Despotism Watch: The Sonic Cannon, the Pain Ray and the Irony of the American Revolution

15/02/12 0 COMMENTS

First published on ZNet, Feruary 15, 2012. The disproportionately nonwhite city of Oakland, California has more than its share of poverty and unemployment. According to the 2010 Census, 17 percent of the city’s population, including more than a quarter of Oakland’s children, live beneath the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level. Eight percent of Oakland’s residents live in what researchers call “deep poverty” – at less than half that stingy misery measure.[1]  The city’s unemployment rate is four points higher than the national average and its black joblessness measure (20%) was twice the national rate.[2] 

If you had $675,000 to spend on the improvement of life in Oakland, how would you invest it? In community gardens for disadvantaged neighborhoods? After- school programs for minority youth? Drug treatment and/or shelter and/or health care services for the poor? Training and hiring unemployed workers in the ecological retro-fitting of local residences? All of the above? 

At some point close and prior to July 2010, the city of Oakland made a different sort of choice. It used that sum of taxpayer money to purchase a “sonic cannon” – a Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) 300 X Mass Communications System.[3]  Oakland’s surrounding jurisdiction Alameda County also purchased an LRAD 300X in 2010.[4] 

It was a bold expenditure given the city’s considerable fiscal woes as well as its widespread poverty. “After three years of layoffs, furloughs and cuts [Oakland] city councilmembers called ‘drastic,’” an Oakland neighborhood newspaper reported on June 16, 2010, “the city still faces a $31.5 million shortfall for next year’s general fund.” In May, Oakland councilmember Ignacio de la Fuente had proposed laying off 200 police officers as one of numerous cuts to balance the budget.[5] 

A sonic cannon is one of many types of sonic and ultrasonic weapons developed by “defense” corporations in league with the military and law enforcement over the last decade. As Wikipedia explains in a heavily sourced report: 

“Some sonic weapons …have been described as sonic bullets, sonic grenades, sonic mines, or sonic cannons. Some make a focused beam of sound or ultrasound; some make an area field of sound. Although many sonic and ultrasonic weapons are described as ‘non-lethal,’ they can still kill under certain conditions…Extremely high-power sound waves can disrupt and/or destroy the eardrums of a target and cause severe pain or disorientation. This is usually sufficient to incapacitate a person. Less powerful sound waves can cause humans to experience nausea or discomfort.” [6] 

The 300X, according to its manufacturers, produces up to 143 decibels of sound. That, former Oakland city attorney Michael Siegel noted last fall, “is plenty sufficient to destroy the hearing of any protestor.” According to an audiologist testifying before a Canadian court in 2010, “Exposure to very intense noise [such as that generated by an LRAD] can cause damage to the cochlea of the inner ear which may not show up until years later. Disruption to the delicate mechanics of the inner ear can sometimes improve within a few hours or days, but most often there is not a complete recovery and there is permanent hearing loss. On the other hand, where the hair cells in the inner ear are damaged by very loud sounds it invariably results in permanent hearing loss. . . . .”

Human beings are born with only one set of these hair cells. When damaged, these hair cells do not recover or regenerate. [7] 

In the fall of 2009, the San Diego-based American Technology Corporation (ATC) insisted that the LRAD devices it patented, manufactured, and sold were “not weapons” but publicly sensitive “communications” tools to “influence the behavior and gain compliance” from groups of people. Still, the company admitted in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing in September 2008 that their technology was “capable of sufficient acoustic output to cause damage to human hearing or human health” and expressed concern that this destructive capacity could lead its manufacturers and users to face lawsuits.[8] There should be no doubt that local, state, and federal authorities who purchase LRADs in the name of “public safety” see them as part the state’s coercive arsenal against popular protest and public assembly. 

“The Scream”

Sonic and ultra-sonic weapons were first developed to help American military defeat officially designated enemies abroad. But the weapons have proven irresistible to a growing number of government officials as a tool for internal domestic repression inside imperial nations, where opulent elites face the daunting task of imposing regressive neoliberal policy –austerity and poverty for millions alongside grotesque wealth and giant public bailouts for the Few (those called out as “the 1%” last year) – over majority opposition in purportedly democratic states. 

In 2005 in Jerusalem, the Israeli Army used a device nicknamed “The Scream” to scatter protest groups. “The Scream” emitted noise at frequencies that affected the inner ear, creating dizziness and nausea and causing long term hearing damage. Later that same year, National Public Radio’s Xeni Jardin reported that “Several police departments across America are planning to try a new device that uses focused sound, turned way up. These so-called non-lethal acoustic devices are already in use by U.S. forces in Iraq — and some are already in place in areas hit by Hurricane Katrina.”

 Jardin noted that the California-based company HPV Technologies had recently “demonstrated a ‘magnetic acoustic device’ or MAD that can broadcast a targeted beam of sound for a more than mile. At close range, the sound from these devices can be terrifying and painful…These same devices can also be used as public address systems, projecting instructions or warnings at lower settings — and at higher settings, forcing crowds to disperse.”  The surviving Web link to Jardin’s report shows a photograph of an LRAD 500 device atop a Humvee on patrol outside the hurricane-damaged Superdome in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.” A Louisiana National Guard soldier wearing battle fatigues is shown atop the Humvee with his hand on the mobile sonic canon, with floodwaters and the domed stadium in the background. [9] 

One year later, the BBC reported the use of by police of a “mobile sonic device” against poor and minority youth in high unemployment neighborhoods of the depressed and de-industrialized British towns of Grimsby, Hull and Lancashire. The sound weapon was designed and deployed “to deter teenagers from lingering around shops in target areas.”  It emitted an “ultra-high frequency blast that teenagers or people under approximately 20 are susceptible to and find uncomfortable.”[10] 

