The eyes have it

June 7, 2020

Was the blinding of protestors in the US a deliberate policy?

Dear All,

The images of protest and violence coming out of the United States are like something from a film. The cold brutality of law enforcers in many of these scenes recalls the ruthlessness of the Terminator and the inhumanity of the marauding machines of so many Transformer films. The protective equipment and the demeanour of the law enforcers recalls the evil empire ’s Storm Troopers in the Star Wars movies…

The protests, triggered by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, are not surprising but what has been surreal is the official response: the tone of the American president’s reaction, his total lack of empathy and the way in which law enforcers have behaved has done nothing to defuse the tensions sparked by yet another killing of a black man by a white police officer. And what is extremely disturbing about the response is the way in which protestors’ faces - in particular their eyes - seem to have been targeted.

One of the most disturbing aspects of police behaviour in dealing with these protests has been the vicious way in which the protestors – and the press — have been targets. The intent, rather than to defuse the situation, seems to have been to harm and wound. A number of people have reported being hit in the eye by the plastic pellets fired by police. Photographer and journalist Linda Tirado was permanently blinded in one eye after being shot with a rubber bullet or with marking rounds. Marking rounds are cartridges that leave a bright mark on the target and facilitate singling individuals out in a crowd (Tirado’s backpack was covered with the fluorescent paint contained in such rounds). The 37 year old has lost the use of her left eye and will be left with facial scarring. Meanwhile, a 21 year old protestor in Fort Wayne, Indiana, was blinded after being hit in the face by a police teargas canister. Balin Brake has lost his eye and will need to have a prosthetic fitted. He had worked as a video editor at a local news station.

When news of both incidents spread over social media, people were quick to point out these were not the random fallout of crowd control measures, rather they were probably the result of a deliberate police tactic: to target the face and eyes. Many people cited last year’s protests in Santiago, Chile, where at least 285 people suffered severe eye trauma mainly by hard rubber bullets and teargas canisters fired by security forces.

This deliberate targeting of the eyes was also done blatantly four years ago in Kashmir when Indian police fired thousands of metal pellets into crowds of civilians leaving a huge number blind. Kashmiri author Mirza Waheed wrote a detailed piece about this in The Guardian questioning if this was, in fact, the “world’s first mass blinding.” Mirza mentions how after the 2011 protests in Egypt a young police lieutenant became infamous for firing pellets into the eyes of protestors and was known as the ‘Eye-Sniper’; he also mentions similar instances by both the Israeli Defence Forces (against Palestinians) and Spanish law-enforcers in Catalonia.

The original protocols for the use of crowd control weapons specified that they should be aimed at the legs in order to disperse protestors but is it the case that a succession of authoritarian right-wing regimes in various parts of the world have made it a policy to aim at protestors’ faces?

Blinding somebody is not like shooting them in the leg or bruising their shoulder. This is a life changing and crippling injury, a terrible cruel blow to a person’s independence. But let us also examine the symbolic aspect of the targeting the eyes. This is not just intimidation, this is basically the removal of testimony - because destroying a person’s vision is the equivalent of eliminating a witness. We are all witnesses for history, but journalists have a particularly important role in this regard: their duty to report truthfully on what they see and hear on the ground is essential to curtailing authoritarian excesses and injustice and to documenting facts. In recent years such regimes have blinded many journalists figuratively through a combination of perks and indoctrination and now it seems that blinding the more problematic ones physically is a prescribed course of action for law enforcers…

In the New York protests reporter Tyler Blint recounted that he had lost his glasses and his ankle was in “searing pain” after NYPD hit him in the face multiple times despite the fact that he ‘was backing away as requested with his hands up and his NYPD issued press badge was clearly visible’. This is unsurprising after years of such despotic rulers as Trump, Bolsonaro, Khan, Johnson et al and their demonising the mainstream media and accusing it of ‘bias’ and dishonesty. Journalists are a target but with social media we are all reporters of a sort: if you think it’s just the press that these sorts of rulers want to quash, think again because now we are all witnesses. And we all need to see clearly. And be witnesses to history.

Best wishes,

Umber Khairi

The eyes have it