How Non-Lethal Weapons Will Kill Public Protest

September 24 2008 / by John Heylin
Category: Culture   Year: General   Rating: 5 Hot

Authority figures sure have gotten a lot smarter in dealing with public protests. In the 60’s and 70’s, public protests were greeted with iconic backlash from police and national guard alike. With the television and camera able to record these protests, they became icons for whatever movement they were fighting for.

There was the Kent State shootings immortalized by the picture of Mary Ann Vecchio screaming over the body of slain protester Jeffrey Miller. Or the famous video of police blasting protesters with fire hoses as well as sicking their dogs on high school students in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963.

It was due to these images that the traditional way of dealing with protesters had to change radically. In his paper titled “From Escalated Force to Disruption Control: The Evolution of Protest Policing,” Alex Vitale, a former consultant to the ACLU and Assistant Professor at Brooklyn College, states the following:

“Prior to the 1970’s police relied on a doctrine of “Escalated Force” in responding to demonstrations. Following numerous reports, civil law suits, and media coverage criticizing the violence that often resulted form this approach, many departments developed a doctrine of “Negotiated Management,” which attempted to minimize violence through improved communication with demonstrators and greater tolerance of disruptive activity.” -Alex Vitale.

Tactics had to change — police could no longer use any force necessary in order to quell a public protest. It’s especially true in this day and age when even videos of earthquakes are posted on the internet within minutes of their occurrence.

A great report by the ACLU (co-authored by Alex Vitale) on the protests during the 2004 Republican National Convention detail how police used mass arrests, detentions, cheap zip-ties, horse charges, intense surveillance and limited access to combat the possible threat from protesters (no one wanted a repeat of the infamous Battle of Seattle of 1999). Tactics have changed, and as a result the voice of the protester is getting fainter and fainter.

Because police have fared better in dealing with public protests as of late, it has unfortunately made it almost impossible for protests to get more than just a small segment of the news. In fact, the news protesters mostly get these days usually involve them doing illegal or disruptive things (“They caused traffic! They made me late to work! They’re useless!”) making them enemies in the populace which they once relied on for support.

The development of non-lethal weapons promises to do even more to undermine the ability of public protest to influence the national consciousness. And while some of these weapons are themselves incredibly scary and sometimes lethal, they do have the added effect of disabling potential threats that would otherwise be newsworthy or damaging.

I’m imagining the scene from Alan Moore’s Watchmen where Doctor Manhattan disperses a crowd in front of the White House by teleporting everyone back to their homes in the blink of an eye. And while that kind of technology might be a ways off, there are plenty of other alternatives just as crazy which have the potential to make protesters being heard near impossible. And with a police force armed to the teeth with non-lethal weapons, chances are they’d be more inclined to use them.

Check out this list of non-lethal weapons currently in use or development.

Image: CS Muncy (Flickr, CC-Attribution)

Comment Thread (10 Responses)

  1. When mobs get violent, I don’t mind the use of fire hoses or something to calm them down. What really worries is me is that the FBI is unconstitutionally preventing peaceful demonstrations from even taking place. We have a right to the freedom of assembly under the First Amendment. Can you imagine if they did this to Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr.?

    Posted by: AdamEdwards   September 25, 2008
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  2. This will get interesting as the economy tanks and more people decide to protest.

    Posted by: Accel Rose   September 25, 2008
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  3. Eventually, demoralized groups unable to effectively protest will be forced to escalate. I’m saying it again, we’ll see another Boston Massacre before 2020.

    Posted by: tk421   September 25, 2008
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  4. @tk421 – It depends on economic conditions in the next decade: 2009-2019. Some of us in the U.S aren’t affected as adversely as some, even though the news would like you to believe that the entire Middle Class is struggling, it just isn’t true.

    I am in a good situation and have plenty of resources to move forward, as I am sure many families do. The problem with “revolutions” is the entire population, or a very large percentage must be on the verge of collapse (what would have happened if the stock market does crash and they don’t “bail” us out). However, it hasn’t and probably will recover in a year or 2.. Not enough to anger 70-90% of the population..

    Posted by: Covus   September 25, 2008
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  5. @Covus You won’t need 70-80% of the population to start a revolution. Look at history. Fidel started out with a few hundred in the mountains. Even our own revolutionary war only had the support of 40% of the population, much less (the rich landowners) actually started the fight. Never underestimate the power of the few.

    Posted by: John Heylin   September 25, 2008
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  6. @John Heylin – I don’t. That’s why I believe in America and Capitalism: E Pluribus Unum: Out of Many One. While you may think the government sucks, you still have more opportunities in America than anywhere else in the world and I am taking advantage of our great system to try to make a lot of $$$.


    Posted by: Covus   September 25, 2008
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  7. Oh I agree. America is probably the best place on Earth for anyone. Two years in sub-Saharan Africa with the Peace Corps taught me that big time.

    I’m not saying America is bad. I’m saying that the art form of public protest is dying. It’s already dead as far as I’m concerned. During the RNC in New York, how much attention was paid the protesters?

    Protesting is going to have to evolve in order to still make an impact. For instance, hanging banners from the Golden Gate Bridge, amassing five thousand coffins, or organizing a massive die-in. It’s those spectacles, like what Improv Anywhere does, that will attract attention and get protesters much needed face time.

    Posted by: John Heylin   September 25, 2008
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  8. tk421, can you provide a sample scenario for such an event?

    Posted by: Accel Rose   September 26, 2008
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  9. Anything from a handful of snipers in a fairly belligerent crowd to intentionally invite slaughter(without most of the participants knowledge) to more… extreme forms of protests.

    (Portions Omitted)

    Make no mistake, exit polls have begun separating themselves from voting tallies and our most hallowed laws (Habeas Corpus and Posse Comitatus) are being infringed and ignored. Fascism has quite possibly arrived unannounced. Thousands of Americans are imprisoned every year, not because of violent or destructive acts, but to serve the bottom lines of privately run prisons, victims of laws enacted to protect the profits of petrochemical companies from agricultural competition.

    While my opinion may seem extreme, any serious examination of our government and our evolving legal structure should strike fear into the hearts of all freedom loving people.

    The ability of the voter to right the serious wrongs and misplaced priorities that have emerged may not have yet passed, but you would be a fool to believe our prohibitionary, corporatist government which peddles in fear bears any similarity to the intentions of the framers.

    Posted by: tk421   September 26, 2008
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  10. I understand my post may be disappointing with regards to the “creativity” I have shown in the past, but I have no intention or interest in drawing attention to myself.

    Posted by: tk421   September 26, 2008
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