There have been numerous documented LRAD deployments outside the U.S. The LRAD was extensively used against protesters in Tbilisi, Georgia, in November 2007.[11] Bangkok residents saw and heard it in use during protests of Triumph factory employees against dismissals on August 28, 2009.[12]  In February of 2009, Foreign Policy reported that the LRAD was being employed by Japanese whaling ships to deter interfering environmentalists.[13]  In September of the same year, the U.S-backed right wing coup regime of Honduras used it to “communicate with” victims and opponents seeking refuge in the Brazilian embassy, including the illegally deposed president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, his family, and some supporters and journalists.[14] Polish Police acquired LRAD units in December 2010 and used them to “communicate with” protesters during the November 2011 riots in Warsaw. [15] Canadian authorities purchased and wanted to use LRADs against G20 protestors during the 2010 G20 Summit in Toronto but were prevented from doing so thanks to an injunction obtained by the Canadian Civil Liberties Union.[16] 

China Connection

In 2008, the magazine Foreign Policy revealed that ATC had sold LRADs to the arch-authoritarian People’s Republic of China despite the fact that American firms had been banned from selling weapons to China since that government’s brutal suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. The LRAD’s official and deceptive status as a “communications” technology rather than a weapon permitted the sale.[17]

The LRAD was displayed in June 2008 at the Asia Pacific China Police Expo 2008 in Beijing. According to the Belgian journal Mondiaal Nieuws, “ATC was there with their Asian distributors, the Asia-Pacific Xuanxhao Group. Neither would comment on how many LRADs, if any, have been sold or distributed across China.” 

Mondiaal Nieuws (MN) was concerned. It consulted Dr. Juergen Altmann, a physicist at Technische Universität in Dortmund, Germany, who had been studying acoustic weapons system for over ten years. “The characterization as a ‘warning device’ is right most of the time,” Altmann told MN: “however, when it is being used to drive people back by acoustic pain then one should call it a weapon.” Driving people back with pain was certainly a leading purpose behind China’s sonic cannon purchase.[18]

China has since developed its own impressive array of sonic and other non-lethal crowd-control technologies, modeled partly on the LRAD. According to one report last year, “Chinese companies are now producing advanced surveillance, crowd control and other security equipment – some of it modeled on U.S. technology developed during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — and are starting to sell it around the world. When China’s leaders crushed pro-democracy protests around Tiananmen Square in 1989,” the Maoist Website Signalfire notes, “they sent in the army with tanks and live ammunition. These days, they would have many other ways of dispersing such crowds – or preventing them forming in the first place.[19]

 LRAD in the Homeland, 2001-2009 

According to ABC News in 2004, the acoustic “crowd control tool” was developed by Ellwood (Woody) Norris, the founder and head of ATC, with funding from the U.S. Defense Department after the jetliner attacks of September 11, 2001.[20] The U.S. military began using LRADs in Iraq with success in 2003 and LRADs became available domestically soon thereafter.[21] 

As best I can determine, the first deployment of the LRAD for “crowd control” purposes inside the imperial “homeland” (the United States) occurred in 2003 in Miami, Florida, where local police “used it during the free trade conference city that year” (ABC News). [22]  The following year, the LRAD was on hand but not used outside the Republican National Convention in New York City.[23] It was deployed in New Orleans the summer and fall of 2005, as we have seen.[24] 

The best known domestic American LRAD deployment took place four years later in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. During the 2009 G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh in September 2009, highly militarized police (recruited from across national jurisdictions, including Chicago) attacked a relatively small gathering of global justice (so-called anti-globalization) protestors with batons, pepper gas, tear gas, and two LRADs – a dish-shaped 500 model that was mounted atop an armored police vehicle and 1000 model carried on a pickup truck.[25]  (You can see and hear video of the 500 model in action at www.youtube.com/watch?v=QSMyY3_dmrM ). The piercing sound emitted by the 500 model “caused the protesters to stop, cover their ears and back up, at which time they faced non-lethal tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades.”[26] 

The LRADs did double duty in Pittsburgh: they issued orders to disperse (pretext for subsequent “disorderly conduct” arrests) and forced the dispersal of protestors without unsightly beatings.[27] 

The American Tinnitus Association reported that Pittsburgh protesters had been “acoustically assaulted” with sound at 140 decibels, which it described as “the kind of sound pressure members of the armed services might face from an Improvised Explosive Device.” The association noted that ear damage could be immediate at 130 to 140 decibels and that the 145 to 151 range was “the kind of sound that can cause tinnitus and hearing damage immediately.” Tinnitus is a condition that causes ringing in the ears, sometimes permanently.[28]

Vic Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Pennsylvania, also objected to the Pittsburgh police’s use of the LRAD. “Police should not be using military weapons that are likely to cause permanent hearing loss on demonstrators or anyone else,” Walczak said.[29] 

Two years later, the British newspaper The Daily Mail reported that University of Missouri English professor Karen Piper was in fact suing the city of Pittsburgh and its police for negligence and the violation of her civil and constitutional rights. An innocent bystander on hand to study the impact of protests on global financial institutions, Piper suffered permanent hearing loss thanks to the city’s deployment of the LRAD.[30]   Her federal lawsuit is being carried out by the ACLU.[31] 

Raymond DeMichiei, deputy director of the Pittsburgh Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, told the Associated Press last December that his federal agency had supplied the LRADs to the Pittsburgh police for the G-20 summit. He said “he’s never seen a better device for communicating with an unruly crowd. What would you rather have us do, the old 1964 routine with fire hoses and billy clubs? I think it’s a lot more humane to make people uncomfortable because their ears hurt, and they leave.”[32] The option of letting people publicly and peacefully assemble and protest did not merit mention. 

