The Paradox of Tear Gas

Anna Feigenbaum

Banned in warfare yet routinely used to quell protest at home, tear gas epitomizes the contradictions of modern state violence.

Tear gas being used on protesters October 26, 2017 in Nairobi, Kenya. Andrew Renneisen / Getty Images

Interview by
Yesim Yaprak Yildiz

Earlier this week, thousands of people joined a general strike in Puerto Rico’s capital, mobilizing on Mayday to protest the crippling austerity that’s been imposed on the island. In response, police fired rubber bullets and released choking clouds of teargas into the crowd.

What Puerto Rican protesters faced this week is, unfortunately, not unique. The use of tear gas has rapidly increased across the world in recent years. While banned in warfare, it is now internationally accepted as a humane form of riot control. This “humane” weapon, however, has left hundreds of people dead and thousands injured since it started to be used to suppress peaceful protests in the 1920s.

To learn about how tear gas became such an ubiquitous tool for dispelling peaceful protest, we spoke to Anna Feigenbaum, the author of Tear Gas: from the Battlefields of WWI to the Streets of Today. Feigenbaum astutely uncovers the history of the toxic gas, its role in quelling anticolonial movements, who benefits from the commercial tear gas market, and what accounts for its persistent use against civilians today.


As the use of tear gas in protests has become more visible, activists have begun pointing to the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits tear gas in warfare but allows for its use in riot control. What’s the history of this contradiction?

AF

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 see 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.

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.

In the book, you describe how the British government initially resisted using tear gas in its colonies, despite requests by colonial administrations seeking to suppress protests. But by the 1960s, it’s relentlessly deploying tear gas against peaceful protests in Northern Ireland. How was this shift legitimized?

AF

After World War I, the United States was keen to immediately create this commercial sector for tear gas. The UK was much more reluctant due to a combination of factors: they were much more present in the war; they were witness to the widespread condemnation of war gases; to the impression that Germans were especially barbaric for their use of gases (even though they were used by both sides). The British memory of the war held that gases were barbaric and uncivilized. So they did not adopt the American position right away. It took a while, and a lot of arguing by the British colonial administrations, to convince the decision makers that they should be able to use it.

There were two major things that legitimated that shift from seeing tear gas as barbaric to seeing it as civilizing — and actually as the benevolent option. The first one is the start of satyagraha practices and the second one is what the administrators call, the women problem.

The first problem was that the administrators found themselves encountering nonviolent forms of resistance during the rise of independence movements, particularly in India but also in other colonies. They did not want to look too excessively violent and barbaric, so they needed an alternative to shooting people, to make it seem like their response to passive resistance was benevolent.

The other one, the women problem, had to do with the Women’s War in Nigeria. Colonial administrators had changed social systems in Nigeria in a way that disenfranchised women.

In the uprisings there, women were at the forefront of direct action protests and the British did not want to appear to be using violence against women. So tear gas again was posed as a solution to make the British look like they are benevolent colonizers.

With these arguments we see both a policy shift towards permitting the use of tear gas, as well as a discursive shift to justify this use. Rather than seeing it as a barbaric poison, the British empire started to rescript tear gas as the benevolent, less lethal, and humane way of responding to political protests.

Health Warnings

Despite many medical reports and court decisions, governments continue to argue that tear gas does not pose any serious risk to health. In the book you mention the Himsworth Inquiry report on the medical consequences of the use of tear gas in Northern Ireland in 1969, which continues to be used across the world to justify the use of tear gas. How can governments continue to legitimize its use despite growing reactions and the newer medical reports on the harms of tear gas?

AF

There are a few publications by the World Health Organization that mention tear gas but there is no study on tear gas on a global scale. There are lots of individual medical reports and reports by a number of medical associations. I think Turkey is taking the lead on that in recent years. The Venezuela Medical Association, British, and American Medical Associations have also come out against it. But there is not a global medical report that could be used for a kind of global policy.

The Himsworth Inquiry report justifies tear gas by treating it as a drug. Using studies done between the 1940s and 1980s, they came up with a dosage level at which tear gas becomes toxic. As long as the amount used falls under that standardized dosage level, it is considered not to be harmful or lethal. The problem with this model is it assumes that a dosage of tear gas can be somehow perfectly administered. This is deeply problematic in a real life setting.

Could it also be argued that legitimizing the use of tear gas in standardized dosage levels presupposes that there would not be elderly people or people with respiratory problems in the protests? People who could be affected even by a small amount of tear gas?

