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The Man Behind the Mask

At one time, tear gas was only deployed on the battlefield, not against civilian protesters. Then Amos Fries came along.

Police fire tear gas at demonstrators protesting the shooting of Michael Brown on August 17, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Scott Olson / Getty

With his thick mustache and piercing, deep-set eyes, General Amos Fries’ passion shone through as he spoke. In a 1921 lecture to military officers at the General Staff College in Washington DC, Fries lauded the Chemical Warfare Service (CWS) for its wartime achievements. The US entered the chemical arms race “with no precedents, no materials, no literature and no personnel.”

Throughout the 1920s Fries began a mission to capitalize on the US military’s enthusiastic development of chemical weapons during the war, turning these wartime technologies into everyday policing tools. As part of this task Fries developed an impressive PR campaign that turned tear gas from a toxic weapon into a “harmless” tool for repressing dissent.

The 1920s became a golden age of tear gas.

“War Gas”

A journalist for the Evening Independent wrote that Fries was often “accused of being an absolute militarist anxious to develop a military caste in the United States.” But to those who shared his cause, Fries was an excellent figurehead. A family man, a dedicated soldier, and a talented engineer, Fries was the perfect face of a more modern warfare.

Just as some in Europe argued that chemical weapons were a mark of a civilized society, for General Fries war gases were the ultimate American technology. They were a sign of the troops’ perseverance in World War I and an emblem of industrial modernity, showcasing the intersection of science and war. In an Armistice Day radio speech broadcast in 1924, Fries said, “The extent to which chemistry is used can almost be said today to be a barometer of the civilization of a country.” This was posed as a direct intervention to the international proposal for a ban on chemical weapons: Preparations for the Geneva Convention were well under way. If chemical weapons were banned, Fries knew it would likely mean the end of the CWS — and with it his blossoming postwar career.

To save the CWS from extinction, Fries would need his own army — one that would fight with rhetoric and social capital. Over the autumn of 1919, Fries worked to secure a network of publicists, scientists, and politicians to rally for their cause. They strategically began a full-scale multimedia marketing campaign to promote “war gases for peace time use.”

The trade press provided the first and largest forum for the spread of the tear-gas gospel. In the November 6, 1921, issue of Gas Age Record, Theo M. Knappen profiled Fries, the “dynamic chief” of the Chemical Warfare Service. Knappen wrote that Fries had

given much study to the question of the use of gas and smokes in dealing with mobs as well as with savages, and is firmly convinced that as soon as officers of the law and colonial administrators have familiarized themselves with gas as a means of maintaining order and power there will be such a diminution of violent social disorders and savage uprising as to amount to their disappearance.

In the future, Knappen predicted, when breaking up a demonstration, tear gas “will be the easy way and the best way.”

This early promotional writing struck a careful balance between selling pain and promising harmlessness. Its psychological impact set tear gas apart from bullets: It could demoralize and disperse a crowd without live ammunition. Through sensory torture, tear gas could force people to retreat.

These features gave it novelty value in a market where only the billy club and bullets had previously been available. Officers could disperse a crowd with “a minimum amount of undesirable publicity.” Instead of traces of blood and bruises, tear gas evaporates from the scene, its damage so much less pronounced on the surface of the skin or in the lens of the camera.

But the idea of transforming wartime weapons for peacetime use was not without its critics. In a 1922 letter to the New York Times, US Army veteran A. Reid Moir argued that gas was not only inhumane but “hellish.” He wrote, “Is it humane to lie in excruciating pain, with stomach swollen by the expansion of gas, and with lungs eaten by the deadly vapor to cough up one’s life in an agonizing convulsion?”

Fries’s team had carefully constructed comebacks for such objections. Borrowing loosely from medical statistics, Fries and his team constructed a trio of retorts. War gases, they claimed, killed only one-twelfth the amount of fatalities caused by bullets. Second, only half of disability discharges were from gas. Finally, they argued that there was no medical proof of permanent injury from gas exposure and that serious injuries were very rare.