The LRAD rollout in Pittsburgh provided some unnerving backdrop for ridiculous, media-ballyhooed “revelations” from President Obama during the summit on the supposed Iranian “nuclear threat.” [33] 

A few days later, the admittedly paranoid right wing newspaper The Washington Times reported that the Department of Homeland Security was doling out federal money to get police departments around the country stocked up on LRADs: 

‘With the help of Homeland Security grants, police departments nationwide looking to subdue unruly crowds and political protesters are purchasing a high-tech device originally used by the military to repel battlefield insurgents and Somali pirates with piercing noise capable of damaging hearing….Police acknowledge that they deployed the so-called Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRADs) as a safeguard at recent political conventions, protest-plagued international summit meetings and this summer’s volatile town hall meetings on health care.’ 

Washington Times reporters Jerry Seper and Chuck Neubaurer learned that five police departments in California had already purchased their own sonic cannons.[34] 

Jean Quan’s Sonic Turnaround, 2010-11 

Why did “liberal” Oakland and Alameda Count obtain sonic canons, at significant taxpayer expense amidst an Epic Recession that seriously squeezed city budgets while throwing millions into poverty and joblessness? Because it feared mass protest in the wake of an impending jury verdict in the trial of former Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officer Johannes Mehserle. Mehserle had murdered a young black train rider named Oscar Grant by shooting him (possibly after confusing his lethal revolver for a “non-lethal” Taser) in the back on New Years Day of 2009 – a killing captured on video by five other riders and a platform camera. City authorities felt they had had reason to expect significant local demonstrations when the judgment came down.[35] 

Before the verdict came down on July 9, 2010 (in a trial that was removed to Los Angeles), the city decided not to use the weapon under pressure from activists, including then Oakland city attorney Fred Siegel.[36] In a Facebook note tagged to then Oakland City Councilwoman Jean Quan in early July, Siegel argued that “the Oakland Police Department should not use such a dangerous and little-understood device on Oakland civilians. This device appears unfit for any use at all, much less against local residents exercising their First Amendment rights of expression and association.” The letter sparked Quan and council President Jane Brunner to call Police Chief Anthony Batts. The next day, Batts told Quan and Brunner he would not deploy the weapon against protesters who would gather at City Hall. “Pressure culminated quickly,” Siegel reported. “It was a victory.”[37] 

The LRAD would not be denied an at least partial unveiling in Oakland, however. The Occupy Wall Street Movement that sprung up last fall gave Oakland and Alameda County police a new chance to reveal their expensive “communications” device, originally purchased to suppress those who might protest the freeing or under-punishment of a cop who had killed an unarmed black man. According to numerous reports, sonic canons were part of the government arsenal on display when hundreds of heavily equipped riot police from Oakland and surrounding jurisdictions launched a chilling early morning raid on a much smaller number of peaceful  protestors camped out in downtown Oakland last October 25th. [38]   The brutal assault[39]  was ordered by Quan, Oakland’s new “liberal” Democratic mayor. 

LRADs were also deployed in the brutal, armed-force eviction of the original Occupy Wall Street encampment in New York City.[40]  The LRAD was present, but not used, by police during the December 10, 2011 eviction of Occupy Boston from Dewey Square.[41] Earlier the same year, it was also rolled out to deter potential Super Bowl revelers in Pittsburgh[42] and it was used quite aggressively in a bizarre and surreal, many-sided police state assault on reveling college students at the annual May Day Wheeler Block Party at Western Illinois University (“WIU”) in Macomb, Illinois.[43] 

A Good Austerity-Age Investment

 The LRAD is a “communication” choice that may be catching on like never before with local police and Homeland Security in the wake of the populist Occupy moment. Three weeks after a wave of partly federally coordinated attacks on Occupy sites in numerous Democratic Party-run cities across the nation, the Associated Press reported that “Police deployment of sonic blasters at Occupy Wall Street and G-20 protest rallies is fueling sales of the devices…More U.S. police and emergency-response agencies are using the so-called Long-Range Acoustic Devices instead of megaphones or conventional loudspeakers for crowd control…”[44]  

Perhaps the threat of populist rebellion embodied in Occupy Wall Street and its more than 1000 off-shoots is part of why the LRAD Corporation of San Diego, California (NASDAQ:LRAD) was recently reported to be the most profitable defense stock among U.S.-listed Chinese stocks. The company enjoyed a whopping net profit margin of 18.78% for the last 12 months.[45]  

There’s something for big Wall Street players to consider: a good way to cash in on the mass protests their opulent excess engendered across the nation.

“Even the Most Hardened Marines Flee…” 

LRADs may be just one part of a new publicly financed, privately developed arsenal of proto-totalitarian “non-lethal crowd control technologies”—a chilling new authoritarian munitions store that could prove fatal to free assembly.[46]  One such technology, known as “the microwave” and “the pain ray,” was featured in a quickly forgotten BBC story five years ago: 

‘US Military Unveils Heat-Ray Gun’   

‘The US military has given the first public display of what it says is a revolutionary heat-ray weapon to repel enemies or disperse hostile crowds. Called the Active Denial System, it projects an invisible high energy beam that produces a sudden burning feeling. Military officials, who say the gun is harmless, believe it could be used as a non-lethal way of making enemies surrender their weapons. “This is a breakthrough technology that’s going to give our forces a capability they don’t now have,” defence official Theodore Barna told Reuters news agency.’

