Shooting Rubber Bullets at Demonstrators Is, in Fact, Lethal

Paul Rocher

Police around the world have increasingly been equipped with “nonlethal" weapons. But the myth that these weapons are harmless tools of crowd control normalizes the use of rubber bullets and tear gas against protesters — and fuels police violence that often does kill people.

A police officer aims a "nonlethal" weapon as protesters raise their hands during demonstrations in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death on May 31, 2020, in Santa Monica, California. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Interview by
Pascual Cortés and Gonzalo García-Campo

The repression of France’s gilets jaunes movement showed the violent side of French policing. In a year of protests, at least twenty-four people lost an eye, five had a hand torn off, and one elderly woman was killed by a tear gas grenade. She was a victim of so-called “nonlethal” weapons — the assorted flash-balls, rubber bullets, and grenades whose use as tools of crowd control maimed dozens of demonstrators across France.

While French police are taking on an increasingly authoritarian guise — with Emmanuel Macron’s government effectively banning filming of cops — such violence against protesters is hardly just a French phenomenon. Last fall, Physicians for Human Rights reported that 115 people had suffered head injuries during the protests that followed the killing of George Floyd — again thanks to the use of nonlethal weapons.

Paul Rocher is author of Gazer, mutiler, soumettre — a book on the dangers of these weapons and the politics of “gassing, maiming, and subjugating” those who protest. He spoke to Pascual Cortés and Gonzalo García-Campo about the often-lethal danger these weapons present, their role in encouraging police to resort to violence, and why they are so compatible with the neoliberal curtailing of democratic rights.

Pascual Cortés and Gonzalo García-Campo

Why did you decide to carry out the research behind Gazer, mutiler, soumettre?

Paul Rocher

Gazer, mutiler, soumettre is a political economy of so-called nonlethal weapons. As an economist, I have observed how neoliberalism has reorganized national economies and social relations. Insofar as this fundamentally consists of shifting wealth from the poor to the rich, this period seemed inherently conducive to social protest. And indeed, during the last ten years there were a considerable number of important demonstrations and strikes in France. However, these movements were increasingly confronted with police brutality — and the concrete means of that brutality were “nonlethal” weapons.

The official label has since switched to “less lethal” — but this still refers to the same weapons: tear gas, various explosive grenades, rubber bullets, water cannons… Governments presented them as a means to ensure a more ethical, softer type of crowd control that wouldn’t kill or maim. However, as the number of people killed or maimed in association with “nonlethal” weapons increased, a contradiction between the ways governments presented crowd-control weapons and their real effects became clearly apparent — triggering an intense debate in France.

Journalists, NGOs, demonstrators, and simple bystanders with smartphones provided a mounting catalog of evidence of a very high degree of police brutality. This kind of violence has been part of everyday life in the poorest neighborhoods of France for decades — where it targeted the black and Arab minorities in a highly disproportionate fashion. But what happened during the 2010s is that these brutal police practices were extended to social movements, for example, environmental activists and unions, and eventually to the gilets jaunes protests, which were composed of many people that have never participated in demonstrations before. In 2014 the environmental activist Rémi Fraisse was killed by a “nonlethal” police grenade and during the 2016 strikes dozens of demonstrators were seriously injured or even maimed. Just for the period between November 2019 and January 2021, two deaths were recorded along with at least 353 head injuries, and 36 people lost an eye or a hand. Most victims were either gilets jaunes or participating in union demonstrations. According to the street medic coordination body, between March and December 2019 at least twenty-seven thousand demonstrators were injured.

So an increasing proportion of the population felt concerned with police violence. Yet the public debate was generally framed around the individual responsibility of a policeman, who supposedly used his “nonlethal” weapon in the wrong way. I tried to provide a more comprehensive analysis. Instead of talking about individual cases, I attempted to grasp the underlying logic of the explosion of police brutality.

Pascual Cortés and Gonzalo García-Campo

An interesting point in your analysis is that we shouldn’t lose sight of the specific nature of the weapons used by the police. Why this emphasis?

