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Meet the protest profiteers

United States
Milipol exhibition, Paris

More than just bangs for your buck – there’s money to be made in putting down protests with ‘less lethal’ weapons, as visitors to the Milipol security expo know. © Francois Mori/AP Photos

Across the vast exhibition hall, rows of stalls stand neatly arranged. People pace the aisles, peering keenly over displays. Suited salespeople sip champagne, chatting over bowls of free breath mints branded with their company logos. Glanced from afar, one could be at any expo. There is even a hot-dog vendor in the distance.

But, once past the extra security and on to the exhibition floor, a wall-mounted rack of machine guns suggests something more sinister. Along each side of the expo’s alleyways are glass cases stocked full of colourful rows of teargas canisters, sound grenades and rubber bullets. Orange caps, blue caps, yellow caps, each signifying a different size and strength. Beside them stand life-sized mannequins, lips moulded into half smiles. Rather than donning the new season’s fashion, however, these are draped in the latest line of body armour. Even the boudoir corset on display is made of heavy-duty rubber.

These expos take place all around the world, from Israel to India, Qatar to Canada. They form part of a rapidly growing internal security sector predicted to expand by 20 per cent by 2020

Welcome to Milipol, Europe’s largest internal security expo. Operating since 1984 and now gearing up for its fourth decade, Milipol is one of the longest-running and most established security trade shows for military and policing. The 2013 event held in Paris featured over 900 exhibitors, drew 27,000 visitors and hosted 160 official delegations.

Exhibitions like these offer opportunities for government and corporate officials to peruse the latest in riot-control weapons and share strategies on surveillance and crowd control. These expos take place all around the world, from Israel to India, Qatar to Canada. They form part of a rapidly growing internal security sector predicted to expand by 20 per cent by 2020.

Corporate leaders in the ‘less lethal’ market include Combined Systems Inc and Non-Lethal Technologies, both based in the US, Israel’s ISPRA and Brazil’s Condor Non-Lethal Technologies. Southeast Asian suppliers are expanding and many of the components that go into making these weapons come from China and India, where exports are cheap.

In recent years, international companies have increasingly begun to partner up. This allows them broader global reach, enabling corporations like Condor, located outside the European Union (EU), to share tenders with smaller companies inside the EU, where trade regulations between member states are more lax.

A market opportunity

Since 2011, the sales of less lethal technologies for crowd control have been on the rise. From the perspective of security salespeople, protest is highly profitable. ‘Civil unrest has become commonplace in many regions of the world, from protesters in Brazil to activists in the Middle East. Governments have responded by purchasing record amounts of non-lethal weapons,’ reports marketwatch.com. ‘The prevailing uncertain economic circumstances, the complex political situation, and the deteriorating security condition across the globe have given rise to popular unrest and protests,’ explain investment researchers at Markets and Markets.

Corporate marketing materials have likewise embraced these uprisings as promotion opportunities. In a magazine advertising their services, leading global defence company TAR writes that 2012-13 saw over 60 large-scale riots triggered by ‘poverty, oppression, hunger, race or religion’. To respond to these unstable environments, TAR encourages city and government leaders to turn to their ‘ONE STOP SHOP that can deliver a full turnkey robust solution’ for public safety.

The latest model – what will riot police be wearing this year?

ABACA ABACA PRESS/ABACA/Press Association Images

One such crowd-control solution prominently featured at Milipol 2013 was the Samson NL RW5 – a 360-degree rotating, modular, rapid-fire multi-lethal response system for what Israeli manufacturer Rafael calls ‘low-intensity conflicts violence’. Not yet ‘safety’ approved for the commercial market, the modular system combines LRAD (long-range acoustic technology) with Combined Systems Inc’s Venom grenade launcher for coloured smoke and flash bangs. With over 4,000 of their base systems already sold, Rafael’s executives are expecting high demand for their product.

Multiple force response systems also come in small packages. Gracing the glass cabinets at Milipol 2013 were Condor’s ‘hyper triple’ grenades, Combined Systems’ ‘multi-bangs’ and ISPRA’s ‘double purpose rounds’ and ‘multi-effect’ biodegradables that mix coloured smoke (CS) with flash bangs, causing distress to the eyes, ears, noise, skin and respiratory systems simultaneously.

‘These grenades operate in two stages with three effects,’ the ISPRA product catalogue explains. ‘After throwing or launching, they emit a “High Flow” of CS Smoke. Few seconds later… surprisingly, the grenade explodes, creating a deterrent stunning noise by dispersion of either CS powder, rubber pellets, colouring agents, or sticky gel.’