 ‘The prototype weapon was demonstrated at the Moody Air Force Base in Georgia. A beam was fired from a large rectangular dish mounted on a Humvee vehicle. The beam has a reach of up to 500m (550 yds), much further than existing non-lethal weapons like rubber bullets. It can penetrate clothes, suddenly heating up the skin of anyone in its path to 50C. But it penetrates the skin only to a tiny depth – enough to cause discomfort but no lasting harm, according to the military. A Reuters journalist who volunteered to be shot with the beam described the sensation as similar to a blast from a very hot oven – too painful to bear without diving for cover.’ 

‘Military officials said the weapon was one of the key technologies of the future. “Non-lethal weapons are important for the escalation of force, especially in the environments our forces are operating in,” said Marine Col Kirk Hymes, director of the development programme. The weapon could potentially be used for dispersing hostile crowds in conflict zones such as Iraq or Afghanistan. It would mean that troops could take effective steps to move people along without resorting to measures such as rubber bullets – bridging the gap between “shouting and shooting”, Col Hymes said. A similar “non-lethal” weapon, Silent Guardian, is being developed by US company Raytheon.’ [47] 

By British reporter Michael Hanlon’s account after he volunteered to feel the technology demonstrated in September of 2007, the “Silent Guardian” packs no small punch: 

“I tested a table-top demonstration model, but here’s how it works in the field.”

“A square transmitter as big as a plasma TV screen is mounted on the back of a Jeep. When turned on, it emits an invisible, focused beam of radiation – similar to the microwaves in a domestic cooker – that [is] tuned to a precise frequency to stimulate human nerve endings. It can throw a wave of agony nearly half a mile.…. anyone in the beam’s path will feel, over their entire body, the agonising sensation I’ve just felt on my fingertip. The prospect doesn’t bear thinking about.”

“….In tests, even the most hardened Marines flee after a few seconds of exposure. It just isn’t possible to tough it out. This machine has the ability to inflict limitless, unbearable pain”[48]

 Mission Creep: The Empire at Home 

The BBC story was pitched around military use abroad but it is not difficult or unreasonable to imagine that a core promise of the technology – “dispersing hostile crowds” – will prove irresistible within the savagely unequal and austerity-plagued “homelands” of the imperial core. As the British reporter Michael Hanlon reflected after volunteering to feel the technology demonstrated in September of 2007:

“One thing is certain: not just the Silent Guardian, but weapons such as the Taser, the electric stun-gun, are being rolled out by Britain’s police forces as the new way of controlling people by using pain….the Raytheon chaps all insist, you always have the option to get out of the way (just as you have the option to comply with the police officer’s demands and not get Tasered). But there is a problem: mission creep. This is the Americanism which describes what happens when, over time, powers or techniques are used to ends not stated or even imagined when they were devised.. With the Taser, the rules in place in Britain say it must be used only as an alternative to the gun. But what happens in ten or 20 years if a new government chooses to amend these rules? It is so easy to see the Taser being used routinely to control dissent and pacify – as, indeed, already happens in the U.S….In fact  it is easy to see the raygun being used not as an alternative to lethal force (when I can see that it is quite justified), but as an extra weapon in the battle against dissent..[49]

The sonic devices that haunt free assembly in America and England today were first developed as tools of sea-based communication and imperial control abroad. In this as in so many other ways, empire abroad and inequality and repression at home are inseparably linked. As the brilliant U.S. Founder James Madison once observed, “The fetters imposed on liberty at home have ever been forged out of the weapons provided for defense against real, pretended, or imaginary dangers abroad.”[50] 

Three summers ago, Wired magazine’s “Danger Room” commentator David Hambling reported that Raytheon was on the verge of making the first commercial sale of Silent Guardian. “The military isn’t ready to deploy its pain ray to the battlefield,” Hambling noted, “But someone in the commercial sector is about to buy one. We don’t know who. The sale is mentioned in a presentation by Raytheon, who built the microwave weapon for the Defense Department.”  Hambling interviewed Neil Davison, author of the book ‘Non-lethal’ Weapons, who was concerned about repressive “homeland” uses when the technology’s price tag drops. “As the costs and size drop,” Davison told Hambling, “expect police forces to become more and more interested. This is where function creep will become a problem. With current controversies over the misuse of the Taser, the spread of new military weapons technologies to the civilian realm does not seem like a very sensible way to go.” [51] Interestingly enough, Hambling learned that “the controversial ‘pain beam’ may be more acceptable in the civilian market than in the military — depending on how the weapon is used.” [52] 

Perhaps the Hyatt Regency hotel chain would have liked to have a low cost heat ray gain on hand when it faced union pickets in Chicago last summer. In July of 2011, on a day when the heat index topped 100, a Hyatt manager turned on 10 heat lamps underneath an awning where activists were marching for a union contract (a union activist informs that he also recalls Hyatt deploying a sonic weapon). This action led the union to file a complaint against Hyatt with the National Labor Relations Board.[53]    

Some Rodenberry-esque Reflections 

Permit me a Star Trek moment as I observe that James Madison might never have been in a position to issue that eloquent warning had the British Empire possessed LRADs. Imagine what might have happened as the radical colonists of Boston approached Griffin’s Wharf to commence “the destruction of British tea,” later memorialized as “the Tea Party” – a critical moment in the development of the American Revolution – on the evening of December 16, 1773. The Red Coats (informed in advance of the action through Facebook) would have positioned a sonic canon or two in just the right place to scatter the rebels and to thereby help sustain British North America’s colonial status. 

The Boston Massacre – another key episode on the path to American independence – would never have occurred. The English imperial service would have rolled out a MAD or two and maybe even a heat ray gun to rapidly disperse those who dared to protest the taking of their jobs and the beating of their children by British forces. 

