Later this week, the leaders of twenty powerful countries will gather in Toronto to discuss the global recession. They’ll bring with them a large group of advisors, delegates and security guards. Surrounding them at all hours will be another group, comprised of journalists and photographers. And surrounding that group, will be an even larger group of police officers protecting the summit site.
Meanwhile, out on the streets, the largest group of all will gather: engaged citizens who are concerned about a variety of issues including poverty, labour laws, climate change, first nations land claims, clean water, immigration law, (dis)ability rights, energy consumption and gender equity.
I remember being part of such a group in Quebec City (2001 – FTAA summit) and in Washington DC (2000 IMF summit). In both cases, I learned a lot about the nature of summit protests. The main observation I took home with me is that there are a lot of smart, informed citizens out there who care deeply about this world and want to stand up and be heard. The second thing I learned is that mainstream media does a horrible job of covering organised protests. If there are 2,000 people learning about the issues at a teach-in, 20,000 people marching peacefully, and a dozen people breaking windows, the daily papers will put the broken windows on the front page. This misrepresents the entire protest movement, and misinforms millions of readers who then make assumptions about all activists and protesters.
The truth is, the vast majority of protesters who are gathering in Toronto will be participating in two activities: learning about the issues at forums, teach-ins and workshops, and collectively making their voice heard peacefully on the streets. Of course in any large group, there are those who have a more aggressive approach to a situation. That goes for the protesters, as well as the police. Amongst the activists, there will be those who are planning to disrupt the summit with symbolic destruction of commercial property. And amongst the police there will be a few trigger happy officers who can quickly turn a peaceful crowd into an angry mob as their tear gas canisters bounce along the street, bringing peaceful participants to their knees.
In both Quebec City and DC, I wore a gas mask around my neck at all times. And in both cases, I needed to occasionally pull the mask around my face to protect my eyes and lungs from tear gas. I also witnessed rubber bullets being shot at unarmed activists, and mass arrests of peaceful protesters.
No doubt, the police have a very difficult job trying to control a complicated situation such as a summit protest. They have to balance the duties of protecting the summit, protecting private property and also protecting the rights of citizens to peacefully gather in protest.
No one expects the police to sit back and do nothing while crowds of protesters grow, escalate and perhaps get rowdy at times. But there is a danger that if the police use too much force, it could act as a deterrent for peaceful protest and lead to unnecessary injuries. The indiscriminate use of crowd control measures such as tear gas or rubber bullets can be quite dangerous – both for the protesters and for democracy. No one should be scared to attend a peaceful protest because of a threat of over-reaction from the police. And even the few rowdy activists who break some windows are still citizens who should expect only a measured response from the police. No one should ever be shot at, or injured, for breaking a window.
This year, a new weapon has been introduced into the police toolkit. The Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) is a ‘sound cannon’ designed to allow police to communicate with a crowd using a high-decibel directional sound waves. According to the Toronto Star, the LRAD can also “emit ear-blasting sounds so high in frequency they transcend normal thresholds of pain.”
Used improperly, these devices can cause permanent ear damage. Even the company’s own spokersperson admits in the article that the LRAD has been misused by police, as was the case in Pittsburgh last year when “officers ran a continuous aural assault”.
There is little doubt that the LRAD could potentially be a helpful device, if used properly. But there is also little doubt that the device could be quite dangerous if misused, and prior experience at protest sites would indicate that this is not unlikely.
And so, for the sake of protecting people’s right to assemble, and to protect your precious ears, I propose that everyone in the city should wear proper ear protection this weekend. This would essentially render the LRAD harmless, allow groups to gather peacefully, and allow those who live near or inside the summit zone to walk their dogs and go grocery shopping safely.
The question is, what type of ear protection is right for you? What will be strong enough to save you from the LRAD? For the answer, I turned to some experts for advice. First, Owen Pallet, Kevin Drew, Sarah Harmer, Bob Wiseman and Tim Kingsbury have offered tips from their experiences rocking out on stages across the world. Then, a few colleagues of mine who also use ear protection in a professional context offer their advice as well.
So here, in a nutshell, is how to save your ears this weekend and remain a free citizen:
Tim Kingsbury, Arcade Fire
“I have a little bit of hearing loss and tinnitus from not wearing ear plugs and playing loud rock shows a few years ago. I notice it when I’m tired mostly. It’s a drag. I would encourage anyone to wear ear plugs around loud noises. These sound cannons seem like a horrible idea. Definitely protect your ears if they’re going to be around you.”
“My ear plugs are custom moulded musician’s earplugs made by Microsonic. They’ve got some good hearing loss info on their website too.
Rolled up toilet paper or $2 foam earplugs also do a great job of keeping loud noise out.”
Owen Pallett (formerly Final Fantasy)
“I don’t use earplugs—I don’t have a drummer so it’s not so necessary. But you can get expensive fitted ones. They’re usually for pros… pretty expensive. Otherwise you can just used the roll up gummy ones. As for the sound cannons, what the fuck is this bullshit? You’d think the police would have better ways to keep the peace than buying devices with the capacity to indiscriminately deafen people. Thank fuck I’ll be on tour. Please to everybody in Toronto: buy earplugs for yourself and your children.”
“I actually don’t have any earplugs (that’s what playing acoustic Canadiana will do for you), but when I go to shows and it seems like it might get loud I bee-line it to the washroom and load up on toilet paper… Seems to cut out the high end pretty well. I usually take extra for unsuspecting friends in the crowd.”
