Six days after George Floyd was killed by a white policeman, thousands of protesters in Minneapolis took over an on-ramp leading to the University of Minnesota. Among them was Soren Stevenson.
It was a warm evening, a few hours before the 8pm curfew set in. The crowd advanced toward a bridge leading to the university where Stevenson, 25, had recently graduated from with a Masters of international development. He linked arms with two other protesters and together, they made their way to the front.
Stevenson had attended several other protests throughout the week where police presence had been minimal. This was different. As he approached the bridge, Stevenson saw demonstrators retreating from the front line, their faces covered with milk to alleviate teargas burn. Once on the bridge, he counted 20 police vehicles and in front of them, officers in riot gear. The crowd began to chant, “Hands up Don’t Shoot.”
Without warning, a stun grenade launched over Stevenson’s left shoulder. He watched it explode over the crowd and then heard a pop – his head jerked backwards. He reached instinctively for his face. His eyebrow, his nose, his cheekbone had become soft and compressed, like a hard-boiled egg cracked with a teaspoon.
Blinded, Stevenson stumbled to the back of the protest and sat down on a curb, blood dribbling from his eye socket. He was sweating, terrified. He kept touching his face, which was covered in a jelly-like substance. “I’ve lost my eye,” he thought to himself. “This is my worst nightmare.”
Stevenson recounted this story to me on the phone weeks after the incident, his voice steady as he listed the extent of his injuries: a fractured nose, a fractured forehead, many tiny breaks around his left eye socket and cheek bone, a ruptured eyeball.
These injuries, which Stevenson’s ophthalmologist compared to those suffered in severe motor accidents, were caused by a rubber bullet, a crowd control weapon that police and weapons manufacturers deem “less lethal”. Along with teargas, stun grenades and water cannons, these weapons have long been used to disperse crowds during civil unrest around the world. During recent protests, which spread across every state of the US in the months after Floyd was killed and have continued in intervals ever since, the weapons have come under scrutiny, with dozens of protesters sustaining serious injuries.
Much attention has already been given to the immediate physical trauma inflicted by those weapons. But for Stevenson, and many other protesters who have been in the firing line in the past month, the impacts will reverberate throughout their lives. When we spoke, Stevenson had just had his left eye removed and his eye-lid sewed shut. He told me that seeing out of only one eye makes him feel dizzy and nauseous. “It hurts to even look at my phone screen,” he said. “I spend a lot of time with my eyes closed.”
After speaking to Stevenson, it struck me that the term “less lethal” isn’t only a euphemism for the harm caused at the moment of impact, but also conceals the long-term trauma lingering afterwards. I reached out to a number of people injured during previous protest movements, wanting to gather what they know about the scars of resistance, those that remain once the rest of the world moves on.
Many of the so-called non-lethal crowd control weapons that are used to disperse protests today have their origins in colonial policing. In the 19th century, British forces used baton rounds – rudimentary wooden bullets fashioned from the end of broom handles – to quell civil unrest in Singapore and Hong Kong, and then decades later, in Northern Ireland, where wood was replaced with rubber and plastic.
For all the brutality of these weapons – during the Troubles, for instance, rubber and plastic bullets killed 17 people including eight children – there was a wide scale adoption of the technologies by local law enforcement in the US throughout the 20th century. Police departments across the country deployed teargas and baton rounds on labor movement protestors in the 1930s, and again on anti-Vietnam war demonstrators in the 1970s. Today, police departments in cities across America are armed with high-tech crowd control arsenals of flash bang grenades, beanbag rounds filled with birdshot, pepper balls fired rapidly from machine guns.
While these weapons have become accepted by law enforcement as a legitimate method for managing civil unrest, Anna Feigenbaum, who has written a history of teargas, argues that the way they are used domestically echoes how they were deployed during colonial and military struggles. “These weapons were invented as a way to not have to engage with people’s claims to human rights,” she told me. “And they are still deployed to both physically and psychologically destroy people engaging in resistance.”
Vanessa Dundon, a 35-year-old Navajo woman and mother of four, has experienced this firsthand. On a cold November evening in 2016, Dundon responded to a call for help from an abandoned bridge immediately north of the Oceti Šakowiŋ camp, where she was protesting the Dakota Access pipeline.
