The So-Called ‘Nonlethal’ History of Rubber Bullets Fired on Protesters
As demonstrators flood the streets to protest the killing of George Floyd, police have turned to a familiar — and dangerous — tactic
The first thing to know about rubber bullets is the name is a misnomer. Among the 75 different kinds manufactured, relatively few are made of solid rubber. Some, called “bean bag rounds,” are stuffed with lead pellets; others contain metal fragments and many have steel cores. Different substances, but a similar result. Together, rubber bullets, whose velocities can match those of live ammunition, have an estimated fatality rate of 3%, higher than Covid-19.
As demonstrators flood their city streets to protest the killing of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin, law enforcement officials have taken to using “nonlethal” force as a way to tamp down public gatherings. This includes the use of rubber bullets, a decades-old munition with a long history, as a tool to quell peaceful demonstrations and protests against police brutality.
Last week in Minneapolis, photojournalist Linda Tirado permanently lost her sight in one eye after being shot in the head by a rubber bullet. A grandmother in La Mesa, California was hospitalized in an intensive care unit after she was shot in the head with a rubber bullet. In Washington, D.C., National Guard officers fired a series of rubber bullets alongside tear gas to clear peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square to provide President Donald Trump a photo op with a Bible. These shootings, far from an anomaly, were a public reminder of how violent the American carceral state has always been toward certain communities.
“When you have a projectile coming out of a barrel at the exact same speed as a bullet and you’re only a couple of feet away, injuries can be catastrophic depending on where it hits,” said Jose Torradas, a San Francisco-based emergency room doctor and member of the American College of Emergency Physicians who has treated a handful of rubber bullet-related injuries.
Protesters should heed some simple guidance, Torradas said: Consider protecting your eyes by bringing plastic goggles to the next demonstration. Wear layered clothing to…