Sonic Attack: Denying Space to Dissent

Ruth Jeannoel
Ruth Jeannoel Receives January 2015 Patriot Award
January 5, 2015
Police Violence? Body Cams Are No Solution
January 8, 2015
Ruth Jeannoel
Ruth Jeannoel Receives January 2015 Patriot Award
January 5, 2015
Police Violence? Body Cams Are No Solution
January 8, 2015


The protests about the killing of Eric Garner in New York in November and December saw city police’s first use of the Long-Range Acoustic Device, a sonic weapon that has moved from the global “war on terror” to the paramilitarized police forces of the American urban scene. The LRAD, as it is popularly known (manufactured by the eponymously named corporation) is a hand-held, high-frequency noise generator capable of causing intense pain, hearing damage, psychological disorientation, and even death. It was previously used against protesters at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh in 2009 and in Ferguson, Missouri in August.

In a December 12 letter-brief filed with the office of New York Police Commissioner William Bratton, three attorneys affiliated with the National Lawyers Guild raised constitutional and practical issues of law and public safety on behalf of several demonstrators who experienced the LRAD, some of whom may have claims to pursue. “I’m worried about physical injury to protesters and bystanders, and injury to the Constitution,” says lawyer Elena Cohen, one of the signers. “I want the police to tell us about what this is, and what training they have to use it. This is not a big bullhorn, this new toy is dangerous.”

The NYPD has not yet responded. In the early morning hours of Dec. 5, photography student Annika Edrei, 20, was near the Prada store at the intersection of Madison Avenue and East 57th Street, hoping to get good pictures of the night’s protest as it wound down after several hours of marching. “Once all the mainstream journalists went home, the cops started making more violent arrests,” she says. Then she saw an officer on one of the corners—about 40 feet away—with a strange piece of technology at the end of his arm, about the size of a small suitcase, with a handle attached to a kind of speaker, and controls on top.

Edrei believes she heard an announcement of some kind, although the words were unintelligible, and then immediately after, she was assaulted by a “pulse” of sound that lasted “about ten seconds,” then switched off for two or three seconds, then repeated. She ran in the confusion, and felt sharp “pain in my forehead, then my face.” A block from the intersection, she had to sit down, feeling a growing dizziness and throbbing in her sinus cavities. She tried to call her boyfriend on her phone, but “I couldn’t speak right, I was confused and not making any sense.”

The next day, she had persistent migraine headaches and suffered an intense sensitivity to noise, “even a whisper,” she said, which kept up for about five or six days. Two weeks later, she still reported intermittent, “ringing pain” in her head. She says the speaker device was pointed directly at her and other protesters in the intersection, perhaps only 10 or 15 yards away, and there was never any warning that a weapon would be used.

Stephan Keegan, age 30, fared luckier. Although the activist was shooting video at the same intersection, he darted to the side of the action as the crowd broke into a run, and followed along just outside the envelope of what various observers have called “the cone” of the sound beam, estimated at about 30 to 40 degrees. Even still, he reports that he felt a sharp pain as the high-frequency beam discharged: “I couldn’t sleep that night, and I wasn’t in the direct path—but plenty of marchers were closer than fifty feet to the thing, some maybe as close as twelve or fifteen feet away.”

Dan Shockley, a software designer and a volunteer legal observer for the Guild, witnessed the same direct, close-range use of the sound beam a week earlier, at a demonstration Nov. 28 at virtually the same intersection. The protests on “Black Friday” are believed to have been the first time New York police used the LRAD as a weapon, although the department has possessed the device since the Republican National Convention in 2004, and used it as a public-address system at the Occupy protests in 2011. “The police don’t seem to know what they’re doing with this—they point it right at people, like it’s some kind of experiment,” Shockley says.

The history of sound as a weapon starts in psychological operations. The Greeks under Alexander reportedly used chaotic noise-makers to heighten the terror of a siege, while the Aztecs may have employed skull-shaped whistles to make a human-like scream. Technological advances in the 20th century made sound-weapons actual threats to the human body. German engineers in World War II experimented with directed beams of infrasonic (low-frequency, below the 20 Hz limit of human hearing) sound. At 200 meters, they could vibrate the cochlea and inner-ear fluid enough to disable a person by causing extreme vertigo and nausea. At closer ranges—say, 50 meters—test subjects lost control of inner organs, including their bladder and bowels, and were “vibrated” into collapse.

American author William S. Burroughs noted the 1950s research of Vladimir Gavreau, a Franco-Russian engineer, towards weaponizing infrasound in a giant “police-man’s whistle,” 18 feet across, that might crack the foundations of a building. By 1968, Burroughs had linked this technology with his broader notion of “Control,” when he wrote, “Add two and two and you will see that infrasound is an ideal weapon against dissident elements within the establishment.” In a 1973 conversation with rock guitarist Jimmy Page, he suggested that Led Zeppelin already used infrasonic effects in its live concerts to stimulate its crowd. “I’ve heard certain frequencies can make you physically ill,” Page said. “Well yes, they can be fatal—not what you’re looking for,” Burroughs responded.