Although manufacturers and governments claim that less lethals are safe, tasers and rubber bullets are often deadly. Teargas canisters and grenades get shot directly at people, causing great harm, and are fired into enclosed locations, resulting in suffocation and starting fires. These real-world practices are used to silence protest and deter dissent by policing the very air we breathe.

Anja Kanngeiser, a lecturer in sociology at Goldsmiths College in London, is an expert on sound technologies. ‘One of the key things that makes “less lethal” weapons dangerous,’ she says, ‘is the presumption that there is a standard human body that gets affected in a standard set of ways – specifically in ways that are not as bad as those associated with conventional weaponry. The level of sound emitted by a flash-bang grenade, for instance, can cause permanent hearing damage.’

In addition to such risks, these new canisters are often designed to deal with what the industry terms the ‘throw-back phenomenon’. Bouncing or dancing around once they hit the ground, they are engineered to make it difficult for protesters to protect themselves by throwing them out of the crowd or back at police lines. With protests on the up, these incendiary canisters have quite literally become hot commodities.

Selling less lethality

For nations like Brazil, host of the 2014 Football World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, maintaining a façade of public order is crucial for diplomatic relations and tourism revenue. But cuts to public services and transport infrastructure, combined with corporate cronyism and forced removals, are causing waves of dissent across the country.

Rio-based Condor has already secured a $22-million contract as part of the World Cup’s security budget, providing teargas, rubber bullets, light and sound grenades, and tasers

For Rio-based Condor, all this protest means big profits. The company has already secured a $22-million contract as part of the World Cup’s security budget, providing teargas, rubber bullets, light and sound grenades, and tasers. ‘We always advise the right escalation of force,’ promises Beni Iachan, a senior business analyst for Condor, as he points up at the company’s giant new PR poster.

The looming print features a chart showing six levels of enforcement, each paired with Condor products. Like a lifestyle policing package, Condor offers a product for every riot control officer’s needs to repress civil unrest. Supplying police with this full range of force provisions has helped Condor’s business to grow by over 30 per cent in the past five years.

In an age of social media, less lethals are seen to decrease officer accountability. ‘The police can no longer just go in and beat people,’ an executive from Combined Systems Inc explains. The spread of mobile video and social media platforms like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter means that acts of police violence can be recorded and rapidly disseminated. This has changed the stakes for police officers using physical force at protests.

To promote the use of less lethals, governments and manufacturers constantly make comparisons to greater forms of violence, acting as if coercive force is the only option for dealing with political dissent. This draws attention away from any deliberative or mediation-focused alternatives for protest policing. Instead, again and again we are offered a deadly ultimatum: ‘Would you rather a real bullet or a rubber one?’

Campaigning for change

Even NATO admits we do not know enough about the real human impacts of using less lethals. Their 2006 report concluded that much existing data ‘is unavailable due to proprietary or national security interests’, and where data is available, it is often of ‘very little relevant quality’.

While more long-term, comprehensive medical studies are needed, decades’ worth of research on the harms caused by these weapons does exist. Medical association journals and NGO groups such as Physicians for Human Rights have been releasing findings on teargas effects for years, and continue to call on governments to stop their use. Human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Omega, have published numerous reports on the abuse of such weapons by state forces.

Promoted as non-lethal, weapons such as tasers and flash-bang grenades can cause horrific injuries and even death.

Anja Kanngeiser

The export chains that enable the sale of less lethal weapons are also often the target of campaigns seeking to intervene in what Amnesty International calls the ‘trade in torture’. Last year, the group Bahrain Watch launched a #stoptheshipment campaign targeting Korean manufacturer Dae Kwang Chemical Corporation, contracted to supply more than a million canisters of teargas to Bahrain – a country where over 40 people have died and thousands more have been injured as a result of teargas-related offences.

Also using transnational tactics to fight this transnational trade, the Facing Tear Gas campaign brings together organizations from the US, Bahrain, Egypt, Greece, Canada, Chile and Palestine ‘to form a global initiative to ban teargas’. In October last year they held the first protest against Urban Shield, an annual SWAT team training session and security sales expo that promotes the use of military tactics for protest policing.

Whether or not a full ban is called for, there is a pressing need to refuse the sinister logic of selling less lethality as the solution for dealing with political protest. ‘Confronting governments with the horrendous results of the sales they sanction is important,’ says Ian Pocock of London Campaign Against Arms Trade. More pressure must be put on our officials to intervene in these practices of protest profiteering.

Anna Feigenbaum is a Lecturer in Media and Politics at Bournemouth University.

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