“I wore earplugs in the 80s in Blue Rodeo because it was crazy loud night after night. Greg Keelor often gave me the vibe that it was unrock of me. Now he has tinnitus and everyone who rocks out wears ear plugs.
But I am solo now, so it isn’t a concern.
Anyway there are $5 earplugs at shoppers, wax or silicone. Silicone is deeper better methinks. There also are $80 pairs which exactly form to your ear, they take an impression and send it to you afterward. I never acquired those, they came about in the 90s. Long & McQuade sells them or at least used to.”
Kevin didn’t actually send me any advice, but I think the photo says it all.
Kevin Konnyu, photographer
“After many ear-ringing years in construction I have become a firm believer in protective gear. For hearing protection I have settled on the standard big yellow construction ear muffs as I find them comfortable and most effective and reducing all noise to an almost meditative level. I don’t recall the brand that I chose but the important thing for me was to get one with a high db rating and a rotatable head strap, giving you the option to rotate it to around your neck or even under your chin if you are wearing a hat or respirator. I’ve worked a lot with the disposable ear plugs which work well in a pinch, but you end up needing a large supply and when not necessary I just don’t like sticking things in my ear. Now from what I know neither the muffs nor the plugs will be totally sufficient as the Toronto Police have three 135db sound cannons and one truck mounted 143db weapon. With an average rating of 20 – 30db for ear muffs and the same for ear plugs you will have to double up to get enough protection to bring you below the 85db level at which hearing damage can occur.”
Willy Blomme, grad student
“My squishy drugstore earplugs travel everywhere with me. They are small, light, and, best of all, easily found in the depths of my bag because of their neon orange hue. They are called into service in many locations, but most frequently at my campus library. Contrary to stereotypes, libraries are not always quiet places. And let me tell you, Heidegger is hard enough to read without having to block out the salacious details of the latest undergrad keg party.”
“Y’know that ringing in your ears? That ‘eeeeeeeeee’? That’s the sound of the ear cells dying, like their swan song. Once it’s gone you’ll never hear that frequency again. Enjoy it while it lasts.
That’s a quote from “Children of Men.” Believe it and be prepared if you’re going to do your democratic duty and attend a G8/G20 protest.
I wouldn’t even bother with ear plugs. With the LRAD sound cannons present, go with construction grade ear protection like the WORKHORSE Foam Padded Ear Muff which should be available at most hardware stores. They’ll set you back around $20.”
“As long as they are properly deployed the LRADs sound like they could actually be fairly useful, and as a crowd control device much safer and effective than tear gas, certainly better than rubber bullets. If used to play Nickleback or Céline Dion it would not only effectively disperse crowds, but it would also satisfy the CRTC’s Canadian content requirement. With that said, it’s still always a good idea to take care of your ears – especially if you’re going to be anywhere it might get loud…
I always have a pair or Etymotic Research ER-20 ear plugs in my pocket. They’re really unobtrusive, reduce volumes well, and still maintain reasonable fidelity when listening to music. Speech remains a lot more intelligible than with foam plugs too, and while they’re a little more expensive I think the expense is worth it for the improved sound quality.
In the case of an environment where it seems likely someone would deploy sound cannons I’d actually recommend a pair of over-the-ear headphones like the Sennheiser HD 280 pro which block out external sound quite effectively. They can be used in conjunction with earplugs for even further protection, and there is still a legitimate reason for having them (as long as you have an iPod or walkman or the like). Many law enforcement personnel become uncomfortable when people appear prepared to counter crowd-control measures, and you do not want to make those people uncomfortable. That would be bad.
I tend to use these headphones any time I want to monitor something at a reasonable volume in a noisy environment and have regularly used them for field recording and I like their flat frequency response for accurate monitoring. While I highly recommend them for monitoring the audio while you are recording sound or video I wouldn’t recommend that you plug them into a police scanner. Some law enforcement agencies take a grim view of crowd members monitoring their communications, especially during a crowd control situation.”
“The best ear protection is a combination of the foam insert kind with headphones on top. Some plugs/phones are designed to block certain frequencies whilke passing others (eg. speech frequencies). I don’t know what frequencies are produced by the sound cannon.
I have worked as a pressman in the printing industry (phones, plugs or double), a power saw operator in the forest industry (phones), and a safety officer in the oil and gas industry (plugs).
Plugs by themselves are pretty good, but they need to be properly inserted. Here’s a photo of the yellow cylinders that are commonly available (below). They are not the prettiest or most comfortable but they do work very well. They need to be propery inserted to be most effective. Generally this means complete insertion.”
So, in conclusion, it looks like those custom moulded ones are pretty cool, but they wouldn’t arrive in time for this weekend which means your best bet is probably a set of foam plugs ($2 at Shoppers) plus a decent headset ($20, at a hardware store). My favourite hardware stores are Jacobs (on Queen), the one at the bottom of Augusta (west side), M&L Lumber (on Dundas), New Canadians Lumber (on Dupont) and my favouritest: Rotblotts.
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NOTE • June 23: The Canadian Civil Liberties Association has filed an injunction against the Toronto Police and OPP in an effort to prevent the use of the LRAD during the G20 Summit. The hearing is being held today. A similar effort was sucessfull in Vancouver, for the Olympics. (Read the Star & Globe articles, and the CCLA announcement.)