Policing or Occupation? Crowd control practices in the US and Palestine

An observer viewing crowd control methods in Palestine and in the U.S. might be forgiven for thinking there is a military occupation in both places
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It is an outrage to see US police frequently responding with violence and the gross misuse of crowd control weapons against protesters opposing police violence. The police are determined to prove the need for radical change to policing. Working on the issue of Palestinian human rights and equality, I have seen the Israeli military and police engage in the same behavior against Palestinian protesters. There are many parallels and linkages between what is happening in American streets and what happens weekly in Palestine/Israel.

Tear Gas & Flash Bangs

A tear gas canister fired into the Aida refugee camp in Palestine and made in the USA. Photo by Patrisia Macias-Rojas.
A tear gas canister fired into the Aida refugee camp in Palestine and made in the USA. Photo by Patrisia Macías-Rojas.

The first obvious parallel is that the US police are using many of the same crowd control weapons as Israel. Even the manufacturers are the same. For example, tear gas supplied by Combined Tactical Systems (CTS) was used against US Citizens in places like Ferguson and Palestinians in the West Bank, and Egyptians in Tahrir Square.

The most important fact about these weapons is that they are dangerous. If you look up “tear gas launcher” you quickly realize that companies do not portray these as “non-lethal” weapons, but “less lethal” weapons. They acknowledge the dangers of using these weapons, even as they promote them.

According to one manufacturer, their flash-bang called the ALS 12-Gauge Bore Thunder, explodes with a sound of 175-182 decibels, louder than a jet engine. According to the CDC, noise above 120 decibels can cause immediate harm to your ears, making these weapons a direct threat to public health. ALS Technologies warns its product “Serious injury or death may occur if the product is misused or in rare or unexpected instances.” (Also available, their “Top Cop Pepper Spray”.)

A flash-bang also explodes at high temperatures and can easily cause hearing loss, concussive injuries, and severe burns. They have severely injured several Portland protesters. In one case, a flash-bang fired into the air ended inside Aaron Anthony Cantu’s bike helmet and exploded against his skull, causing a traumatic brain injury.

And in this time of COVID-19, tear gas has been identified as a significant threat to public health. Crowds of choking, tearing, coughing, sneezing people will likely spread the virus even further.

Violent Practices

Examples of coated steel bullets used by Israeli forces. One is a steel ball covered in a very thin, hard, material, more like plastic. The other is a softer rubber cylinder shape, but also has a steel core. Both are typically fired from an adapter fitted to the barrel of an M16 assault rifle. (Photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)
Examples of coated steel bullets used by Israeli forces. One is a steel ball covered in a very thin, hard, material, more like plastic. The other is a softer rubber cylinder shape, but also has a steel core. Both are typically fired from an adapter fitted to the barrel of an M16 assault rifle. (Photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

And it is not just that the weapons are the same; they are callously misused in both the US and Palestine/Israel. By design, these weapons cause pain and anguish against their targets, some designed initially for violent hostage situations. They can cause serious injury even if used “properly.” However, there are methods to use them to minimize the dangers to civilians and ways to maximize the risks. All too often, they are used dangerously and guaranteed to cause severe injury. Tear gas canisters fired from a launcher can cause crushing and fatal blunt force trauma to people’s chests and skulls and faces. Time and again, non-violent Palestinians facing Israel military have been shot point-blank with tear gas canisters and killed. Overcome by the vast quantity of tear gas fired at them, Palestinians have died from the harmful gasses. When I see canisters relentlessly hurtling into crowds in US cities on television, I shudder.

Rubber bullets in Palestine usually mean steel projectiles coated in rubber. They can easily penetrate soft tissue and can take out people’s eyes and enter into the brain. In the US, a freelance photographer was shot and lost sight in one eye while setting up to take a picture. In another case, Democracy Now reported that

“In San Jose, California, police shot their own anti-bias trainer in the groin, rupturing his testicle with a rubber-coated bullet, as he tried to deescalate tension between police and protesters at a May 29 demonstration. Doctors say 27-year-old Derrick Sanderlin, who is African American, may never be able to father children.”

To rewrite an old ditty: “I shoot a flash-bang into the air. Who it maims? I do not care.”

Attacks on Journalists

The flagrant attacks on journalists covering protests are another parallel. No doubt Trump’s active hatred of a free press and accountability has contributed to this atmosphere. Many Palestinian and foreign journalists have been killed and maimed by Israeli forces over the years. The powerful film “Five Broken Cameras” by Palestinian Emad Burnat and Israeli Guy Davidi directly covered this violence. During the film, Israeli soldiers target Emad and destroy his five cameras one after another. Likewise, the numerous attacks here in the US on journalists covering the protests are a direct attack by the police on our free press. It demonstrates yet again, the systematic and damaging nature of the current system.

Funding & Training

Who funds these weapons? In both Israel and the US, it is the US taxpayer, you and me. The US provides over $4 billion in military aid to Israel, mostly to purchase weapons from US manufacturers like Combined Tactical Systems. In Oregon alone, over $37 million a year of federal tax dollars go to Israel to buy these weapons.

How are police trained? Many police departments in the US regularly send police to Israel for training! During the Ferguson protests against the killing of Michael Brown, two of the four police departments engaged in tear gassing and brutalizing protesters sent staff to train in Israel. Are we seeing the results of this training today? There must be countries that provide better examples. For example, Newsweek reported in 2015 that Norwegian police hadn’t killed anyone for ten years. Israel is not a model we should emulate: It is a country that treats Muslim and Christian Palestinians as undesirable “others” and subjects them to unaccountable violence, military rule, and discriminatory laws. Israel’s planned annexation of major parts of the Palestinian West Bank promises a new phase of Israeli repression.

Who is the “Enemy”?

Here is one final correspondence: the folks on the receiving end of this violence recognize each other. While Ferguson protesters were experiencing tear gas and rubber bullets, Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank spoke out with expressions of support and advice for dealing with these weapons. When police tear-gassed and brutalized Indigenous American protesters at Standing Rock, yet another attack on Indigenous sacred lands and sovereignty, Palestinians once again stepped up with support and advice. And when the Movement for Black Lives issued its platform for systemic change, they recognized the Palestinian struggle for equality and human rights. As Angela Davis noted recently,

“Palestinian activists have long supported Black people’s struggle against racism. When I was in jail, solidarity coming from Palestine was a major source of courage for me. In Ferguson, Palestinians were the first to express international solidarity.”

So let’s summarize: The same weapons, same callous violence, same attacks on journalists, same lack of accountability, the same source of funding, same training, and the same solidarity. A space alien, observing crowd control in Palestine, and in the United States might be forgiven for thinking that there is a military occupation in both places!

Clearly, these systems need dismantling in both Palestine/Israel and here in the United States. Communities in the US are desperate to take control of their own policing. Police can’t be allowed to run on automatic, accepting training from anyone and ordering shiny new weapons from militarized corporations, without a clear, community driven focus on the public’s interest, values, and safety.

There is one key difference between Palestine/Israel and the United States: In the US, we, in theory, have a chance to change the system and transform policing in this country. In contrast, the Palestinians are under military occupation, and the forces they face are under no pretense to “serve and protect.”