The Loudness War: Sound and Control in Civil Protests

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The use of sound as a weapon, whether physical or psychological, is by no means a novel concept. In World War II, German scientists experimented with a ‘sonic cannon’ that emitted a sub-bass frequency believed powerful enough to cause nausea, organ compression and death within a minute. During the Vietnam War, American helicopters were fitted with a loudspeaker dubbed ‘The Curdler’, which unleashed the sonic equivalent of a premonition of ceaseless purgatory on enemy troops below:

Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRADs) are arguably the latest in this line of sonic technology. Originally marketed as long distance communication carriers by their manufacturers American Technology Corporation, they are capable of delivering a shrill 145dB tone over hundreds of metres. They most often serve as deterrents, defending coastlines and cargo ships against pirates or repelling birds from commercial and military airfields.

LRADs are also being adopted for other, more confrontational purposes, such as the ongoing military conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps more troublingly, recent years have seen a greater use of LRADs in instances of civil unrest.

While LRADs were part of the NYPD’s policing strategy for the 2004 Republican National Convention, the first operational deployment on US soil was at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh in September 2009 to disperse crowds of protesters (see below). They have since been used in the Occupy Wall Street movement (2011), the NATO summit in Chicago (2012) and during the racially charged unrest that followed the killings of Michael Brown (Ferguson, Missouri) and Eric Garner (New York) by police officers in 2014.

These events and others like them appear to signify a marked shift in tone and emphasis in the discourse relating to maintaining public order. What does the rise in the use of sound as a means of control say about attitudes to political dissent, public spaces and sound itself?

In the case of Pittsburgh, government-allocated protest permits and free speech zones – ideally used to strike a balance between freedom and public safety – were strategically issued (or refused outright) so that protests were confined to areas well away from the summit itself. These sites were then policed in an at times hostile manner that meant demonstrators stood a far greater chance of criminalisation (Sery 2013). By the time the LRAD was activated, the very act of protest had already been constructed as a menace to the public.

De Bartolo (2008) argues that this reframing of social spaces as ‘sites of danger’ began in the post 9/11 discourse of police knowledge (i.e. knowledge acquired through experiences of similar events), where invocations of threat and terror increasingly informed the way in which non-violent protest movements were viewed and handled. As this internally circulated NYPD Situation & Threat Assessment from the aforementioned Republican National Convention illustrates, these perceptions are constructed as reality through the advice and profiles issued to the police force:

Currently there are no specific threats against the RNC. However, political conventions and elections are potential terrorist targets. The vehicle borne improvised explosive device remains one of the most readily available and frequently used tactics by terrorists worldwide. The use of hazardous materials, including chemical and biological weapons, poses a significant threat as well.

Additionally, it is anticipated that New York City will see a volume of protest activity not seen in decades. Organizers from United for Peace and Justice predict that 250,000 people will participate in their march and rally scheduled for August 29th.

While the vast majority of the participants will be peaceful, the sheer size of this event will place a tremendous strain on the department’s resources and severely impact vehicular and pedestrian flow in midtown.

Open source information indicates that there will be some individuals and groups, who advocate violence in opposition to the government, seeking to engage in criminal conduct that could significantly endanger public safety.

NYPD Executive Summary in De Bartolo (2008) (emphasis added)

By shrouding neutral information in redolent terrorist discourse, the document de-legitimises and vilifies protesters and paves the way for more extreme ‘command and control’ policing including devices such as the LRAD. Incidentally, no dangerous devices were found during the event and despite over 1800 arrests of activists and bystanders less than 10% were charged, mostly for minor offences.

This categorisation of protestors does simply entail making allusions to terrorism. Looking at the instances where LRADs were used against demonstrators, it is not difficult to see how bodies charged with maintaining social control can typecast those involved: the poor or disadvantaged, ethnic minorities, other races or nationalities (outsiders), the morally aberrant, political agitators.

Whether any of these labels are grounded is immaterial. Firstly, the authority and autonomy afforded to the police force creates an imbalanced power dynamic that is self-sustaining; it defines itself and shapes the roles and identities of the social actors around it. Secondly, language – that of danger, deviance and the unknown – is a powerful means of generating consensus for solving social problems (Maneri and ter Wal 2005).