I leap across technological eras álá Gene Rodenberry to make a simple point: the new technologies of “non-lethal crowd control” are lethal to the very rights of public assembly and free expression that helped define the rise of an independent United States – and to our ability to use what’s left of public space in the corporate neoliberal era for the common good. 

To Coerce Without Seeming Too Coercive 

The American, British (1640s), and French (1789-1795) revolutions occurred, of course and with them came justly cherished western rights, laws, and traditions of democracy, popular assembly, and free speech. Thanks to that history, American and western elites do not generally get (or even want) to rule their domestic populations though sheer coercion. It is not possible for western ruling classes to order the mass gunning down of dissenters. The American elite is compelled to rule at home largely through outward consent and purported moral authority rather than plain physical violence. With all due respect for horrible past episodes like the Memorial Day Massacre, Wounded Knee, Kent State, and the open Chicago police state assassination of Fred Hampton, and despite the giant American racist mass incarceration system and the terrible predisposition of too many white cops to shoot minority citizens at the slightest alleged provocation, American citizens don’t generally get disappeared, tortured, or lined up against the wall and executed for protesting the unelected dictatorships of money and empire that lurk beneath the shell of popular governance. The openly murderous and bloody repression of protestors (as seen in Syria today) is not available (or even desirable) to U.S. elites thanks to American and western democratic and free speech and assembly traditions.

But the prohibition on such repression enforced by those traditions has had an ironically negative and authoritarian aspect in the context of concentrated capitalist and imperial power. It has provided a great incentive for corporate and state authorities to invest heavily in the deadly arts and sciences of propaganda and manipulation. It has encouraged “the 1%”and its servants to develop quieter methods of “taking the risk out of democracy” (Alex Carey) by “manufacturing [mass] consent” (Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky) through public relations, propaganda, media control, education control, highly controlled and personalized election spectacles, among other “soft” forms of population management. At the same time, the proscriptions against sheer repression have also incentivized American authorities to develop more subtle, technically sophisticated forms of repression that operate behind the scenes (the surveillance cameras that are ubiquitous in England and ever more prevalent in the U.S. are a key example) and to deploy forms of coercion that prevent or discourage citizens from assembling and protesting without creating provocative images of state brutality. The legal and cultural ban on outwardly murderous rule in the nominally free and democratic U.S. has compelled elites and their servants to develop new, less provocative  ways to “incapacitate” angry and active citizens – more quietly sinister methods of repression that are deadly for democracy:  penned-off “free speech zones” and “frozen zones”[54] (where protestors are denied access to those they seek to influence),  “rubber bullets” that hurt and harm but do not generally kill, “concussion grenades” that disorient and confuse without generally shattering skulls,  tear gas and pepper spray that sends protestors running, Tasers that stun but do not generally kill[55], sonic canons and other acoustic devices that make your eardrums feel like they are splitting, and perhaps – someday soon to be deployed in freedom’s “homeland” – Raytheon’s perfectly named (for the purposes of my argument) “Silent Guardian,” which noiselessly seems to cook human skin and eyeballs and has the capacity “to inflict limitless, unbearable pain.” 

Repressive acoustic and heat ray technologies can bring special technical dividends for those who wish to coerce without seemingly overly coercive. As Xeni Jardin explained as LRAD-toting troops with the Louisiana National Guard patrolled otherwise abandoned and black New Orleans in September of 2005: “Crowd control is a constant challenge to law enforcement — how to stop potential troublemakers without endangering those who are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Rubber bullets can kill, tear gas drifts with the wind.”[56] Jardin might have added that mass billy-clubbing looks really bad on YouTube in an allegedly free society; so does the close-range pepper-spraying of the faces of young sitting protestors (as occurred at the University of California at Davis and went viral on television and internet last November).[57] Who can forget the live-televised police riot images of from the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention – the wildly swinging police batons landing on the skulls and torsos of white middle class reporters and youth as the crowd chanted “The Whole Word is Watching”[58] (the chant was revived during last fall’s pepper-spray incident).[59] It’s not for nothing that Wall Street super-titan and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his NYPD forced news helicopters to land and ordered a de facto media blackout[60] when they went in for the kill on Occupy Wall Street’s original camp last November. 

Better to blare and/or cook the right of public assembly to death in carefully focused and targeted ways without actually killing (Tiananmen Square 1989) or beating (Chicago 1968) anyone (or too many people) if you can help it. And without letting the acrid taste of your repression drift into comfortable middle class neighborhoods as occurred during the break up of the mass marches against the World Trade Organization in Seattle in November of 1999.[61]  Smart repressors keep it as clean, quick, and contained as possible. 

Look for the egregious corporate-Democratic thug and left-loathing, hippie-punching Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel to deploy an LRAD or three when protestors converge upon that city’s highly provocative G8 and NATO summits next May. Having already forced through a draconian city ordinance designed to deter democratic protest with steepened fines and other restrictions,[62] “Rahmbo” can hardly be expected to pull any sonic punches when the global war on democracy comes home to “global Chicago” this spring. Just in case, I’d being some Air Force-level earplugs to the Windy City this spring. 

“The people united, can never be defeated.”  So says the longstanding activist chant. American corporate and state authorities think otherwise inside as well beyond the United States, the greatest existential threat to democracy, freedom, and human survival in history.[63] 

The historical window for the chances for the radical and popular democratic reconstruction of society – for the revolutionary change that Dr. Martin Luther King identified in 1968 as “the real issue to be faced”[64] – is smaller perhaps than some of us like to think. One downward pressure on that window is ecological – the ever more imminent onrush of environmental apocalypse[65] wrought by the inherently eco-cidal profits system in the long age of the petro-capitalist corporate state. Another such pressure comes from the ever-evolving tools and methods of Big Brother, immeasurably enhanced in a period when, as the French ecological journalist Herve Kempf has noted, “the ruling class has become convinced that it no longer needs democracy.”[66] 

Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org) is the author of numerous books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004), The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010), and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011).   