At the bridge, a handful of protesters were towing two burnt-out trucks to clear the way for emergency vehicles. Dundon noticed a journalist standing near a line of police in formation behind a barbed-wire barricade. Having seen previous clashes turn violent, she walked over to advise the journalist to move to a safe place at the side of the road. As she approached, the police fired teargas canisters, striking Dundon directly in the face from a distance of around 20ft.
As she turned to run, Dundon was hit with a rubber bullet in the back of her left leg and fell to the ground. Two protesters picked her up and carried Dundon to a nearby medical yurt where volunteers placed butterfly sutures over her left eye. “It felt like my whole eye had split open and my eyeball was hanging out,” she told me. “I’m a strong woman and can endure pain, but I was so scared.”
For the next few weeks, Dundon was in and out of hospital. The blunt force of the tear gas canister detached her retina and she had three surgeries to have it re-attached. She has since regained some vision – vague outlines and colors – but the injury still causes her pain and distress. At a checkup earlier this year, her ophthalmologist delivered the bad news that excess blood accumulating behind her eyeball is increasing pressure on her optic nerve, substantially increasing the risk of glaucoma or permanent blindness in years to come.
More painful than the physical injury, Dundon told me, is the fact that she can no longer engage in activism. Before Standing Rock, she had lived a relatively sheltered life on the Navajo reservation. At the camp, she met elders who told her stories about the American Indian Movement protests of the 1960s and 1970s. At Standing Rock, Dundon had been inducted into the movement and was given a new activist name, Sioux Z Dezbah. She had plans to continue her activism and advocacy in her community. “It was there that I woke up and started to realize that if we want to have change, we need to demand it,” she said.
Her injury has made this vision feel out of reach. “I can’t drive. I have no peripheral vision on my left side. Loud and crowded places make me anxious,” Dundon told me, adding that many other Native American activists from Standing Rock have similarly been incapacitated by their injuries.
“Because we can’t go out there anymore no one wants to know about us,” she said. “It’s like we’ve become invisible.”
When protesters are severely injured with crowd control weapons, police departments often avoid culpability by stating that individual officers failed to follow the rules of deployment. A similar strategy is employed by weapon manufacturers, who assert that if their products were used as instructed, serious injury would be avoided.
But according to Feigenbaum, this type of deflection is deeply cynical and misleading. Over the years, she has attended many crowd control weapon expos and has found that law enforcement agencies and munitions manufacturers both cultivate a narrative that emphasizes police vulnerability and underplays how dangerous the weapons really are. “This attitude then plays out in the militarized response to protests,” she said. “The officers feel that it is reasonable and relatively safe for them to deploy any amount of force on people.”
Rachel Lederman, a human rights attorney based in the Bay Area, told me that this narrative also makes it harder for victims to seek justice. “The legal system is influenced by the police relating that they are in danger and therefore have to use force,” she said. “Even when someone is terribly injured, they come up against a certain bias that leans against protesters and towards police.”
Lederman, who is currently the lead attorney in Vanessa Dundon’s as-yet-to-be-heard case against North Dakota police officials, added that even when compensation is awarded, plaintiffs may not feel like justice has been served.
In 2011, her former client, Scott Olsen, was struck in the head with a beanbag round while protesting at an Occupy Oakland rally, the impact fracturing his skull and spinal vertebrae, while causing significant damage to the left frontal lobe of his brain. Olsen, a Marine Corps veteran who served two tours of Iraq, was put under a medically-induced coma, after which he was unable to speak for several weeks.
In the months after the injury, Olsen went back to his job in IT but was fired shortly after, when his bosses found that he was unable to keep a schedule or complete certain basic tasks. In 2014, Olsen was paid $4.5m in a settlement with the City of Oakland, after which he moved to rural Wisconsin, where he now works as a farmer keeping chickens and honeybees.
Although his bones have fully healed, Olsen, now 32, still suffers from the impact of his brain injury. As well as struggling to maintain a regular sleeping schedule, he forgets people soon after meeting them and often finds himself walking into a room and not remembering why. “I know this happens to everybody, but it happens to me on almost daily basis,” he told me. Neurologists have told him that he is now at a higher risk of epileptic seizures, early onset dementia, and other cognitive disorders.
“It’s been helpful for me to have the compensation from the settlement,” he told me. “But it feels hollow without the officers being personally punished for what they did to my life.”
Crowd control weapons do not only traumatize individuals; in regions and communities where there is ongoing civil unrest, the long term impact of violence can ramify across populations. A study published earlier this year, found that the prevalence of depression in Hong Kong residents aged 18 years and older increased five-fold after last year’s protests, while PTSD symptoms were estimated to be six times higher – impacting almost 32% of those surveyed.