Paul Rocher

The specificity of my approach is to grasp “nonlethal” weapons not merely as a means to an end but to understand the extent to which their availability shapes the behavior of those who use them. Put differently, what matters is not only to show that “nonlethal” weapons are used by the police to violently control crowds. Rather, the characteristics of the “nonlethal” weapon need to be grasped in order understand the way they shape policemen’s concrete actions. Using statistical and qualitative data, I argue that the very availability of “nonlethal” weapons prompts the police to use them faster and more often.

Thus, contrary to the argument that they ensure a more ethical crowd control, “nonlethal” weapons actually drive its brutality. Based on official data from the French police, I show that while between 2009 and 2018 the general use of the different types of “nonlethal” weapons available in France multiplied by a factor of nine, the number of rubber bullet shots multiplied by a factor of 480! This illustrates an explosion of police brutality. I found this result striking — although the official data is very incomplete and only represents the tip of the iceberg.

This brutalization has several implications. Most importantly, it means that proposals for better regulation of these weapons’ use or improved training for policemen miss the point. The point is that by suggesting nonlethality — which basically amounts to making out that these weapons are harmless — policemen are encouraged to shoot and tend to handle an increasing number of situations with violence.

Another consequence is the spread of popular self-defense. Some people willing to join protests are scared off by “nonlethal” weapons. That is a restriction of the fundamental right of the freedom of expression. But another part decided to equip themselves in order to protect their health. That is why an increasing number of demonstrators use scarves, glasses, (gas) masks, helmets, shin pads, and banners reinforced with wood or plastic. This protective equipment proved rather effective against the deadly or mutilating effects of “nonlethal” weapons. Moreover, people learned to collectively move within space in order to reduce the likeliness of injuries during demonstrations. These phenomena result from a learning process which can be extremely rapid.

The French government didn’t like the way this self-protection reduced the impact of its crowd-control weapons — and started depicting these “equipped” people as uniquely motivated by violence and attempted to arrest them. During a recent demonstration against a bill designed to considerably expand police powers, the French government stated that 142 violent demonstrators had been arrested. Based on video footage, several newspapers later reported that these arrests were purely arbitrary. As evidence from trials shows, “equipped” demonstrators were motivated by the concern to protect their safety. This politicization of their safety has also entailed the politicization of police weapons. According to a 2019 survey, 54 percent of respondents said they supported the prohibition of rubber bullets. This is quite an achievement: within ten years, the very weapon that was expected to ensure ethical crowd control managed to become fully discredited.

Pascual Cortés and Gonzalo García-Campo

How similar is the French case to others in terms of the use of less-lethal weapons? Would you say that the expanded use of less-lethal weapons is a global phenomenon or a feature of certain types of political or economic regimes?

Paul Rocher

In addition to the core argument that “nonlethal” weapons produce the brutality of crowd control, my book emphasizes that weapons are not only a technical choice but part of a political project. In the 1990s, governments from North American and Western Europe started to increasingly rely on such weapons — which have continued to become more diverse and powerful — that then spread all over the world.

I argue that the attractiveness of “nonlethal” weapons is closely related to the neoliberal project. Classically, hegemony — or put differently, the reproduction of the modern state — is based on a mix of coercion and consent. The fact is that by increasing exploitation and inequalities, the core of neoliberalism, it becomes increasingly difficult for governments to obtain the consent of a significant proportion of its population. In reaction, coercion comes to the fore.

Yet the tricky thing about coercion is that it is likely to further discredit a government already losing popular support. Under these circumstances, “nonlethal” weapons appeared as a miraculous solution: efficient repression without violence. Therefore, even though batons, tear gas, and, to a certain extent, rubber bullets, existed before the neoliberal period, the large-scale use of “nonlethal” weapons since the 1990s allows us to characterize them as a neoliberal means of maintaining social order. The use of “nonlethal” weapons is moreover not an isolated fact but part of a general tendency of what a rising number of researchers call authoritarian neoliberalism.

Nonetheless, Western countries established the benchmark of “democratically acceptable” crowd control, which rapidly spread to a great number of countries. In addition, countries like France started providing trainings for foreign police forces to teach them their methods of crowd control. My book draws on various examples from different countries and actually starts with an account on the way revolutionaries in Egypt in 2011 handled the danger of “nonlethal” weapons.

