FREE ASSEMBLY — When the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Police Department deployed against a crowd of demonstrators a long-range deafening gun used previously by our forces in the streets of Iraq, the "non-lethal" arms escalation became the latest example of using military weapons and principles against civilian demonstrators, writes Justin Rogers-Cooper in the City University of New York Graduate Center's newspaper, the Advocate.

The poli­cies of the new home­land secu­rity state reflect
a con­sen­sus between law enforce­ment offi­cials and the mil­i­tary
about the use of new tech­no­log­i­cal weapons against cit­i­zens and
non-citizens. The Pitts­burgh secu­rity forces used non-lethal weapons
to dis­perse crowds, includ­ing the Long Range Acoustic Device, or the LRAD.
This large sonic gun radi­ates short bursts of sound waves that are
audi­ble over very long dis­tances. Fir­ing it up-close cre­ates a very
loud and pow­er­ful noise that is capa­ble of caus­ing hear­ing loss
and great lev­els of pain. These LRAD
devices have pre­vi­ously been used in Iraq for sim­i­lar pur­poses. It
was also used as a defen­sive weapon on the cruise ship Seabourn Spirit in 2005 off the coast of Soma­lia to fend off a group of pirates. The
pirates were repelled despite hav­ing rocket-propelled grenades and
machine guns.

And now the use of the weapon domes­ti­cally against
non-violent crowds of Amer­i­can cit­i­zens is tak­ing place, arguably
not only a vio­la­tion of their civil lib­er­ties but also
a vio­la­tion of basic human rights.

The device is meant to inflict “non-lethal injury.” In this sense it
echoes the “enhanced inter­ro­ga­tion” tech­niques that the mil­i­tary
uses to tor­ture enemy com­bat­ants in places like Iraq, Afghanistan,
and the US prison at Guan­tanamo Bay. Like the Taser gun, which has become pop­u­lar with local police depart­ments, the LRAD
is yet another law enforce­ment weapon that’s sup­pos­edly non-lethal
but also rel­a­tively unsta­ble in live tri­als. Like Preda­tor spy
planes that shoot Hell­fire mis­siles at sus­pected tar­gets in
Pak­istan, the Taser and the LRAD are
weapons that fun­da­men­tally change the new laws of secu­rity pow­ers.
These weapons mod­u­late wide ranges of before unheard of force in
order to sub­due indi­vid­u­als and crowds.

Equally prob­lem­atic is the increase in the use of the 1968 Riot
Act to crim­i­nal­ize the use of social net­work­ing tech­nolo­gies
such as Face­book and Twit­ter. Local author­i­ties in New York took
major steps to cir­cum­scrib­ing the effects of pub­lic protests in
2004 through mass arrests, but they went a step fur­ther in Pitts­burgh
by tar­get­ing the use of com­mu­ni­ca­tions devices by pro­test­ers.
Elliot Madison’s arrest by the Penn­syl­va­nia State Police in
Pitts­burgh for Tweet­ing the loca­tion of police to pro­test­ers is
symp­to­matic of a cam­paign to pre­vent crowds from intel­li­gently
orga­niz­ing. The sub­se­quent search of Madison’s apart­ment by an FBI
counter-terrorism unit con­fis­cated pic­tures of Marx and Lenin as
evi­dence. A grand jury trial is still open. The police are using the
Riot Act as legal prece­dent.

This is an orches­trated attack on
legit­i­mate forms of polit­i­cal dissent.

These actions send a chill­ing mes­sage to poten­tial polit­i­cal
activists and every­day cit­i­zen pro­test­ers, that pub­lic author­ity
will use any means nec­es­sary to con­trol indi­vid­u­als and crowds.
This includes autho­riz­ing the use of vio­lent new instru­ments of
con­trol. Each new tool reflects a unique tech­no­log­i­cal
break­through in the sci­ence of con­trol­ling human bod­ies
effi­ciently. These on-going assaults are tol­er­ated because of
lit­tle com­pro­mises that indi­vid­u­als make about the social
con­tract and the eth­i­cal respon­si­bil­i­ties one has toward the
suf­fer­ing of oth­ers. Each lit­tle com­pro­mise has required a denial
that returns as a form of fear and anx­i­ety in much of the Amer­i­can

Not coin­ci­dently, the Amer­i­can pub­lic has reacted
pas­sively against these new tech­nolo­gies of immo­bi­liz­ing bod­ies.
Anx­i­ety par­a­lyzes one’s abil­ity to think clearly about the real
move­ments in Amer­i­can politics.

These move­ments reflect essen­tial changes in the tech­nol­ogy of
crowd con­trol. Com­pa­nies that pro­vide emer­gency train­ing for
local author­i­ties use com­puter sim­u­la­tions that con­struct
sce­nar­ios of nat­ural dis­as­ters, fires, ter­ror­ism, and civil
dis­tur­bances. A sim­u­la­tion video adver­tised on YouTube boasts
that every block in New York has been dig­i­tally repro­duced for that

The expres­sion of these poli­cies in phys­i­cal
con­fronta­tions reveals an orga­nized, method­i­cal, and poten­tially
dehu­man­iz­ing approach toward all bod­ies present in declared
“emer­gency” and “dis­as­ter” zones. In much of the mil­i­tary
lit­er­a­ture, for instance, protests are also clas­si­fied as civil
dis­tur­bances. Civil dis­tur­bances are, in turn, defined as man-made
dis­as­ters. As a result, strate­gic responses to nat­ural dis­as­ters
and protest dis­as­ters are very sim­i­lar. They involve sus­pend­ing
civil lib­er­ties for the pur­poses of pro­tect­ing pub­lic order and
pri­vate prop­erty. Crowds are “man­aged,” whether they have gath­ered
to loot, com­mit vio­lence, or just to protest.

In a parallel development, a federal appeals court recently concluded that members of a marching crowd of demonstrators heard to be cheering on the isolated vandalism of a few individual members can be arrested and charged with rioting without an order to disperse.