Security Forces Deployed Acoustic Cannon Against US Civilians

Sep 27, 2009


The G20 Summit is over, the protests of last Thursday and Friday have largely died down, as has the media coverage. The City of Pittsburgh reports 83 protesters arrested and nearly $50,000 of property damage within the city, mostly caused by a small number of protesters while the rest marched peacefully in a carnival atmosphere: environmental, anti-militarist and labor activists carrying the banner for social justice non-violently, as permitted by the US Constitution.

I’ve already criticized the protest tactics carried out by a minority of those protesting. Now a word about crowd control tactics deployed by police and National Guard units in the city. An interesting development is that riot police didn’t stop with conventional methods of crowd control such as arrests, intimidation with batons and tear gas, but also utilized a Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) to disperse protesters during the conference.

The LRAD is among the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate’s menu of options for crowd control in stability and support operations or for use on the battlefield. It has been used a number of times to repel pirates from cruise ships. The device emits a high-pitched whine painful to human hearing. Allison Kilkenny has a decent description of what it meant for locals in Pittsburgh, plus video, here. This was the first use of this weapon within the US to prevent civilians from assembling in protest.

An American Technology Corp official touting his company’s new technology in the Daily Finance describes it like this:

“LRAD creates increased stand off and safety zones, supports resolution of uncertain situations, and potentially prevents the use of deadly force… We believe this is highly preferable to the real instances that happen almost every day around the world where officials use guns and other lethal and non-lethal weapons to disperse protesters.”

Note what is happening here: the claim by ATC that dispersing peaceful protesters is a legitimate activity, something every civilized government needs to be able to do, and it’s just a matter of what means will do the job at the least human cost. As I’ve written already, I have no respect for the tactics of those protesters who aimed to incite police violence through attacks on persons and property. Law enforcement has every right and responsibility to protect private property and the safety of delegates to a conference. But I also have no respect for a security sector that makes it its mission to break up peaceful protest, in violation of both human rights law and first amendment rights under the US Constitution; for companies who profit from it.

And the transfer of a weapon designed for military contexts abroad to US crowd control situations is worrying in other respects. For one thing, the effects of the weapon are not entirely benign: the LRAD can cause permanent hearing damage. But they can also be easily countered through the use of earplugs. It’s likely that most adversely affected by the use of such weapons in domestic contexts will be those in the vicinity, including children, who are not part of the formal protest or are unprepared for such assaults. Seasoned protesters will simply don earplugs along with bandanas in the future. For another thing, is this a harbinger of more “non-lethal” weapons to come in US crowd control operations? The Active Denial System, touted by the Pentagon as “A Revolutionary Non-Lethal Weapon for Today’s Battlefield” causes human beings to feel as if they are on fire. It won’t kill you – as long as you make haste out of its path. And you will, unless you’re a small child or elder being trampled by a panicked crowd. Even if the First Amendment didn’t apply (and it does) these things scare the *#@! out of me even in battlefield situations and have no business whatsoever being deployed on civilians.

John Robb writes at Global Guerillas about the securitization of protest and militarization of civilian police forces as a global phenomena: good stuff in the comments.

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Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.