In recent years, massive use of these weapons has been documented in places as different as Hong Kong, Chile, the United States, Lebanon, Peru, Belarus, and many more. Every time the scenario is similar: extensive use of “nonlethal” weapons, many injuries, and no official data available. Therefore, beyond the specific reasons for each type of unrest, what is common to all these protests is that they quickly also became movements against police brutality. Within this dynamic, people started counting the number of grenades, rubber bullets, etc., fired, and documented the injuries. Recent numbers on police brutality from the United States, Hong Kong, and Chile are dizzying.

Pascual Cortés and Gonzalo García-Campo

The discourse coming from international human rights law often emphasizes respect for principles such as necessity and proportionality in the use of less-lethal weapons. Do you think that this is a good way forward for democratic police reform, or does it fall short?

Paul Rocher

At first sight, having guidelines appears better than having none, and these guidelines can probably play a role in terms of sanctioning an individual policeman for misconduct. However, in most cases, police brutality is not (sufficiently) documented and there is strong solidarity among policemen in protecting each other. Therefore, police brutality remains unpunished.

In France, there were debates about the legality of using of rubber bullets in specific situations, the proportionality of repeatedly hitting demonstrators with a baton, and the necessity of filling the streets with tear gas. Besides the fact that these debates did not change police conduct, what remains outside the scope of such discussion is the overall logic operating behind every single use of “nonlethal” weapons. This point is crucial, because there is a common pattern behind all the particular individual cases of police brutality by “nonlethal” weapons: the availability of these weapons prompt their users to make use of them. Insofar as these weapons, as such, are the problem, you cannot reduce police brutality with better regulation.

Pascual Cortés and Gonzalo García-Campo

Do you see possibilities for reform in relation to the use of less lethal weapons or do you believe that we should rather move toward prohibition? What would you say to those who argue that overly restricting or banning the use of less-lethal weapons leaves the police without alternatives for controlling public order?

Paul Rocher

My book provides ample evidence that the very availability of “nonlethal” weapons leads to the brutality of crowd control. And while I provide evidence and relate the use of “nonlethal” weapons to the neoliberal period, the possibility of these weapons leading to more police violence was invoked already thirty years ago by the US Department of Justice. Today, NGOs such as Physicians for Human Rights argue along similar lines, in favor of prohibition.

In reaction against this, today governments sometimes declare their intention to introduce new “nonlethal” weapons, which are presented as technically less powerful and dangerous. Such arguments rely on a fallacious assumption: the dangerousness of a weapon cannot be definitely established by its technical properties (even though the diameter of rubber bullets can make a difference). Instead, it is to be measured by the yardstick of the actual use policemen make of it, which brings us back to the issue of inherent brutalization.

Governments and police representatives regularly insist on the idea that there is no alternative to “nonlethal” weapons. This argument is somewhat incongruous. Evidence from all over the world regarding mutilating and deadly injuries — without even counting trauma, which can also have permanent consequences — shows that the police is unable to make proper use of “nonlethal” weapons, simply because proper use of these tools does not exist. This reality needs to be faced squarely — and governments and police departments should be the first to think about this. By focusing on the lack of alternatives, they simply declare their unwillingness to address an overwhelming mass of evidence. Or, in other words, they want to proceed with neoliberal policies by any means necessary.

So a first way of answering the “no alternatives” argument is to reject its relevance outright: Why should the victims, or civil society, handle a problem that governments have created? A second way of reacting is to look at some data in order to examine the meaningfulness of this argument. When it comes to the police’s supposedly reduced leeway it first of all needs to be stated that demonstrators have not become more violent — and I know that for a fact, in France and Western Europe at least. Research on social movements and on policing has firmly established this.

Violent demonstrators today basically have the same means they did forty years ago, while police’s own protective equipment has continuously improved. Additionally, evidence from the United States with respect to “nonlethal” electroshock weapons shows that 90 percent of those that died after an electroshock were either unarmed or nonthreatening persons. In other words, there is no need to equip the police with “nonlethal” weapons.

The availability of “nonlethal” weapons increases the comfort of policemen while exposing civilians to disproportionate health risks. That is the real choice behind “nonlethal” weapons.