Tear Gas Is a Weapon of War

Police attack protesters with tear gas at an Occupy Oakland demonstration on January 28, 2012, in Oakland, California. (Photo: Steve Rhodes)Police attack protesters with tear gas at an Occupy Oakland demonstration on January 28, 2012, in Oakland, California. (Photo: Steve Rhodes)

“Tear gas is a weapon that polices the atmosphere and pollutes the very air we breathe,” writes Anna Feigenbaum. It immobilizes and is intended to break the will and spirit of protesters, but it is not without harmful health effects as well as a weapon against democracy. The following excerpt is from the last chapter, “From Resilience to Resistance,” of her book.

What Now? What Next?

The increasing deployment of tear gas around the world has led to more canister strikes to the head, more asphyxiation from grenades launched in enclosed spaces, more tear gas offensives coupled with rubber bullets and live ammunition. These violent deployments of chemical weapons continue to leave people dead, disfigured, and with chronic physical and mental health conditions. If the century-long medical history of modern tear gas shows us anything, it is the problem with for-profit science. When science is leveraged for the profit of the few instead of the protection and health of the many, all of society suffers. In the place of clear communication, we are given sound bites manufactured by weapons-industry PR companies. Government secrets pile up and the partisan membership of weapons evaluation committees remain undisclosed. At the most basic level, people deserve to know more about the chemicals that can be used against them. This is an issue of public health that must be researched independently and disclosed in ways that allows people to clearly understand the effects.

At the same time, the legal status of tear gas, under international law as well as in regard to export sales and trade regulations, remains unclear. There is no standardized mechanism to account for how much tear gas is shipped, stored, or used on either a national or international scale. Like other toxic products, tear gas must be clearly and systematically regulated and all trade publicly disclosed. For this to happen, as many others have argued at length, its legal status under the Chemical Weapons Convention must be clarified.

In terms of corporate accountability, if we are to treat tear gas like a drug, as Himsworth was tasked to do back in 1970, then we should treat participants in the riot-control industry as we would those in the pharmaceutical business. Just as doctors on the payroll of pharmaceutical companies must declare a conflict of interest or face criminal charges, all tear gas trainers, salespeople, scientists, expert witnesses, and educators should be legally required to announce their present and past financial and personal transactions with riot-control products manufacturers. Failure to do this should result in criminal penalties and prohibit the guilty from any continued business.

Tear gas must also be considered in its material form — as an object designed to torment people, to break their spirits, to cause physical and psychological damage. No amount of corporate public relations or safety guidelines can hide that foundational truth of chemical design. Tear gas is a weapon that polices the atmosphere and pollutes the very air we breathe. It turns the square, the march, the public assembly into a toxic space, taking away what is so often the last communication channel people have left to use. If the right to gather, to speak out, is to mean anything, then we must also have the right to do so in air we can breathe.

Cutting across these important debates on tear gas is a broader, fundamental concern: What is the relationship between profit and violence? In detailing how private individuals and for-profit corporations make money from the policing of often racialized and vulnerable bodies, I aim to bring the 1 percent back into the picture. I do this as a refusal to let the battles of the street and the prison cell play out only between the police and the people. As government elites and corporate CEOs settle backroom deals for fraud, corruption, bribery, toxic-waste dumping, and unethical science, too often we deliver blame only to the structures of policing, leaving the rich to their $500-a-plate gala dinners and the next scandal they can buy their way out of. If this book makes one contribution to the growing debate on law enforcement reform and abolition, let it result in greater investigation into who benefits from the escalation of force.

Copyright (2017) by Anna Feigenbaum. Not to be reprinted without permission of the publisher, Verso Books.