Floyd, and over time, they morphed into national actions demanding that the police be held accountable for their alleged overuse of force. Police teams in cities including Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Boston, and New York have responded to protesters – who were entirely peaceful in many cases – with military-grade weapons. Here’s everything you should know about military-grade weapons at protests.

Tear gas

Tear gas is not a gas, but a crystalline powder stored in explosive canisters. It became widely used among U.S. soldiers overseas during the Vietnam War. Many people have argued that the militarization of the police force over the last several decades has directly led to the use of international war weapons such as tear gas on U.S. citizens protesting domestically. The right to protest is guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment and Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Since tear gas is a crystalline powder, it can be dispersed widely through the gaseous explosions of the cylinders containing it. Airborne tear gas powder attaches to moisture, which draws it to the skin, eyes, hair, mouth, and respiratory system. In turn, people who have been tear-gassed will feel pain, struggle to see, and experience difficulty breathing. For a list of helpful, but not entirely preventative, measures against tear gas, click here.

Rubber bullets

Rubber bullets were first introduced in the U.K. in 1970 as a way to quell uprisings. They have been used almost as widely as tear gas during the ongoing protests. Both rubber bullets and tear gas are considered non-lethal weapons, but rubber bullets can nevertheless lead to organ damage, bone fractures, and even blindness. One study found that 71 percent of people who survived being shot with rubber bullets sustained severe injuries.

Medical professionals have expressed concerns that labeling rubber bullets as non-lethal is deceiving. In a medical study from 2017, the authors noted that rubber bullets are widely misused, deeply inaccurate, and associated with death, disability, and other severe injuries. So far during the ongoing protests, rubber bullets have blinded at least one person, a prominent journalist who was peacefully reporting on a nearby protest.

Mace and pepper spray

Videos have circulated on social media depicting police using pepper spray and mace on peaceful protestors with no protective gear on their eyes. Although pepper spray and mace have become commercially available to ordinary consumers to protect themselves from potentially dangerous strangers, their roots too lie in military use, as seen in the ongoing protests.

In the 1960s, inventor Alan Litman devised a small spray device containing chloroacetophenone, a military-grade chemical, after his wife was mugged. When Litman filed a patent application for his invention, a leading gun, weapon, and ammunition manufacturer bought the technology and patent from him. By 1967, mace had become a staple of police reactions to protests throughout the U.S., as it remains today. Like tear gas, it can cause burning sensations in the eyes and around the face and does not usually require hospitalization, but the pain it causes is certainly extreme.

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