by Hugh Gilmore

Watching the protests last week, I became curious about how the police were trying to control the crowds with, among other things, “rubber bullets” and “beanbags,” both shot from guns. There were elements of those terms that seemed self-contradictory. “Rubber Bullets” seemed playful, like a title from a Beatles album, and “beanbags” sounded like a game where soft cloth bags get tossed in target holes during a backyard party. But what are they, really? What are they made of, and how are they used? How do they work? Are they shot to people or at people? And if the latter, what effect do they have on the targets? I decided to learn more.

First, the rationale: Crowd control tools can be classified as lethal or non-lethal. In recent years the trend has been toward the latter. Simply put: the law may not legally kill people for engaging in public statements of their grievances. What they can do, if they don’t like where or how a crowd is behaving, is use non-lethal force on them. But what does that mean, “non-lethal”? Speaking plainly, it means they may inflict pain on the bodies of the protestors. Dispensed optimally, this pain should discourage and intimidate them to give up their grievance. Bruising and bleeding should be minimal. Lasting bodily damage is not intended, but it happens often. The tools are hard to control and people’s body compositions vary.  

How many members of the crowd need to be made to feel pain in order to cause the bunch to disperse? Most ? Some ? To hurt a large number of people at once the most commonly used tools are: low-hovering helicopters (whose backwash can knock a person down or cause debris to fly at and hit them); flash bang grenades (causing a painfully blinding light and deafening noise); gaseous sprays or powders (banned in modern warfare, they painfully irritate the eyes, nasal passages, bronchial tubes, lungs and skin); water cannons powerful enough to knock a person down.

Pharmaceutically, a prescription’s dosage should vary, depending on the age, size, strength and health of the recipient. In crowd control, however, a one-size-fits-all approach is used when helicopters, noise, disorienting brightness, gas, pepper spray and water cannons are used. Thus the strong, the weak, the tall, the short, the frail, the old, the young, even children and senior citizens, get the same dosage – probably one meant to hurt a healthy, well-developed young man. The others are collateral damage.

If the police mean to inflict pain on individual members of the crowd different tools are used. The most common, of course are the fist and baton. Fists require close contact, which can be dangerous for the hitter, so the baton is more useful in crowd control. (“Baton” is a nicer word, being derived from French, than “club,” a typically rough Old English word.) Contrary to popular thought, law enforcers are not supposed to strike the head. A concussion might knock someone out, but there’s not an exact science to stopping the blow short of causing a fractured skull. Furthermore, some skull strikes merely intensify the stunned receiver’s need to resist. Club wielders are taught, instead, to strike large nerve clusters found on the mid-thigh, quadriceps and biceps. Done properly, such a blow causes temporary neurapraxia  (pain, paralysis, spasms).         

 The beanbags mentioned earlier are small pillows filled with #9 lead buckshot, fired usually from a 12-gauge shotgun. They weigh about 1.4 oz. and spread out on impact to strike about a one-square-inch surface. Their intention is to temporarily stun a person. They’re most often used to control people who are a danger to themselves but not to others (e.g. a suicidal person with a bladed weapon). Beanbags are hard to aim with precision, though. Beanbag rounds have killed, maimed, blinded, broken bones, and caused internal bleeding and death, especially when used at close distance.

Finally, rubber bullets. These projectiles are meant to stun or cause just enough pain to make a protestor shut up and go home. They have been made of many substances, including glass, wood, and plastic. In their modern rubber form they were developed by the English for The Troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. They are not meant to be used at short range, since they can do extensive damage. They are supposed to be aimed below the belt, perhaps even skipped off the street surface onto the bodies of the protestors. Although not meant to have penetrating power, there is not an area of the body they have not penetrated in their 50-year history. Many people have been blinded, permanently disfigured, or internally damaged by these innocuously named rubber bullets. And killed.

This has been a short summary of what I learned about some of the tools used by authorities to control the crowds. We’ve seen them used on television these past two weeks. These tools – let’s be honest: these weapons are classified as non-lethal, but that word choice is misleading. Tame labels like “rubber bullets,” and “beanbags” and “batons” sugarcoat devices that often cause severe pain and injuries.

On the frontlines, it must be very difficult for a policeman to know what level of pain deliverance is needed to get his job done. That uncertainty bounces back to the administrators and the tactical commanders who, when the smoke has cleared, are the ones responsible for choosing the weapons and then training the weapon users. Certainly, the growing tendency to want to use military-grade weapons against civilians has to stop.

That process cannot begin without “the wisdom to know the difference” between peaceful assembly and rioting. Such wisdom, if we are lucky, will begin at this year’s November 3 ballot box.

Please take the time to support our journalism. You can do that with a subscription or with a tax-deductible donation to the Chestnut Hill Community Fund, which launched a support fund for the Local to help us remain funded during this pandemic. Thank you for your support!

...