Numbers could be twisted, but veterans’ testimonies stood in their way. Fries and his team claimed these were exaggerated tales, going so far as to publicly declare that “every imposter is beginning to claim gassing as the reason for his wanting War Sick benefits from the government.” This approach provided the groundwork for the decades of legitimizing less lethal weaponry to come.

Never far from Fries’s lenient use of statistics were his rationalizations of colonial myth as fact. Fries’s writing and speeches are littered with references to white supremacy. In his lecture at the General Staff College, Fries told young soldiers, “The same training that makes for advancement in science, and success in manufacture in peace, gives the control of the body that hold the white man to the ring line no matter what its terrors. A great deal of this comes because the white man has had trained out of him nearly all superstition.” It is this training, for Fries, that sets him apart from the “negro” as well as the “Gurkha and the Moroccan.”

While it would be easy to write Fries off as an anti-communist, racist, and military extremist, the potency of his views arose from his intellect as much as his ignorance. After graduating seventh in his class from West Point in 1898, Fries had entered the academy by acing an exam held by Congressman Binger Herman and went on to impress his superiors and inspire his army subordinates.

In the words of his peers, Fries took a situation in which “the entire civilian population,” as well as the army, stood against his pro-gas campaign and ignited in people an “earnest conviction” that these chemicals were the solution to law enforcement and political control in a time of economic depression. Instead of being seen as a form of physiological and psychological torture, tear gas became rhetorically cemented in much of the public imagination as the humanitarian alternative to live ammunition.

Into the next century, tear gas would become the most widely used less lethal technology. It would transform into part of today’s $1,630,000,000 global industry in less-lethal weapons, with rapidly expanding markets in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. But for all that to unfold, Fries and his compatriots would first need to build up a commercial market for tear gas.

Commercializing Tear Gas

Beyond trade publications, radio speeches, and news features, Fries and his network also staged large-scale product demonstrations. On a balmy July day in 1921, Fries’s old friend and colleague Stephen J. De La Noy brought large supplies of tear gas to a field near downtown Philadelphia. Here he enacted the power of war gases in peacetime by inviting members of the city’s police department to experience its effects. Inviting reporters to record the spectacle of 200 policemen faced with tear gas, De La Noy set the stage for an enticing media story.

A reporter from the New York Times described how the gas “thrice sent [the police] into hasty and wet-eyed retreat.” As the demonstration continued, Philadelphia’s police superintendent selected “a battalion of his huskiest men . . . with instructions to capture six men who were armed with 150 tear gas bombs.” They fared no better than the first bunch, as “three times they charged, but each time were driven back, weeping violently as they came within range of the charged vapor.” Afterwards, police officials told the Times that the demonstration “undoubtedly proved the value of tear gas in police work.” The gas, they concluded, would likely replace “means hitherto used to subdue mobs and criminals.”

This early demonstration spawned a major national and international campaign for the use of tear gases by law enforcement agencies. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s both the CWS and commercial manufacturers peddled their products to police departments, National Guard, prisons, and private security firms.

This marked a turning point in what is today called the “militarization of the police.” “A few police armed with this weapon could disperse a mob easily and destroy the impact of a mass demonstration,” historian Daniel P. Jones argues. “The dramatic increase in the power of police forces in handling mass disturbances certainly meant a loss of power to any group opposing established order.”

Just as demand needed to be secured, so too did supply. To jump-start the commercial market, Fries donated samples from the CWS to friends — many of them former soldiers — who had become entrepreneurial executives in gas munitions companies.

Perhaps the most outspoken of these was Colonel B. C. Goss, who had worked in the chemical warfare division during World War I. A respected chemist and decorated military man, Goss founded the Lake Erie Chemical Company in Cleveland, Ohio. As general manager of one of the largest companies in this new industry, Goss knew profits would follow perception. He wanted to be the single manufacturer supported by the US military, and sought to use his wartime credentials to make this happen. Goss solicited help from his old CWS buddies and learned the art of twisting scientific testing into advertising copy.