The development of the LRAD, however, is a product of the war on terror. The 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole—al-Qaeda’s first direct blow against an explicitly U.S. military target—required only a small fishing boat packed with explosives to idle up alongside the destroyer as it refueled at the port of Aden, Yemen. The busy harbor traffic concealed the boat as it tooled alongside the destroyer, carrying an estimated 400 pounds of TNT, and detonated. The explosion killed 17 sailors along with the suicide attackers, and blew a hole in the Cole at the waterline, big enough to drive a bus through. With hundreds of dockings in foreign ports every week, the Navy searched for a means to keep small craft from getting too close to its vessels, something that wouldn’t cause the bloodshed and international turmoil that simply firing on fishermen and other civilians would. From this need sprung the idea of “denying the use of space” without using lethal means, by directing an overpowering beam of harsh noise directly at civilians from a “Shipboard Protection System,” with the aim of first warning them off, then inducing disabling pain.

The U.S. Army has reportedly used the sound cannon to keep civilians from coming too close to protected bases in hostile conflict zones, creating a “red zone” where non-lethal pain can be inflicted around many buildings and posts. The LRAD Corporation of San Diego currently has the lion’s share of the market in the manufacture of what it calls “hailing” technology, intended to provide, variously, “Intelligible Mass Notification, Instructions and Warning”;  “Integrated Security Solutions, Offshore Perimeter Detection, Protection and Security”; and “Campus Public Address.” Its customers range from the Department of Homeland Security, the Border Patrol, and local law enforcement to university cops, emergency workers, and military forces.

LRAD seems to have a device for every price point. Some are as big as a truck; others are made for mounting on a tower or the bow of a battleship; and there are all manner of suitcase-sized units made to fit in the trunk of a police car. The company’s literature tends to emphasize the “hailing” and mass-address aspects of the equipment—the RX model, for example, can make a human voice announcement intelligible well over a mile away—while always including “warning” and “perimeter security” as a use for the technology. Among its unobjectionable applications are the non-lethal scattering of migratory birds from airport runways and approaches, where they have been known to knock out jet-engine turbines, and its use by cruise ships and oil tankers to keep pirates from getting alongside and storming the ship.

LRAD Corp. maintains sales offices on all five continents, and has clients among the top military and police forces abroad. In December, it set up for business at the Work-Boat Show and International Conference in New Orleans. The military application of LRADs can arguably be considered an advance in the projection of imperial power. If you’re going to occupy two-thirds of the world with troops, air bases, and naval ports, one supposes, you better cut down on the trigger-happy killing of the locals when things get jumpy. Who could argue with that? LRAD Corporation seems to suggest. After all, rubber bullets and water cannons hurt a lot, too.

Yet as Elena Cohen and the attorneys for the Guild point out, there are constitutional problems with using the device against protesters. First, any infringement on protected speech and assembly must be very “narrowly tailored” in order to pass the sniff test of the First Amendment. Cohen also argues that their use against a crowd in an indiscriminate manner also violates the Fourth Amendment. “Probable cause must be individual,” she notes, and subduing or stopping a mass of people engaged in lawful conduct, using blanketing pain, is a form of illegal search and seizure. But most alarming for activists and police-watchers is what appears to be the near-total absence of any training for the officers who wield the devices.

The LRAD “can cause internal damage to your ears, eyes, your internal organs,” Cohen says. The only known test of the device by New York police is described in a single 2010 document from its internal “Disorder Control Unit” obtained under the state Freedom of Information Law. Field agents tested the units the department acquired in 2004 in a deserted parking lot at the Bronx’s Orchard Beach on a windy day in the dead of winter. A decibel meter registered its volume as 110 dB at 320 feet away—comparable to the volume of a chainsaw 39 inches away. No attempt was apparently made to measure the loudness inside 100 feet, much less 50 feet.

The LRAD Corp.’s RX model can reach 153 dB at one meter away. The 500X-RE, the model apparently used in Ferguson and Pittsburgh, can reach 149 dB, and the handheld 100X-RE 137 dB. A vacuum cleaner at the same distance is 70 dB. The threshold for human pain is generally put around 120-125 dB, and usually lower for children and the elderly. And if your physics is a bit rusty, it bears remembering that the decibel scale is not linear: 93 dB is twice as loud as 90 dB, so 100 dB is about 10 times as loud as 90 dB. Human ears are also more sensitive to the moderate high frequencies of 1,000-4,000 Hz (the highest two octaves on a piano)—the frequencies the LRAD puts out. Testing the LRAD at a beach in winter, from a football field away, Cohen adds, tells us nothing about what the sound beam does when blasted at people only 10 or 20 yards away in an urban environment with all its enclosed, vertical reflecting surfaces. Sound can create its own standing-wave effects with terrible consequences for amplitude and duration in a place with parallel reflecting surfaces—like an intersection in midtown Manhattan.

Cohen and her Guild colleagues want to know what the NYPD tells its rank-and-file officers about the devices. They urge that the department cease using them immediately, and are contemplating action in federal court if they receive no answer. “They are performing experiments on New Yorkers—these cops just are not qualified to point these things at us,” Dan Shockley says. “This is an untested weapon—how would the manufacturer even have any data on hearing loss from their products? To get that data would be unethical in itself. “This has a chilling effect on my actions, for sure,” he adds. “I’m there to monitor protesters and the police, and I’m worried about myself.”