By Peter Beckley
Banned in warfare yet routinely used to quell protest at home, tear gas epitomizes the contradictions of modern state violence. Designed to force people out from cover, tear gas causes tearing and gagging, burning the eyes and skin. Its use has ended in miscarriages, permanent injuries, and death.
During World War I tear gases were generally used to get people out of trenches so that other forms of gas or artillery fire could be used on them. It was a way of attacking or an offensive move. Later, in the Vietnam war, we saw similar uses of tear gas. It was used to get the Vietnamese out of their bunkers, in order to gas them or to bomb or fire on them. These kinds of military uses are the reasons why that ban exists in warfare.
In the aftermath of World War I, people began exploring other uses for chemical weapons. It was in this period, the 1920s and 30s, that the United States, South Africa and some European countries began using tear gas to repress labor disputes and strikes.
The other major use in the early historical development of tear gas was against colonial uprisings and independence movements. The first British deployment of tear gas in the colonies was in Palestine in 1935, then later in Northern Ireland in 1969.
While all but a few countries have agreed that it is illegal to manufacture, stockpile, or use chemical weapons of war, tear gas continues to proliferate in civilian settings. Today, it is a best-selling form of “less lethal” police force.
So you can see that the military use of tear gas and the development of a commercial tear gas market for law enforcement ran parallel to each other, and weren’t always connected.
The use of Tear gas by Police against people not only affects protesters and bystanders indiscriminately; it relegates the status of a dissenting citizen to that of a mere irritant. And sadly that is the excuse being used now by the Police to justify its use on ‘defenseless’ citizens.
Other schools of thought may say that the Police do not want to look too excessively violent and barbaric, so they need an alternative to shooting people, to make it seem like their response to passive resistance is benevolent.
With these arguments we see both a policy shift towards permitting the use of tear gas, as well as a discursive shift to justify its use. Rather than seeing it as a barbaric poison, we have started to rescript tear gas as the benevolent, less lethal and humane way of responding to political protests.
When we look at statements made by the Police in the wake of the APC office protest and the massive clampdown, they argue that the casualties resulting from tear gas may only be due to its misuse. Would the existence of strict guidelines prevent deadly incidents and make tear gas less lethal? Is it possible to see this potentially lethal weapon as legitimate?
There are guidelines and trainings in place but I think the main point is a historical one. Tear gas was intentionally designed — and this is very well documented — to cause chaos. It was originally sold as a chemical weapon that would leave people in screaming pain. It was originally sold as “better than bullets” because it would deteriorate the spirit of any kind of collective uprising. It is misleading to suggest that we could train law enforcement out of this crucial aspect of the design of tear gas and other riot control weapons.
The other thing that happens is when a protest starts; lots of police are deployed that are not normally trained in riot control. So you either have frantic training that happens on ‘the morning’ of the deployment or you have no training at all. If we are going to look at legitimate training as something that could help mitigate these kinds of dramatic incidents involving our police, then we need to reimagine what training itself looks like and who goes through it.
The humanitarian argument, which is actually the basis of this piece, can very easily slide into the binary between the good and the bad protester, people you can tear gas and people you cannot tear gas and that is why riot control manufacturers or lobbyists are already making these arguments to move away from atmospheric riot control to more lethal, but targeted, riot control like rubber bullets. So, while humanitarian arguments are important, they need more nuance.
Unfortunately for protesters and maybe fortunately for the Police, Tear gas is cheap, so it is a very cost effective riot control solution. This is particularly because it is one of the only technologies that does what we call “policing the atmosphere.” Whereas things like water cannons or rubber bullets are not atmospheric, they are linear. When they are fired, they can only hit people within the target area, which is much smaller. So, in a very basic sense, tear gas is the most cost- effective form of riot control because it covers the most amount of space for the least amount of money. That is the saddest thing about it and that is why I am of the conviction that it’s high time we started this discourse and ban the ‘indiscriminate’ use of tear gas by our Police force. It is a chemical weapon that has found its way from the battlefield to the streets. Gases are barbaric and uncivilized. A clarion call for the reassessment of the widespread availability and misuse of tear gas must be made