On May 28, President Donald Trump invoked former Miami police chief Walter Headley, famous racist and police violence advocate, when he tweeted, “Any difficulty and we will assume control but when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” The turn of phrase has always been a convenient lie for those seeking power through force. In reality, the shooting starts first, and the chaos follows.
News footage has evaded the human bodies harmed during peaceful protests, more interested in damage done to Target superstores. But the injuries to protesters—and rarely those protesters who smash and grab in the wake of the pandemonium created by rubber bullets and tear gas—are often severe. The last week has been full of violent police efforts for control across the country—from cops ramming squad cars into unarmed crowds in New York City and Boston to police firing rubber bullets and tear gas into peaceful crowds in Washington D.C so that Donald Trump could get a photo op wielding a Bible in front of a church. And as the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade have mobilized nearly a week of marches and protests, they have also proven the damage that a “non-lethal” rubber bullet can do.
On Saturday, hundreds of people gathered at Pan Pacific Park in Los Angeles’s tony Fairfax area before walking as a group down West 3rd, a usually quiet street lined with sidewalk cafes. The protesters chanted “Whose streets? Our streets” and “Black lives matter,” and cars stopped in the middle of the street honked in solidarity with the protesters streaming past. Outside the Original Farmer’s Market, which houses more shops and a large, touristy restaurant on West 3rd and Fairfax, the crowd bottlenecked, still chanting as onlookers ate overpriced sandwiches on the cafe’s patio, a vestige of newly relaxed covid-19 restrictions.
Two blocks west of the chanting crowd, out of sight of the brunch-eating looky-loos, police in full riot gear had formed ranks at several different points along the street, armed with rifles and neon green “rubber bullets” strapped to their chests, trapping protesters between their lines.
“What do we do?” a young black woman standing next to me on the sidewalk at 3rd Street and Edinburgh asked one of the officers.
“Just stay back,” he shouted, seconds before another officer came and spoke into his ear. Minutes later, the officers sent a round of rubber bullets into the crowd, which spilled screaming into the entryways of buildings and residential yards lining side streets. In the vestibule where I hid, a young black man standing beside me said he’d been hit in the leg but he was fine. Across the street, another black man wasn’t so lucky. He laid stretched on a lawn as people knelt over him. I’ll never know what happened to him because as the crowd pulsed into the street again, chanting “Hands Up. Don’t shoot,” the LAPD fired a second round of rubber bullets. Everyone in my sightline scattered.
The arguments for these attacks are always about control. In the eyes of authorities, crowds, just by virtue of being a large mass of human bodies, require wrangling, even if, like Saturday in Los Angeles, those bodies are not doing anything wrong. Donald Trump didn’t say only those crowds that present dangers will be redirected; he said “any difficulty” requires control. And the “non-lethal” resources officers use to control crowds are actually pretty fucking lethal, especially when used at the complete discretion of the deadly police force the crowds are protesting.
In December 2017, a team of U.S. researchers compiled data from 26 studies on the damage caused by the “non-lethal” rubber-coated metal bullets that are often used for crowd control and found that they often cause permanent disabilities and even death, according to The Guardian:
“In total, the studies encompass 1,984 people who had been hurt by projectiles, including rubber or plastic bullets, polyurethane bullets with a hollow nose known as AEPs, as well as bullets made of both metal and rubber, cloth or plastic. In total, 15% of those injured were left permanently disabled, most commonly through loss of sight, while 51 individuals (3%) died. The majority of injuries in those that survived were classified as severe.”
Because non-lethal forms of crowd control are oftentimes permanently damaging and sometimes deadly, the United Nations has issued guidelines around their use, calling for both necessity and proportionality. The U.S., however, uses no such guidelines, instead operating under the “principle of reasonableness and the doctrine of qualified immunity,” per the Washington Post.
Those principles of reasonableness often go far beyond the idea of perceived threat. On May 30, photojournalist Linda Tirado said she was rendered permanently blind in one eye after police shot her with a rubber bullet while she documented a protest in Minneapolis, Minnesota. A reporter and her crew in Louisville, Kentucky say that police targeted them as adversaries. These are just two accounts of journalists appearing to be targeted, which include the arrest of a CNN reporter on-air. Controlling the press with rubber bullets and the threat of arrest has, in recent days, become a routine part of crowd control at protests around the country, suggesting that documenting police violence is now perceived as a threat by law enforcement.
On Monday, President Trump doubled down on his narrative of control, demanding deployment of the National Guard in cities home to protests, threatening to deploy the U.S. military against the country’s own citizens if crowds are not made to disperse. And while Trump does not have the authority to declare war on American citizens, his rhetoric of control at all costs is one that is shared by men in power across the country. On Monday night, after a long weekend of protests, along with vandalism and robberies, LAPD police chief Michel Moore said that the death of George Floyd was “on [protesters’] hands, as much as it is on those officers.”
But of the 700 arrests officers made at protests, just 70 were for looting or vandalism, meaning that many were likely punished for shouting “Say their names,” peacefully and unarmed. Moore’s statement implies that failure to surrender bodily control to police officers is tantamount to giving police reason to deadly force as punishment for perceived non-compliance.
Until police procedure focuses on protecting life above all else, the shooting will prevail, sending more bodies into the street, demanding that the violence end. In his apology for saying those protesting the death of George Floyd were somehow complicit in his death, Chief Moore added, “We are efforting to support and make sure people’s voices are heard… that you can’t hear because of the violence.” But I was on 3rd and Edinburgh Saturday afternoon, and the only violence I heard was the sound of rubber bullets ripping into a crowd of people with their hands up.
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