The U.S. began using rubber and plastic bullets for crowd control during Vietnam War protests but stopped using them in protest settings in the 1970s after a fatality, according to the report from Physicians for Human Rights. They later became a staple among local law enforcement agencies in the ’80s after a Supreme Court decision renewed American interest in nonlethal methods.
Dr. Rohini Haar, an emergency physician, medical adviser with Physicians for Human Rights and an adjunct professor at University of California, Berkeley, described these projectiles as “military weapons” commonly used on oppressed groups. Haar said she saw several injuries from crowd-control weapons during the Floyd protests.
“Seeing things like broken bones or someone hit in the eye is not rare,” Harr said, referring to projectiles. “They’re dangerous when fired up close and they’re dangerous from far away. They’re indiscriminate. This is really not what we should be using when policing crowds.”
Policies may change but physical damage is permanent
Rules on using crowd-control agents vary among the nation’s law enforcement agencies.Last June, 13 U.S. senators urged the Congress’ investigative entity, the Government Accountability Office, to investigate misuse of rubber bullets and bean-bag rounds against protesters. Some cities and states are examining how police departments use these weapons. Since last summer, authorities in Denver; Dallas; Austin, Texas; San Jose, California; Los Angeles; and Seattle have issued orders to curb the use of crowd-control agents amid the protests.
Even so, reports show that some officers violated their own department’s rules during the protests. Two Santa Rosa Police Department officers were disciplined for protest control tactics, including Officer Noel Gaytan, who allegedly shot Giron with an unauthorized rubber bullet.
Any policy change comes too late for Shantania Love, 30, who is now permanently blind in one eye because of a projectile. Love, of Sacramento, said she believes she was struck in the eye by a rubber bullet when police began firing at a crowd of protesters at a demonstration on May 29.
“It was probably the worst pain I’ve ever felt. It felt like I got hit in the face with a bowling ball. The entire left side of my head hurt. It was intense,” Love said. Her eye was swollen shut for two days before she went to the hospital. There, doctors told her she’d never be able to see out of her left eye again.
“I just sat there and I cried,” she said. “It was traumatic. I’ve had multiple surgeries and doctors’ appointments. I had lived 29 years being able to see out of both eyes and now this happens.”
Love is still adjusting to the disability a year later: dealing with severe pain and migraines and struggling with daily tasks like preparing meals and walking at home. She says she often bumps into objects due to her skewed depth perception and has only recently begun driving again. She said she was out of work as a medical assistant for 11 months and couldn’t afford to cover her medical bills. What’s worse, she said, playing with her 6- and 8-year-old daughters is harder than ever.
“They’ll try to show something to me, or throw something to me on the left side, and they forget, ‘Mommy can’t see over there,’” she said. The Sacramento Police Department did not respond to a request for comment from NBC News.
The physical pain and financial hardship are only compounded by the psychological stress of enduring police violence, those who were injured say. Love said she suffers from depression and severe panic attacks as a result of her injury.
Rodas, whose jaw was permanently damaged during protests in Los Angeles, is working through her intense depression with a therapist.
“I feel like a lot of me was taken away. My personality changed a lot,” Rodas said. “Mentally and physically, it’s hard to see myself in a different way. I don’t look like myself anymore. I’m like, ‘Who is this?’ The depression has been intense. I had thoughts of ‘they should have just killed me.’”