On April 15, 1926, Goss wrote to Fries requesting that he contact the Chicago Superintendent of Police, Morgan A. Collins, “calling his attention to the fact that there are many possible new uses and new chemicals which are admirably suited for use by police departments, with which you would like to have them made acquainted, and that you would appreciate it if he could arrange to have me give a brief talk to the National Convention of Police Chiefs at Chicago.” Fries, uncomfortable with this request but committed to Goss, delayed his reply. Busy preparing for a confidential show at Edgewood Arsenal, Fries “hesitated about writing to the Chicago Chief of Police for fear of possible unfavorable reaction.” He thought it better if the superintendent could telephone him, at which point he could then recommend Goss as a keynote speaker, making the matter appear more casual. “You know my great personal interest in what you are doing,” Fries reassured Goss, “As fast as your products are available, send them along to us for test.”

Within a year, the CWS was providing tests of Lake Erie’s commercial products. The company’s new tear-gas weapons were set to undergo scrutiny at Edgewood Arsenal in the winter of 1927. While Goss was soliciting military endorsements, he wanted to make sure the tests were carried out in a way that provided the best possible outcome. This was no ordinary tear gas. “These Shells are intended to be used, namely, for firing directly in the faces of rioters or mobs, at short range by guards,” Goss wrote, checking in with Fries on February 17, 1927, to recommend that testing be done only with the one-inch Very Pistols instead of the ten-gauge. He promised, “These one-inch shells really have a terrific wallop.”

On February 25, the CWS reported the results of Lake Erie’s “Blind-X Shell” tests. In the opinion of the board, this tear gas was of no use in the outdoors, as Goss had noted in his letter. Yet the gas “would seriously injure if fired in the face of a person under twenty feet,” making it useful for “warehouses or other large rooms.” It recommended that “the charge must be received full in the face or on the body to be effective” and that this gas “will be effective against unarmed individuals, but will only stop a determined and armed individual when red point blank.”

While the Lake Erie “Blind-X Shells” tests were just one in long series of munitions tests to take place at the Arsenal, the results speak toward common misperceptions about how tear gas is handled. Today when canisters are shot at people’s heads or into rooms or cars, it is seen as an accident or against-protocol use. However, these tests show that tear gas was in fact intentionally designed to be shot at point-blank range at people’s faces and bodies and was indeed recommended for use inside buildings and for ring at close proximities.

Second, the test results explicitly stated that the product would be effective against “unarmed individuals.” Again, it was not an anomaly or ethical mistake for police to fire upon unarmed protesters at close range in enclosed spaces. This function was embedded in the very design of these tear-gas weapons. Causing injury to unarmed civilians was an intended outcome of manufacturing these tear-gas shells.

Today, companies claim to manufacture safer and safer forms of tear gas and less lethal weapons. But what does it really mean to improve on the safety of a device designed to cause harm? Is it truly an accident when a product developed to shoot people in the face is used to shoot people in the face? If you follow the hyperlinked trails of less-lethal-weapons patents into the past, you will see the mystifying language of safety and protocols erode. Yet the design and purpose of these technologies remains the same.

The Legacy of Amos Fries

The story of Amos Fries and his entrepreneurial social network is a cautionary tale. It reveals the origins of the dangerous relationship between the escalation of police force and the profitable pursuits of riot-control manufacturers. As true in the 1920s as it is today, protest became an opportunity to “field test” new weapons. Austerity and injustice were mobilized as excuses to sell, research, and develop weapons designed for use against civilians.

In the years since Amos Fries brought military tear gas to the policing of protest, public safety has become ever more dictated by business models for risk and security. Economic interests and the pursuit of private profits fuel these models. Under these conditions, the repression of political communication itself becomes a commodity. It is traded and sold in the weapons advertisements, market reports, and expo galas that tear gas feed the less lethal industry. This industry expands so long as protest stays criminal and the police can be persuaded to purchase more and more military-grade goods.

Looking back toward the nascent military-industrial complex of the 1920s and 1930s helps unravel the evasive alliances that work to dehumanize interaction, commodify repression, and elude accountability. While Fries’s power was contested and had its limits, his ideologies shaped the military transfer of tear gas for civilian use. His dangerously myopic visions of “good” and “bad” Americans legitimated the deployment of chemical weapons to crush popular uprisings.