© 2024 International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations & Physicians for Human Rights

Case Study

United States

Police usage of KIPs during summer 2020 Black Lives Matter protests

Police and federal agents used tear gas, pepper ball, and rubber bullet weaponry against protestors in Portland, Oregon, United States in July 2020. Andrew Stanbridge | Physicians for Human Rights
Police and federal agents used tear gas, pepper ball, and rubber bullet weaponry against protestors in Portland, Oregon, United States in July 2020. Andrew Stanbridge | Physicians for Human Rights

The murder of George Floyd on 25 May 2020, after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds, sparked nationwide protests against police brutality. In June 2020, about 15 to 26 million people participated in BLM protests, making it one of the largest protest movements in US history. 

Law enforcement agencies indiscriminately deployed CCWs, including KIPs, such as foam/sponge bullets, rubber bullets, pepper balls, beanbag rounds, chalk grenades and flashbang grenades against protesters, the vast majority of whom were peacefully assembled. Countless protesters, bystanders and journalists sustained critical wounds, broken bones, traumatic brain injuries and even blindness as a result of the projectiles fired by police. In just one day, 30 May 2020, police partially blinded eight people across the country. There were more than 950 incidents of police violence against civilians recorded during the protests that followed the murder of George Floyd. These instances are symptomatic of the differentiated police response to those protesting racism and police brutality and illustrate the disproportionate impact of violent policing on people of African descent and other people of colour. Moreover, while covering these protests, journalists became targets for assault and arrest by police officers. The violent and militarized response to BLM protesters stood in stark contrast to the largely passive police response to the violent insurrection by white supremacists at the US Capitol on 6 January 2021.

Foam/sponge bullets

In May 2020, the Minneapolis Police and the Minnesota State Patrol tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed, shot in the face with rubber and foam bullets, arrested without cause, and threatened journalists at gunpoint, all after these journalists identified themselves and were clearly covering BLM protests. Linda Tirado, a freelance photographer, was one of the many people severely injured. Despite being clearly identifiable as a member of the press, on 29 May 2020, an officer shot a 40mm impact foam bullet round at her head. Tirado was permanently blinded in her left eye and suffered a traumatic brain injury and has undergone multiple eye surgeries to address ongoing complications. As a result of the attack, Tirado still suffers from constant headaches, has trouble recalling words, and uses a walker due to her loss of depth perception. In June 2020, the ACLU of Minnesota filed a lawsuit on behalf of Tirado and other journalists targeted in the BLM protests that resulted in a settlement agreement which included various policy changes, including prohibiting the arrest, threat or use of physical force or chemical agents against journalists.

Rubber bullets and pepper balls 

In Denver, Colorado, protesters and bystanders were injured by rubber bullets and pepper balls deployed by law enforcement. Michael Driscoll filed a civil rights lawsuit after he was struck in the face with a rubber bullet shot by police on 30 May 2020. The impact shattered his sinus and fractured multiple parts of his face, including the orbital bone around his left eye. Driscoll was forced to undergo surgery to reconstruct his skull, which had collapsed between his eyes. Bystander Jax Feldman was struck in the eye with a pepper ball launcher when walking home near a protest and permanently blinded in one eye. In a landmark lawsuit brought by the ACLU of Colorado and two law firms, a federal jury held the city of Denver accountable for its response to the BLM protests and in March 2022 awarded $14 million to twelve protesters injured by rubber and foam bullets, pepper balls, flash bang grenades, and tear gas while protesting police violence. The lawsuit was the first lawsuit in the US challenging the use of force by police against protesters to go to trial, and it also marks the first time that a jury held a city liable for violating the civil rights of protesters.

Beanbag rounds

In Austin Texas, Justin Howell, a 20-year-old protester, was severely injured by a beanbag round during a protest against police brutality in late-May 2020. An officer was allegedly shooting beanbag ammunition at a protester who was throwing objects at police, but instead inadvertently struck Howell in the middle of his forehead. Howell suffered from a fractured skull and brain damage. Police continued to fire beanbag rounds at volunteer medics and protesters who were carrying Howell to safety. Maredith Michael, a volunteer medic wearing a firefighter shirt with a red medical cross sewn on, was shot in the hands and suffered severe injuries. Both Michael and Howell sued the city and later reached a settlement.

Flash-bang grenades

In Santa Rosa, California, Marqus Martinez was peacefully taking a knee with his hands in the air when officers began firing tear gas, rubber bullets and flash-bang grenades at protesters. Police hit Martinez in the face with a flash-bang grenade which broke Martinez’s jaw in multiple locations and split his upper lip in three places up to his nose. His teeth also broke off and drove into the roof of his mouth and through his tongue. Martinez still requires numerous surgeries to repair the extensive damage caused to his face. The city of Santa Rosa settled a lawsuit brought by Martinez and four others injured, agreeing to pay $1.9 million.

Tear gas canisters

In Fort Wayne, Indiana, 21-year-old protester, Balin Brake, lost his eye after being hit in the face by a tear gas canister while participating in a racial justice protest on 30 May, 2020. Brake suffered two eyelid lacerations, four occipital fractures, and permanent loss of vision and light perception in his right eye. The impact completely ruptured Brake’s eye, which had to be surgically removed and replaced with a prosthetic eye. Following the incident, Brake continues to experience severe headaches, pain where his eye once was, loss of depth perception and mental suffering. The lawsuit was settled in March 2022.

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