Press Release

Nurses in wake of protests: ‘Weapons of war have no place in a caring society’

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National Nurses United statement on use of warlike weapons on protestors

In the wake of the recent police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the killing of Ahmaud Arbery by armed white residents, protests for racial justice have swept across the country. With them have come tear gas, flash-bangs, rubber bullets, and other weapons used on protestors by this country’s increasingly militarized police departments. The protestors are our patients, and they are being harmed by ongoing police violence and brutality. National Nurses United condemns all forms of police brutality, including the use of war weapons on protestors by officers who are duty bound to protect people, and we call on every level of government and every police force to respect the First Amendment right to protest.  

“During the recent protests, we have witnessed the devastating injuries caused by so-called ‘less-lethal’ weapons of force. Nurses have seen these police tactics before, including during deployments of NNU’s Registered Nurse Response Network (RNRN) to Occupy Wall Street, Standing Rock, and to the U.S.-Mexico border. As nurses, we make a vow to protect public health and safety, and that means putting an end to the use of militarized force and weapons of war on people protesting injustice,” said NNU President Jean Ross, RN who is also a member of the Minnesota Nurses Association/NNU.

“We stand with the Movement for Black Lives Matter in the struggle for racial justice,” added NNU Executive Director Bonnie Castillo, RN. “Police brutality in black communities must cease immediately. Nurses are committed to challenging the systemic racism that is endemic in our country.”

Nurses are standing up and saying, “Enough!” to police use of the following:

Tear gas

Nurses are horrified to see tear gas being used as a weapon on our patients, while they are exercising their right to assembly. The various chemical agents known as “tear gas” can cause symptoms including coughing, sneezing, vomiting, blurred vision, shortness of breath, tearing, difficulty swallowing, temporary blindness, pain, and in documented cases: death. That’s why for over 20 years, it has been banned for use in warfare under the Chemical Weapons Convention, signed by nearly every nation in the world, including the United States. Yet, it’s used liberally at protests by U.S. police departments.

The use of tear gas is especially concerning to nurses during a pandemic, given that it causes protestors to cough and sneeze, while already in close conditions, more easily spreading the virus causing COVID-19. For protestors standing up to systemic racism, in many communities where black residents are three to four times more likely to contract COVID-19, police use of a weapon impacting the respiratory system is especially cruel and dangerous. But that did not stop police officers from Minneapolis to Oakland, and even in our nation’s capital, from indiscriminately launching tear gas on protesters, including children as young as a toddler.

Although the specific impact of tear gas on children is not as well documented as the impact on adults, a 1989 study in the Journal of American Medicine found that an infant exposed to tear gas fired into a house by police “developed severe pneumonitis requiring therapy with steroids, oxygen, antibiotics, and 29 days of hospitalization.” A 2011 study by the University of Chile also found that tear gas can harm children in the first few years of life and can harm a developing fetus.

As nurses who vow to advocate for the health and safety of all people, we strongly condemn the use of tear gas on people who are standing up for racial justice, including crowds containing mothers and children. Just as it’s banned for warfare, it should be banned for police use—period.

Flash bang grenades

Nurses were appalled to see the use of flash-bang grenades on protestors of George Floyd’s death. With heat exceeding 1,000 degrees fahrenheit and a blast of 175 decibels, flash-bangs or “stun grenades” can cause burns, hearing loss, temporary blindness, injuries from shrapnel, and death. Between 2000 to 2015, according to a  ProPublica investigation, at least 50 Americans were seriously injured, maimed or killed by flash-bangs.

With their ability to stun, blind, and deafen protestors, flash-bangs can also cause harm to our patients by putting them at risk for secondary injuries, such as being hit by a car, or being knocked down by crowds. Nurses strongly condemn the use of this war weapon by militarized police.

Rubber bullets and “less lethal” ammunition

There is no “safe” projectile to shoot at protesters. Just ask Brandon Saenz, whose eye was shot out at a May 30 protest in Dallas, or Linda Tirado, a freelance photographer whose eye was shot out at a May 28 protest in Minneapolis. Nurses were reminded that this is a trend, not an anomaly, by our time in Standing Rock in 2016, when water protector Vanessa Dundon’s eye was shot out by police.

Rubber bullets, which often have a metal core, are also responsible for deaths, often from head, neck, and torso trauma—and internal bleeding, organ damage, and bruising. Nurses call for the end of rubber bullets and other ammunition police departments claim is “less lethal” because protecting people at a protest should not be lethal in any amount.

Nurses are duty bound to protect people, and we know what it takes to keep our patients safe. Weapons of war have no place in a caring society, especially not at peaceful protests.

Other forms of police violence

Throughout the country, police have consistently engaged in additional forms of violence including kicking, pushing and beating of protestors. Tactics such as kettling protestors have trapped people with no way to escape brutal violence inflicted by police. Nurses condemn the use of police escalation during protests.

The expanded use of weapons of war is also a troubling step of domestic militarization that represents a threat to democracy and a colossal waste of public resources that would be far better spent on public health and other social programs that are especially essential in the midst of a pandemic and economic crisis.

National Nurses United is the largest union and professional organization of registered nurses in the country, with more than 150,000 members nationwide.