AF

That is the humanitarian argument. If we make the argument that we don’t know who is going to be in a protest, one of two things tend to happen. Either authorities hold the protest organizers responsible for keeping the elderly or others out of protests. Or we get this division, the binary between the good and the bad protester. As if some bodies are allowed to be teargassed while others are not. This is what we see in the news coverage of young brown men being teargassed; it’s already been decided that he is a criminal, and thus teargassable.

That humanitarian argument can very easily slide into this binary between the good and the bad protester, people you can tear gas and people you cannot tear gas.

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.

When we look at statements by governments they argue that the casualties resulting from tear gas are mostly due to its misuse. They make the reader think that protocols, guidelines or regulations can end the problem. 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?

AF

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 second problem is that all the training on tear gas use occurs in incredibly contained scenarios. They are not real. Tear gas becomes a bit of a joke or a laugh, police or military officers use it in training, playing little jokes on each other. But this is nothing like the actual realities on the street. There is a disconnect between the real condition and the test or simulative condition.

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 legitimate training as something that could help mitigate these kinds of injuries then we need to reimagine what training itself looks like and who goes through it.

Chemical Warfare on the Cheap

Watching the scenes of the police officers using tear gas launchers, the way they target and shoot the protesters, one feels like in a video game. We still see police officers beating protesters but the distance between the protesters and the police officers and how it is changing the protests is interesting.

AF

There are two issues here. One is that there has been a big push, going back one hundred years, for police officers to be equipped with weapons that mean they don’t have to be in close proximity with protesters. The logic is that if they don’t have to make direct contact, they are safer. Of course they are also less accountable, because it’s difficult to know where that shot came from or where that spray came from. And importantly, the little research that has been done shows that the use of tear gas has not led to a reduction in assaults on police officers.

Second, as you say, the use of video games — like the simulations the military uses in training — dehumanize the subject, leading to an even bigger gap between the training scenario and the streets. Streets become an extension of that game scenario. The company that supplied Ferguson police’s target practices used the images of real protesters in their targets. Of course that will change the way the protesters are seen on the streets. If the police are not trained to see civilians as civilians, then they see them as enemies or as combatants and that’s how they’ll treat them.

With protests increasing worldwide, the tear gas business has also boomed. In Turkey, 628 tonnes of tear gas worth $21.3 million was imported over twelve years. Some of the companies selling tear gas are also linked to larger arms manufacturers, as you mention in the book. Yet this huge industry is almost entirely unregulated.

What consequences does this have?

AF

It is great that now, more people know that tear gas is banned in war but not for domestic riot control. But something we know less about is the political-economic history of tear gas. Without that element, we cannot answer the question of why this keeps happening.

Tear gas is a shadow market. A lot of contracts do not even need to go through government approval. You can have direct sales from the corporate manufacturers to the police force.

There is no monitoring, or any responsibility to follow standard UN principles on the use of force and firearms, meaning there’s no way to track cases of misuse. There is no link between excessive use and the right to trade. A simple first step policy intervention would be to forbid the direct commercial sale of tear gas. Then you would at least be talking to the governments rather than trying to intervene in the corporate processes, which is much more difficult.

Why do some governments seem to prefer tear gas, when there are many other riot control agents available?

AF

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.

Countries that don’t use it as much, it’s usually because they’ve sustained media scandals related to its use. So in the UK, there was a political uprising that pressed really hard on the government after the 1969 Battle of Bogside in Northern Ireland. Tear gas was also used during the riots by the black community on police brutality in the 1980s, and again the media was really hard on it and there was a lot of public outcry.

One interesting thing you write about is how, just as protesters find new tactics to counter police violence, the industry also comes up with new tactics against the protesters. For instance “ballerina grenades,” the jumping tear gas aimed to avoid “throwback” by protesters. Or water cannons made with a dye technology aiming to mark the protesters. The industry is almost a party in this, isn’t it?

AF

The riot control companies are definitely monitoring protest tactics. I subscribed to this email list called Tear Gas Watch, it’s an industry news report. So what you will get on there are actual info sheets made by activists being re-circulated among people in the industry. So they are studying the emergence of activist tactics in the same way that police surveillance studies all kinds of other tactics. This is a common thing in technological development more broadly: a technology comes out, people adapt new uses of it or ways around it, and then a new technology is made to respond to that, and the people respond again. Tear gas is no different in that sense.