Endnotes 

[1] http://www.city-data.com/poverty/poverty-Oakland-California.html 

[2] U.S. Bureau of Census, “Employment Status, 2010 American Community Survey: for Oakland, California at  http://factfinder2.census.gov/faces/tableservices/jsf/pages/productview.xhtml?pid=ACS_10_1YR_S2301&prodType=table 

[3] East Bay Blog, “Oakland Police Decide Not to Use Sonic Cannon on Protestors,” East Bay Express (July 7, 2010), read at http://www.eastbayexpress.com/92510/archives/2010/07/07/oakland-cops-decide-to-not-use-sound-cannon-on-protesters. The $675,000 price tag is based on East Bay Express’s business research. 

[4] Michael Siegel, “Oakland Leaders Should Keep Sound Cannons on Ice,” East Bay (November 13, 2011), read online at http://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2011/11/13/18699317.php. For Alameda County’s purchase order, see  http://www.scribd.com/doc/70393825/Alameda-County-LRAD-Procurement 

[5] Lauren Callahan, “Oakland City Council Weighs Budget Cuts, Police Officer Layoffs,”  OaklandNorth (June 16. 2010) at http://oaklandnorth.net/2010/06/16/oakland-city-council-weighs-budget-cuts-police-officer-layoffs/ 

[6] “Sonic Weapon” at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sonic_weapon 

[7] Siegel,” Oakland Leaders.” 

[8] Jerry Seper and Chuck Neubauer, “Police Buy Military-style Sonic Device: Used for Unruly Crowds and Protests,” Washington Times, October 1, 2009, 1. The city of Pittsburgh and its police department are in fact currently being sued for damage caused by the deployment of LRAD devices in September of 2009. See note 29, below. 

[9] Xeni Jardin,  “Focused Sound ‘Laser’ for Crowd Control,” National Public Radio (September 21, 2005) at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4857417

[10] “Sonic Weapons,” Psychological Harassment Information Association at http://www.psychologicalharassment.com/advanced_technologies.htm. See also BBC News, “Company Defends Anti-Teen Device,” BBC News (February 12, 2008) at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/wales/7240306.stm 

[11] “Georgian Police Accused of Brutality,” RT (November 9, 2007), read at http://rt.com/news/georgian-police-accused-of-brutality/ 

[12] “Leaders of Peaceful Protest Against Triumph Threatened with Arrest,” Clean Clothes Campaign (September 7, 2009), read at http://www.cleanclothes.org/urgent-actions/leaders-of-peaceful-protest-against-triumph-threatened-with-arrest-in-thailand 

11. Joshua Keating, “Whalers Using Sonic Blasters on Environmentalists?” Foreign Policy blog (February 2, 2009), read at  http://blog.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2009/02/02/whalers_using_sonic_blasters_on_environmentalists 

[14]  David Hambling, “Sonic Warfare Erupts in Pittsburgh, Honduras,” Wired (September 25, 2009), at http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2009/09/sonic-warfare-erupts-in-pittsburgh-honduras/

 [15]  http://oddzialprewencji.policja.waw.pl/portal/opp/173/20546/MOBILNY_LRAD500X_NA_PLYTE_BOISKA.html 

[16]  Siegel, “Oakland Leaders;” East Bay Blog, “Oakland Police.”  The Canadian Civil Liberties Union in Support of Injunction Against LRAD Use can be found at http://www.scribd.com/doc/70394003/Canadian-Civil-Liberties-Union-brief-on-LRAD 

[17] For references to the 2008 Foreign Policy magazine report, see Joshua Keating, “Whalers Using Sonic Blasters on Environmentalists?” Foreign Policy blog (February 2, 2009) at http://blog.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2009/02/02/whalers_using_sonic_blasters_on_environmentalists and Wikipedia, “Long Range Acoustic Device,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Long_Range_Acoustic_Device. For background, see Daniel Pepper, “U.S. Technology Against Chinese Dissidents?” Mondiaal Nieuws (July 2, 2008) at http://www.mo.be/node/18148. Pepper reports that in summer of 2008, Robert Putnam, chief of media and investor relations with the LRAD’s manufacturer, ATC, claimed that the LRAD was “a directed sounds communications system, not a weapon.”

[18] Pepper, “U.S. Technology.” 

[19] Mat, “Available: Chinese Tech for Putting Down Protests,” Signalfire (February 26, 2011) at http://signalfire.org/?p=7920  

[20] ATC has in recent years becomes “LRAD Corporation.”  Some accounts of the LRAD’s invention refer not to 9/11 but the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole the previous year as the spark. 

[21] Jardin, “Focused Sound ‘Laser.’” 

[22] Amanda Onion, “RNC to Feature Unusual Forms of Sound,” ABC News (August 25, 2004), read at  http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=99472&page=1 

[23] Onion, “RNC to Feature”  

[24] Jardin, “Focused Sound ‘Laser.”

[25] “Update – G20 Appeal Win and the LRAD Experts in Pittsburgh,” Twin Cities Indymedia (March 8, 2010), read at http://twincities.indymedia.org/2010/mar/update-g20-appeal-win-and-lrad-experts-pittsburgh

[26] Seper and Neubauer, “Police Buy Military-Style Sonic Device.” 

[27] “Update – G20 Appeal” 

[28] Seper and Neubauer, “Police Buy Military-Style Sonic Device.” 

[29] Seper and Neubauer, “Police Buy Military-Style Sonic Device.” 