The use of LRADs continues to draw criticism from human rights organisations who deem them ‘less lethal’ rather than ‘non lethal’ weapons (Lewer and Davison 2005). Unlike with tear gas and bullets, the immediate effects of sound are largely invisible, but they can still be irreversible. Journalists and activists exposed to LRAD at an Eric Garner protest in New York recently sued the police for civil rights violations, citing the use of excessive force. The City of Pittsburgh paid a $72,000 settlement to a professor who suffered permanent hearing damage at the G20 summit protest.

Though there is still an ambivalent attitude towards the weaponisation of sound to maintain public order, there are some important reasons why LRADs have gained such rapid acceptance among law enforcement agencies. Under the constant gaze of international media, the use of LRADs is rendered exceptional: it gains legitimacy by existing outside of society’s conventional understanding of policing and violence.

Zuazu (2015) sees the ready adoption by authorities as a cynical attempt to ‘humanise and distinguish’ these powerful acoustic devices from the most extreme forms of sound torture*, even though they both appear to operate outside of any accountability. Consider that the initial definition of LRADs as loudhailers exempted them from the same rigorous legal and governmental scrutiny faced by manufacturers of state-endorsed lethal weapons. In addition, over a decade since their introduction there is still no official police policy for their use.

Driven by a one-sided, fear-based discourse, the movement away from democratic forms of policing towards paramilitary ones is having a discernible effect on the way protests and activists are being assessed, enabled/disabled and portrayed. LRADs occupy an ambiguous position, both in the arsenal of police strategies and in the public consciousness. However, what is clear is how the aggressive use of sound to control public spaces and secure compliance with authorities is indicative of a decreasingly interpersonal approach to policing and public relations. Perhaps this aspect of the ideological shift is the most worrying of all: that LRADs may be part of a wider erosion of public safety, the right to assemble and to exercise free speech.

* Note: For the purposes of this article, the use of LRADs in mass protest is viewed as distinct from other forms of sound torture, such as those used on individual prisoners in the detention camps at Guantanamo Bay after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Bibliography

De Bartolo Jr., P. J. (2008). NYPD Protest Policing: An Analysis of Discourse, Dissent, and Redefinition. (Doctoral dissertation, Central European University).

Goodman, S. (2009). Sonic warfare: Sound, affect, and the ecology of fear. MIT Press.

Hill, S., & Beger, R. (2009). A Paramilitary Policing Juggernaut. Social Justice, 36(1), 25-40.

Lewer, N., & Davison, N. (2005). Non-lethal technologies—an overview. Disarmament forum, 1, 37-51.

Maneri, M., & Ter Wal, J. (2005). The Criminalisation of Ethnic Groups: An Issue for Media Analysis. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 6(3).

Moynihan, C. (2014). Concerns Raised Over Shrill Device New York Police Used During Garner Protests. New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/13/nyregion/lawyers-raise-concerns-over-shrill-device-used-by-police-during-garner-protests.html

Radovac, L. (2014). Mic Check: Occupy Wall Street and the Space of Audition. Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, 11(1), 34-41.

Sery, J. (2013). Reframing Dissent: The Pittsburgh G20 and the Growing Challenges for Protest. In C. Rountree (Ed.), Venomous Speech: Problems with American Political Discourse on the Right and Left (pp. 391-440). Westport, CT: Praeger.

Shank, G. (2009). Overview: Policing Protest and Youth. Social Justice, 36(1), 1–6.

Vinokur, R. (2004). Acoustic Noise as a Non-Lethal Weapon. Journal of Sound and Vibration, 10), 19-24.

Volcler, J. (2013). Extremely Loud: Sound as a Weapon. New York: New Press.

Zadeh, J. (2014). A History of Using Sound as a Weapon. Motherboard. http://motherboard.vice.com/read/a-history-of-using-sound-as-a-weapon

Zuazu, M. E. (2015). Loud but Non-lethal: Acoustic Stagings and State-Sponsored Violence. Women and Music: A Journal of Gender and Culture, 19(1), 151-159.

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