In Kenosha, Wisconsin, protesters in solidarity with Jacob Blake — the young black man police shot and paralyzed in front of his children – were approached by military-style vehicles attempting to enforce a city-wide curfew. When no one in the crowd moved, the police unleashed tear gas. For the next few hours, mayhem ensued.
This scene has played out in over 100 cities across the US, echoing a century of public calls to end racism and police brutality, which have been, for a century, met with tear gas. As thousands take to the streets calling for an end to police brutality while thousands more die of a virus known for attacking the respiratory system, it is far past time to restrict the use of tear gas.
Tear gas, the generic name for neurotoxins used in crowd control, is a chemical compound that triggers pain at every nerve ending it touches: most commonly eyes, lungs, skin and throat. It can also cause long-term eye damage (glaucoma and cataracts), cardiovascular diseases, acute respiratory illness and, in high concentrations in enclosed spaces, death. Though banned in war after WWI, US police have used tear gas for a century, and with aggressive vigor against often peaceful protesters marching for racial justice.
In 1919, New York City was the first police force to request tear gas, specifically to quell race riots. Soon, Norfolk, Virginia — where problems had not yet arisen — requested tear gas to forestall anticipated “trouble with the Negro element,” according to their police chief.
By the end of 1923, more than 600 municipalities had procured tear gas grenades and launchers to use against domestic protesters, most of them peaceful, according to Senate hearings. Captains of industry became another major clientele, procuring tear gas grenades and launchers to display at worksite gates, dissuading underpaid workers from protesting labor conditions. Its ubiquity has only grown since then. Police forces have spent millions of taxpayer dollars on these munitions in recent years.
When police use chemical weapons in residential neighborhoods, even nonparticipants, including pregnant women, children and people with health conditions are victimized.
Not only has tear gas suppressed public dissent under the guise of saving lives, it has also put the US at odds with its international agreements. As an airborne agent, it cannot and does not target individuals but provides for, essentially, collective punishment. In crowd control, Tulsa police forces announced on August 11 that just one violent or unlawful protester can subject the whole assembly to chemical weapons deployment. To deploy tear gas against demonstrators demanding protections for an ethnic group denotes a racist form of collective punishment, which is illegal under international law.
When police use chemical weapons in residential neighborhoods, even nonparticipants, including pregnant women, children and people with health conditions are victimized. In June, Seattle and Portland residents reported being tear-gassed in their own apartments as gas seeped through windows and settled into their furniture.
Tear gas was, and continues to be, marketed to Americans as “less-than-lethal” technology that saves lives by displacing live ammunition and billy clubs. Such weapons were a staple of riot control after black soldiers returned from WWI unwilling to, as one federal agent in Texas put it, fit “back into his prior status of pre-war times.” But, a century on, we are capable of protecting protester lives without quashing dissent.
Researchers studying the way protesters and police interact have found that disproportionate or preemptive teargas use can turn a peaceful protest violent. In contrast, open channels between police and community leaders can reduce conflict risk. Negotiated settlements and easy access to protest permits help. These channels cannot be built in the midst of a protest, but offer an alternative to excessive force going forward.
Today’s COVID-19 pandemic heightens the urgency for changing how tear gas is used, because it can both exacerbate symptoms and accelerate transmission of the deadly disease. The American Thoracic Society has called for a moratorium on the use of tear gas during the pandemic for these exact reasons. The health impacts of tear gas have long been under-studied, and health experts have come out by the thousands to decry its usage during a respiratory inflammation pandemic. Residents of Portland, OR, where police have used tear gas almost daily for three months are complaining of debilitating headaches and even irregular menstrual cycles. To date there is no data on the health risks posed to medical personnel tasked with treating COVID-19 patients or tear gas-affected patients.
Given our country’s racist history of collective punishment against minorities, outsized utilization of police brutality compared to other democracies, and ongoing struggle to contain a respiratory virus that disproportionately kills Black Americans, now is the moment to tightly restrict tear gas use. Creating a more equitable and humane future will require policies that banish the vestiges of our shameful past. Let us start with a weapon that is ill-fit for war, and we should agree, is undoubtedly unfit against our so-called free society.
Kendyl Salcito is the Executive Director of the business and human rights research group, NomoGaia, a Fellow at the Truman National Security Project, and holds a PhD in Epidemiology. Opinions are her own.