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Pepper Spray, Tasers, and LRADs — What's Behind the Explosion of 'Less Lethal' Weapons for Crowd Control?

From the battlefield of Afghanistan to your local Occupation, the government has invested big bucks in weapons that don't cause permanent damage.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in the research and development of more "media-friendly" weapons for everyday policing and crowd control, and as uprisings around the world spread, the demand for nonlethal weapons is increasing. 

According to an October  report by the Homeland Security Research Corporation, the global market for "less lethal" weapons is predicted to triple by 2020, with more than half of the current market devoted to crowd dispersal weapons like those being used against protesters at Occupy Wall Street.

Americans have a rich history of taking to the streets to demand social justice.  From the labor strikes of the progressive era to the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 60s and 70s, the reaction by the powers-that-be has been the same: send in the riot police. As the Occupy Wall Street movement advances this tradition, the powerful have again reacted with overwhelming force. But the riot police of yesterday were armed much differently than they are today.    

Today’s arsenal includes a broad array of weapons that are meant, not to kill, but to force compliance by inflicting pain without leaving permanent injury. The Pentagon's approved term for these weapons is "non-lethal" or "less-lethal" and they are designed to disperse crowds, empty streets, and incapacitate defiant individuals.    

As rapid advancements in media and telecommunications technologies allowed people to record and publicize images and video of undue force more than ever before, a 1997 joint report from the  Pentagon and the Justice Department hinted at the purpose of nonlethal weapons: 

    A further consideration that affects how the military and law enforcement apply force is the greater presence of members of the media or other civilians who are observing, if not recording, the situation. Even the lawful application of force can be misrepresented to or misunderstood by the public. More than ever, the police and the military must be highly discreet when applying force.   

As journalist Ando Arike   wrote in a 2010 article in Harpers Magazine, "The result is what appears to be the first arms race in which the opponent is the general population.”   

The Whole World Is Watching  

The demand for non-lethal weapons is rooted in the rise of television, a medium that, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, let everyday Americans witness the violent tactics used to suppress the civil rights and anti-war movements of the era.  This new dynamic popularized the slogan, “the whole world is watching”, chanted by antiwar protesters outside the Democratic National Convention in 1968 as TV cameras captured a police riot against peaceful demonstrators.   

When Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) used nonviolent direct action to challenge segregation in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, they captured unprecedented media attention as a thousand high school students took to the streets in defiance of a court injunction.  On orders from Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor, officers attacked demonstrators with high-pressure fire hoses and police dogs. Scenes of the ensuing mayhem caused an international outcry, leading to federal intervention by the Kennedy administration.  

Years later, King and the SCLC employed similar tactics in Selma, Alabama, where the police violently repressed civil rights activists.  In what became known as “Bloody Sunday,” the news media captured Alabama state troopers charging peaceful protesters with tear gas, clubs and cattle prods. The graphic TV footage provoked outrage across the country, and a week later Lyndon Johnson introduced the Voting Rights Act.   

This was also a decade of urban riots.  Sparked by the economic, social, and political inequality experienced in the ghettos of America – and rampant police brutality -- urban unrest exploded in hundreds of cities.  In the late 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson commissioned an 11-member National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the  Kerner Commission, to investigate the riots, setting the stage for advancement in police riot control tactics and weapons.  

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