Justin Hansford, professor of law at Howard University, has himself witnessed how violent responses to protest can shape the life of a community. The 37-year old human rights lawyer was a key participant in the 2014 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, where he volunteered on the front lines as a legal observer. During almost 300 days of protest, he was teargassed, threatened, surveilled, arrested and saw friends severely injured by rubber bullets.
Hansford left St Louis in 2015 – after winning a Fulbright scholarship to study the legal career of Nelson Mandela – but the trauma of the protests lingers. Stressful situations and expressions of anger trigger flashbacks. Manifestations of trauma also show up in inflammation and physical pain in his body. Sleep has been difficult. He has recurring nightmares of friends being executed by police.
Hansford manages his symptoms with therapy and meditation, but he knows others have found it more difficult to cope, particularly if they still have contact with St Louis police.
Bassem Masri, a Palestinian-American activist arrested alongside Hansford in 2014, died of a heart attack following a fentanyl overdose in 2018. (Masri is one of six prominent Ferguson activists who have died since the protests.) “Given what I myself went through, I have no doubt that Bassem’s experience at Ferguson contributed to his death,” Hansford told me. “I know I have been tempted to find ways to escape reality and deal with all the stress.”
The persistent, reverberating trauma of the protests, Hansford added, is not evenly distributed across St Louis, but is borne disproportionately by the black community. “For us, every protest felt like we were in a war, like we were under siege,” he said. “But then I’d drive through some white suburb and they were living like a regular Sunday afternoon.”
Ruth-Thompson Miller, a visiting professor of sociology at Vassar College, told me that this has been the case throughout US history. While conducting research for a book about the legacy of the Jim Crow era, Thompson-Miller interviewed over 100 people who lived through segregation. She found that violence was more widespread across black communities than typically acknowledged, and that the experience of this violence continues to have long-lasting mental and physical health consequences for black people.
A surprising finding of her research, though, is that those who actively participated in the Civil Rights Movement had better health outcomes over a lifetime than those who did not. “They did experience violence on all sorts of levels while protesting or engaging in activism, but over the years this made them more resilient and empowered,” she told me. “The trauma was, to some extent, mitigated by demanding and imagining a more just future. “
Thompson-Miller’s findings resonate with Hansford, who told me that he now has the capacity to withstand intimidation and pressure. “I’ve had that experience and now I know I can survive it,” he said. “But it’s unfair that our communities always have to show up and bear this burden.”
If in the past the intense violence of crowd control weapons was known largely by police and protesters, today, it is dispatched in intimate detail on social media. Over the past month, photos and videos of protestors choking on tear gas or faces bloodied from rubber bullets have haunted the platforms – forcing members of the public who might never have encountered police violence to confront the damage being done to those exercising their democratic rights in the streets.
This heightened exposure has, in turn, led to greater scrutiny on the continued use of these weapons. Congressional lawmakers and city councils are calling for a ban on the use of teargas. The American Academy of Ophthalmology issued a public statement calling for the immediate end to the use of rubber bullets to control or disperse protester. “Americans have the right to speak and congregate publicly and should be able to exercise that right without the fear of blindness,” the official statement read. “You shouldn’t have to choose between your vision and your voice.”
For Stevenson and countless others, this reckoning has come too late. The initial pain and nausea he experienced in the days after being shot has subsided. Now he is coming to terms with a life he never imagined. “I’m not a very religious person,” he told. “But I reached out to a local pastor, just to help me make sense of the world.”
As with every other injured protester I spoke to, Stevenson does not regret participating in the protest. “I feel like my injury will forever remind me that we need justice around police violence and race in the country,” he said. Dundon sees her scar in a similarly symbolic way. “I always tell people, even though I lost an eye, I see things more clearly now,” she said.
When we spoke, Stevenson was waiting to undergo what would hopefully be his final procedure. Doctors would take out the rubber prosthetic in his eye socket and replace it with a glass eye. He had been speaking with a lawyer about bringing suit against the Minneapolis police department. In the meantime, his family had started raising funds for his medical bills.
If this future was somewhat daunting, Stevenson tried to stay positive. He told me that he was chatting online with other protesters who had recently lost an eye from so-called less lethal weaponry. “We have tentative plans to go on a camping trip together,” he said, laughing. “Just a bunch of Cyclops out in the woods.”