[30] “English Professor ‘Deafened’ by Police’s Long Range Acoustic Device Used on Protestors,” Daily Mail, September 26, 2011 at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2041733/Karen-Piper-deafened-polices-Long-Range-Acoustic-Device-used-protesters.html

[31] Associated Press (AP), “Protests Boost Sales and Fears of Sonic Blaster” (December 12, 2011), read online at http://online.wsj.com/article/AP19ca43a482744eee975539d6d180bc24.html

[32] AP, “Protests Boost Sales and Fears of Sonic Blaster.” 

[33] Paul Street, The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010), 164. 

[34] Seper and Neubauer, “Police Buy Military-Style Sonic Device.” The notion that the LRAD might be used against right wing Tea Party Republicans who harassed Democratic congresspersons over Obama’s supposedly socialist health care agenda in the summer of 2009 was preposterous. As a stanch defender of dominant domestic and imperial hierarchies and a strictly Astroturf phenomenon, the Republican-affiliated Tea Party has never faced the sort of violent suppression experienced by genuinely populist and grassroots activists with Occupy Wall Street. 

[35] East Bay Blog, “Oakland Police;” Ewan MacAskill, “Oscar Grant Shooting: Officer Found Guilty of Involuntary Manslaughter,” The Guardian, July 8, 2010. As the Guardian reported, “The shooting, which was shown on YouTube, led to a riot in Oakland, and there were fears of further trouble if Mehserle had been found not guilty. Police were yesterday deployed in riot gear in case of any outbreaks of violence.”  Mehserle ended up serving just 72 days behind bars. See Yobie Benjamin, “Johannes Mehserle: 2-Year Sentence With Credits and Time Served….Free in 72 Days,” City Brights/SFGate ( November 5, 2010) at http://blog.sfgate.com/ybenjamin/category/sad/ 

[36] My understanding is that Siegel resigned from his position after the action described in note 39, below. 

[37] East Bay Blog. “Oakland Police.” 

[38] See Alison Kilkenny, “Police Attack Occupy Oakland Camp,” In These Times, Uprising Blog (October 25, 2011. 12:55 pm) at http://www.inthesetimes.com/uprising/entry/12179/police_attack_occupy_oakland_camp/;  Adam Martin, “Oakland’s Tent City is Gone,” The Atlantic Wire (October 25, 2011) at http://www.theatlanticwire.com/national/2011/10/occupy-oaklands-tent-city-gone/44092/; Ken Layne, “ “Four More Years:: Obama Raises Money In San Francisco As Cops Gas Oakland Protesters,” Wonkette (October 26, 2011) at http://wonkette.com/455208/obama-raises-money-in-san-francisco-as-cops-gas-oakland-protesters. Kilkenny’s on-the-ground report suggests that the LRAD was deployed but not used in the Oakland attack: “If what is shown on the video is indeed a sound cannon, the police decided they didn’t need the weaponry this morning and instead relied on good, old-fashioned rubber bullets and tear gas.” Also indicating that neither Oakland nor Alameda County actually attacked protestors’ ear drums with their LRADs  is Fred Siegel’s call in early November for “Oakland’s leaders to keep Sound Cannon on Ice” (title of his article cited in note 4, above). Bringing the weapon along is more than keeping it on ice, however.

[39] The attack was described by a downtown security guard who beheld a massive, Nazi-like police rush on 100 or so hundred peaceful occupiers:  “I witnessed the raid on the Occupation Oakland, at a little bit after 4:30 in the morning, and it was terrifying to see …there were just so many policeman… the numbers were incredible….they lined up almost like in a phalanx, on the street, and then they moved in…. There were helicopters flying about and with high beams on the camps…the beams were moving across every which way…There were young people in these camps and children, infants in a lot of the tents and this was just…completely out of whack with the situation….They shot…tear gas into the middle of the camp, and at the time, there were dumpsters lined up in front, at the entrance, on the corner because the occupiers were trying to conform to the new regulations that the city of Oakland had given to them….The police moved those dumpsters to the side and then they moved to the next stage of taking the barricades and kicking them down. And then they moved in and the first thing they hit was the information tent, and they just started just tearing everything down… this was a military type operation, the way they moved in. It harkened back to old footage I had seen of Nazi Germany where…you had the Nazis, the SS going in and picking up innocent people. It had that tenor. …The helicopters, and the lights, and the loudspeaker, all those were all intended to create panic and terror for the people inside….It was something like out of a Star Wars movie except instead of being in white they were all in black. …they were all in riot gear…with the visors, they looked like automatons, they just moved in, in a line…They had these vehicles that looked like armored boxes, black, special riot vehicles….the thing that stays in my minds eye is in the middle ground with the lights from the helicopters, the police moving in and just stomping on these tents, and moving in one layer, after another, moving in deeper and deeper…” This brutal exercise in militarized policing put a U.S. military veteran (Scott Olson) in intensive care with a fractured skull and inflicted numerous other injuries. Dennis Bernstein, “What The Cops Really Did in Oakland,” Counterpunch (November 2, 2011) at http://www.counterpunch.org/2011/11/02/what-the-cops-really-did-in-oakland/ 

[40]   Rocco Parascandola and Tracy O’Connor, “Police Use Military Megaphone for OWS,” New York Daily News, November 18, 2011; AP, “Protests Boost Sales and Fears.” 

[41] http://rt.com/news/occupy-boston-eviction-police-515/ 

[42]  Sadie Gurman, “Police Put Experience Into Play for Super Bowl Aftermath,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 2, 2011 at  http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/11033/1122293-147.stm#ixzz1lnxKhCcW  The victory of the Green Bay Packers any need for “crowd control.”

