They’ve faced brutal cops abroad. Now they’re advising US protesters.

Why We Wrote This

The violent tactics used by U.S. law enforcement in recent weeks are familiar abroad. And that familiarity is turning global resisters of police brutality into online advisers of American protesters who are now in harm’s way.

Caitlin Ochs/Reuters
Protesters in the United States, like this one who has milk poured on his eyes after being tear gassed during a protest in Portland, Oregon, July 19, 2020, are being offered tactical advice online by activists who have had similar clashes with brutal law enforcement in their countries.

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As cities across the United States erupted with protesters demonstrating against the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and demanding an end to police brutality, the internet was erupting, too: with advice.

For Rana Nazzal, whose Twitter thread on identifying police weapons went viral, it started with a phone call from a friend in New York who was being fired at with tear gas and had no time to research what to do. Ms. Nazzal, who spent many years joining organized protests in the Palestinian territories, gave him quick tips on keeping safe, but then decided to make it public.

It is a sort of switch for the U.S., which is usually in the position of observer of violent police action globally. But when human rights protests came to the U.S. – along with police action to halt them – a transnational movement of information sharing came with them.

This information sharing was both needed and necessary for people on the ground, given the extent of injuries in the U.S., says Dr. Michele Heisler of Physicians for Human Rights. “In terms of projectile injuries, we’ve already documented about a hundred or more quite serious cases.”

As cities across the United States erupted with protesters demonstrating against the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and demanding an end to police brutality, on the internet, Twitter was erupting, too: with advice.

“Tips, if not wearing a gas mask … rubbing a pinch of salt around eyes, helps combat the impact of the smoke. ... Take care, stay safe & keep reporting. Love from Kashmir.”

In Palestine, first thing we do under fire is identify the type of weapons israeli cops/soldiers are holding. This defines your strategy for resisting + trying to be safe.”

“israeli soldiers sometimes use stun grenades to thin out a crowd & then go in & arrest people. They know that people with experience won’t run from stun grenades. Keep that in mind because israel trains US police & they may be using same strategies.”

From the identification of weapons to protecting one’s self when shot at, users from the Palestinian territories, Kashmir, Chile, and Hong Kong, gave advice on each and every aspect of demonstrating against brutal police states and keeping safe when in the midst of chaos.

It is a sort of switch for the U.S., which is usually in the position of observer – and sometimes supplier – of violent police action globally. But as the number of protests around the world have risen in recent years, as people have taken to the streets to demand rights and freedoms, so too has a transnational movement of information sharing, largely on Twitter and focused on safety. And when those protests came to the U.S. – along with police action to halt them – the movement came with them.

“Life-changing” information

Law enforcement around the world is increasingly responding to popular protests with crowd-control weapons (CCWs), according to the U.S. nongovernmental organization Physicians for Human Rights (PHR). “The proliferation of CCWs without adequate regulation, training, monitoring and/or accountability, has led to the widespread and routine use or misuse of these weapons, resulting in injury, disability, and death,” PHR noted in a 2016 report. In 2019, analysts at Allied Market Research found that the world’s nonlethal weapons market – that is, weapons frequently used in law enforcement – could be worth more than $9.6 billion by 2022.

For Rana Nazzal, whose Twitter thread on identifying police weapons went viral, it started with a phone call from a friend in New York who was being fired at with tear gas and had no time to research what to do. Ms. Nazzal, who spent many years participating in weekly direct action and joining organized protests in the Palestinian territories and is currently doing her master’s in Toronto, gave him quick tips on keeping safe, but then decided to take it one step further.

Dar Yasin/AP
Clashes between Indian police and Kashmiri protesters, like these here during a protest in outskirts of Srinagar on June 22, 2018, are the sorts of conflicts that created the knowledge base now being offered to U.S. protesters today.

While worried for her safety in sharing all that she knew, Ms. Nazzal also felt a powerful sense of urgency. “In Palestine, we usually keep [protester identities and knowledge of weaponry] under wraps,” she says. “I’ve still never touched a weapon; I don’t know that much about them. But now I can identify by looking or hearing the sound. It was one of the things that took me the longest to learn and when I did, it was life-changing.”

Ms. Nazzal was able to identify this weaponry used against U.S. protesters because many of the weapons, especially the tear gas, bought by Israel and seen in protests in the Palestinian territories, are U.S.-made. Protesters in the U.S. were able to look at the weapons being fired at them and using Ms. Nazzal’s posts, among others, recognize them and make educated guesses about next steps during the demonstrations.

This information sharing was needed for people on the ground, given that the extent of injuries in the U.S. was comparable to other demonstrations around the world, according to Dr. Michele Heisler, PHR medical director and University of Michigan professor of internal medicine and public health. “Right now we’re systematically documenting specific cases of injuries but certainly in terms of projectile injuries, we’ve already documented about a hundred or more quite serious cases. The scale and the severity is comparable.”

Some of the cases PHR has documented include a reporter in Louisville, Kentucky, who was hit by a pepper ball while on live television, delivered by an officer who appeared to be aiming directly at her, and a police officer in New York City who pulled down the face mask of a protester who already had his hands up, and shot pepper spray directly into his face.

A new view of the U.S.

Sagar Kaul, co-founder of fact-checking platform Metafact and an expert in tracking misinformation online, was born in the Kashmir Valley and is married to a U.S. citizen. He was 11 years old when the insurgency started in India-controlled Kashmir, and he says he never thought he would ever witness police agencies in the U.S. in their full tactical gear using crowd-control measures the way he saw during protests in Kashmir.

“Foreign policies of the U.S. were always criticized, but domestic problems never found a way into the mainstream media outside the country,” he says. “It’s only now that we know how badly racism and inequality has affected a large population of the country.”

For protesters and the people who have been advising them, there has been a marked shift not just in the way the protests are seen around the world, but the boldness of the protesters themselves.

“We’re seeing a lot more civil unrest that’s going beyond what you’d usually see at a protest, especially a big one,” says Ms. Nazzal. The civilian movements in the U.S. seem to be evolving rapidly, and incorporating strategies from resistance movements elsewhere, such as in Hong Kong, where protesters wore generic black clothing to conceal their identities.

It has been surprising, for many from Kashmir to Brazil, to see such violence being committed against American citizens on U.S. soil by their own police.

“I think we assume that since the U.S. is a developed country, the rights of its citizens to protest wouldn’t be dealt with by bringing in national guards firing tear gas and rubber bullets, and injuring a large number of protesters,” Mr. Kaul says. “The perception of the U.S. as a superpower has definitely changed over the years.”

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