With a resurgence of civil unrest in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in the US, has come an exacerbated re-employment of varying levels of nonlethal crowd control and protest dispersion methods. With police brutality taking centre stage as part of the reasoning behind the world wide protests, the irony of the police retaliating with varying degrees of nonlethal weapon usage is rife. In essence, nonlethal weapons consist of stun guns, water cannons, flash bangs, pepper spray, tear gas and rubber bullets. And while these are all deemed nonlethal, if used incorrectly or with enough force, they certainly challenge their ‘nonlethal’ status by doing a lot of damage. Rubber bullets can cause massive blunt force trauma if fired at close range or at sensitive areas of the body, stun guns can cause cardiac arrest and flash bangs – permanent hearing damage – the list goes on.
Nonlethal weaponry or the uses of ‘less-lethal’ tactics were designed to encourage crowd dispersion or to ‘incapacitate’ a person rather than kill them. Such methods have come under major scrutiny as of late and have called into question their excessive use and whether or not these methods and weapons should bear the ‘nonlethal’ classification. In countries such as South Africa and the US in particular where the use of firearms by law enforcement is legal as is the ‘shoot to kill’ mentality, it is important that alternative means to handle potentially threatening scenarios are available so that the use of lethal force is not the only option.
The death of 46 year old US citizen George Floyd on the 25th of May 2020 at the hands of a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, who restrained Floyd and knelt on his neck for close to nine minutes until he passed out, and ultimately died, has sparked worldwide outrage and has highlighted another worldwide pandemic – that of systemic and systematic oppression and racism. It has also yet again highlighted the role in which law enforcement play in the implementation and maintenance of such a system. The death of George Floyd has inspired a movement and protests across the world with those who stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as those against police racial profiling and brutality. In South Africa, certain parallels have been drawn between the deaths that have occurred at the hands of the South African National Defence Force as well as law enforcement during lockdown. There have been 11 official deaths during this time including that of Collins Khosa after a violent confrontation with the SANDF, and another two that are still in question – which takes SA’s lockdown law enforcement aided deaths to a shocking 13 people.
At a press briefing on the 31st of May, President Cyril Ramaphosa explained that “They (the police) let their enthusiasm get the better of them.” The level of police brutality witnessed during South Africa’s lockdown has only been rivalled by that of African neighbours Nigeria and Kenya where the death tolls at the hands of lockdown law enforcement were higher than South Africa’s. In addition to South Africa’s 13 recorded lockdown deaths, there are also 376 reported cases on record of police assault, corruption and misdemeanours.
In essence the classification and legality of nonlethal weapons can be called into question, as it’s how it is used that really determines the outcome. Any nonlethal weapon has the ability to be lethal if used incorrectly or with enough force, there is also a case by case consideration for this. In the case of Collins Khosa, while he may not have been shot, a gun still played a key role in his death. No matter the cause, the result is still devastating.