[43] For remarkable footage of the LRAD (along with dogs, mace, billyclubs, and tear gas) in use by homeland security officers against partying Western Illinois students (assaulted in their own homes), see  “Video: Police Body Slam Student – LRAD Sound Canon’s Used on Western Illinois University Kids,” YouTube (uploaded May 2, 2011) at   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5NCNXEslD1g&feature=related To see and hear commentary on the LRAD go to 1:15. “This thing was very dangerous,” reported one student. “I saw officers literally point this LRAD weapon at apartment buildings.”

[44] AP, “Protests Boost Sales and Fears.” 

[45] “Top 10 Most Profitable Defense Stocks: LRAD, PCP, -, CRDN, FLIR, ASEI, COL, TDG, HEI, FEIM (Jan 09, 2012),” China Analyst: News and Research on Chinese Stocks (January 9, 2012) at http://www.cnanalyst.com/2012/01/top-10-most-profitable-defense-stocks-lrad-pcp-crdn-flir-asei-col-tdg-hei-feim-jan-09-2012-.html 

[46] Mike Ferner, “With Shot and Shell, or ‘Modular Crowd Control Munitions,’” ZNet, December 15, 2008, at www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/19953;  Antifascist, “Compliance by Design: The Continuing Allure of ‘Non-Lethal Weapons,” Antifascist Calling, September 18, 2009, at http://antifascist-calling.blogspot.com/2009/09/compliance-by-design-continuing-allure.html ; N. Lewer and N. Davison, “Non-Lethal Technologies: An Overview,” Disarmament Forum, no. 1 (2005): 36–52. 

[47] “US Military Unveils Heat-Ray Gun,” BBC News (January 25, 2007) at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/6297149.stm 

[48] Michael Hanlon, “Run Away, The Ray Gun is Coming,”  Daily Mail (UK) September 18, 2007 at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-482560/Run-away-ray-gun-coming–We-test-US-armys-new-secret-weapon.html 

[49] Hanlon, “Run Away.” 

[50] James Madison, “Political Reflections” (February 23, 1799), quoted at http://fruitsandvotes.com/blog/wp-content/madison_reflections.html

[51] David Hambling, “‘Pain Ray’ First Commercial Sale Looms,” Wired/Danger Room (August 5, 2009), read online at http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2009/08/pain-ray-first-commercial-sale-looms/ 

[52] Hambling, “‘Pain Ray’s’ First Commercial Sale Looms.”

[53] “Union Files Labor Complaint Against Hyatt For Turning Heat Lamps On Picketers,” Huffington Post (July 28, 2011), read at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/28/union-files-labor-complai_n_912773.html

[54] On “frozen zones” (used by the NYPD to pen up Occupy protestors outside an Obama fundraiser with millionaires last December). see Josh Harkinson, “ ‘ They’re Holding Us Hostage.’” Mother Jones  (December 1, 2011), read a http://motherjones.com/mojo/2011/11/occupy-wall-street-free-speech-zones-obama-protest-video 

[55] Tasers can kill and have killed on more than just a few occasions. See Silva J.A. Talvi, “Stunning Revelations: The Untold Story of Taser-Related Deaths,” In These Times, November 16, 2006 at http://www.inthesetimes.com/article/2894/ 

[56] Jardin, “Focused Sound ‘Laser.’” 

[57] “UC Davis Protestors Pepper Sprayed,” YouTube, uploaded November 18, 2011 at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6AdDLhPwpp4. See also Associated Press, “Outcry After California Police Pepper Spray Students,” November 19, 2011, read at http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2011-11-19-uc-davis-pepper-spray-occupy-protests.htm 

[58] The candid and shocking  report on the Chicago police riots of  August 1968 is The National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, Rights in Conflict: “The Chicago Police Riot” (New York: New American Library, December 1968). 

[59] “UC David Protestors Pepper-Sprayed” (listen to the full audio at the URL cited in note 57). 

[60] Yves Smith, “Police State: #OWS, Other Crackdowns Part of National, Coordinated Effort,” Naked Capitalism (November 15, 2011) at http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2011/11/police-state-ows-other-crackdowns-part-of-national-coordinated-effort-bloomberg-defies-court-order-to-let-protestors-back-into-zuccotti-park.html 

[61] Patrick Gillham, “Complexity & Irony in Policing and Protesting: The World Trade Organization in Seattle,” Social Justice. vol. 27 ( 2000), no.2, pp. 212-236, read online at http://web.mit.edu/gtmarx/www/seattle.html 

[62] See http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/18/nato-g8-summits-in-chicag_n_1214048.html and  http://dissenter.firedoglake.com/2012/01/18/chicago-city-council-passes-rahm-emanuels-anti-protest-ordinances/ 

[63] Sheldon Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008); Alex Carey, “The Orwell Diversion,” pp. 133-139 in Alex Carey, Taking the Risk Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1997) 

[64] Martin Luther King Jr, “A Testament of Hope” (1968), reproduced in Martin Luther King, Jr.., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. by James M. Washington (San Francisco, CA: Harper Collins, 1991), 315. King warned more than once that the alternative to such restructuring could be a police state. 

[65] John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York, The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Planet (New York: Monthly Review, 2010); Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet (New York: Times Books, 2010). 

[66] Herve Kempf, How the Rich Are Destroying the Earth (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2007). The quote is from p. 92. “During the 1990s,” Kempf claims, “the paradigm that linked freedom and capitalism dissolved. On the one hand, the extreme right, under the influence of ‘neoconservatism,’ elaborated an ideology that made its priorities maintenance of the existing social order and of U.S. dominance. On the other hand, the impressive surge of the Chinese economy in a context of continued oppression and one-party rule accustomed minds to a possible uncoupling of public freedoms and economic dynamism.”

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