In 1963, when civil rights protesters took to the streets of Birmingham, Alabama, commissioner of public safety Bull Connor had firefighters use fire hoses against the crowds, a symbolism etched in the national memory. In the end days of apartheid, South African police were notorious for repelling black protesters with whips, a practice finally abandoned after international outrage.
Now, the New York Police Department has joined the tradition of questionable tools against anti-racism protesters with the use of a Long Range Acoustic Device (or LRAD).
The NYPD acquired LRADs in preparation for the 2004 Republican National Convention, and used them for communications purposes during Occupy Wall Streets, but legal advocates have raised concerns about the December 5 deployment of LRAD blasts against marchers protesting the non-indictment of a police officer who killed Eric Garner, an unarmed Staten Island man, with a chokehold.
"It feels like your eardrums are beating out of your head," photojournalist Shay Horse, who was caught in the LRAD blast at the corner of 58th Street and Madison Avenue in Manhattan in the early morning hours of December 5, told VICE News. "It makes the side of your body that you've been hit on feel numb and that your sinuses are inflamed. I felt like I had blood coming out of my orifices. I heard the ringing for about a week."
'When you're hit with tear gas you can leave and treat yourself. When you're hit with an LRAD it's for the next week.'
The New York City chapter of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) is crying foul at the use of these devices, sending a letter to the NYPD for more information about what kind of training officers get for using LRADs and what regulatory measures govern their usage. According to research by the group, while 85 decibels can cause hearing loss, the devices can hit up to 162 decibels, using a high pitched beeping sound that witnesses claim is unbearable.
"We have complaints of really, really intense pain," NLG New York City chapter president Elena Cohen told VICE News. "According to the manufacturer, it's supposed to be so painful that you cannot stand it so you leave the area. It has caused nausea, pain, dizziness, panic, headache, and lots of complaints of loss of hearing."
She continued, "We want to know did they have training? Do they have a written formal policy? A Freedom of Information Law request was done in 2011 and we got the results in 2012. As of then the NYPD claimed not to have any written documents."
NLG volunteer legal observer Dan Shockley described the scene to VICE News: "I saw people rapidly falling away. I heard the tones and I saw a group of people sprinting from the police. There was definitely yelling, but when the LRAD was active you couldn't hear much. People were certainly yelling in between the beeps."
'The technology, as they describe it, would appear to pose a not inconsiderable risk to lawful protesters.'
He added that there was "no warning about using that particular weapon."
According to Horse, the LRAD was used after a small group of protesters threw liquor bottles at cops after several arrests were made, but added that the LRAD blasts hit more than just that group of agitators.
The NLG is not just worried about how potentially harmful LRADs can be, but the degree to which they are indiscriminate in their use. Witnesses say when an LRAD is used, the sound covers a large area and cannot be directed at one person or a small group of people, causing harm not just to protesters but also to journalists, legal observers, and bystanders.
Heather MacDonald of the conservative Manhattan Institute and a usual advocate of police tactics admitted: "I cannot say that the NLG's complaints are wholly groundless. The technology, as they describe it, would appear to pose a not inconsiderable risk to lawful protesters."
She added, however, that "the NYPD has erred on the side of not offending the Garner protesters" despite what she saw as "shameful attacks on police officers and police property."
Horse, who has photographed protesters in Ferguson, Missouri and Brazil, claimed the use of LRAD blasts were louder than flashbang grenades and had bigger consequences than tear gas.
"When you're hit with tear gas you can leave and treat yourself," he said. "When you're hit with an LRAD it's for the next week. There's nothing you can do against it." Horse added that use of the LRADs would only inflame tensions between cops and protesters.
"It's really going to instigate something that the NYPD doesn't want to deal with," Horse said. "At worst, it is going to make things escalate to a place none of us want to go to."
Shockley said he feared that the use of these devices wouldn't just scare away lawful protesters in the future, but also the press and other onlookers. "The problem I have is that the NYPD is not qualified to perform these kinds of experiments on the citizens of New York."
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