Television cameras show streets filled with angry men and women. The air is thick with tear gas. There are batons, armoured police, and pepper spray. For some a symbol of resistance. For others fearful scenes of anarchy. For many more a sign that something is terribly wrong.
The images coming from the United States of tens of thousands of protesters confronting and being confronted by heavily armed police are impossible to ignore. The image of streets thick with gas and of police pepper-spraying people at close range is one that has become all too common across the world.
Explosive images fill and re-fill our screens and newspapers. US anti-war demonstrators in the late 1960s, Paris in1968, Londonderry and Belfast in 1969 were precursors of what was to become the crowd control tool of choice. By the beginning of this century the production, sales, distribution, and use of tear gas was running at full capacity. 2019 was a year of major disruptions as workers took to the streets in cities around the world. Haiti, Chile, Bolivia, Colombia, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran and Hong Kong were all shrouded in tear gas. And then there was the United States and 2020 and the attempts by the police and the national guard to get people off the streets.
To use tear gas is to knowingly inflict severe burning of the eyes, mouth, throat and skin. It is to knowingly cause the victim to cough, choke and retch, to cause the eyelids to involuntarily snap shut, to cause temporary blindness. It is to risk women miscarrying, to cause stillbirths, to see asthmatics hospitalised, often for prolonged periods. It is to see people die, as was the case in Egypt in 2013 when 37 deaths were recorded after spraying at close quarters.
This ‘crowd dispersing’ agent has a long history. It first rose to infamy in 1914, when French troops used it against their German enemies in the trenches of WWI. The war ended but production of the gas did not. By the end of the 1920s, police forces in New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, San Francisco and Chicago were all buying up stocks. During the depression years, millions of dollars were spent on supplying armouries in the USA with tear gas for possible use against striking workers.
2019 was a big year for tear gas and for the US-based company, Combined Systems Inc., that produces the lion’s share of such weaponry. It supplies, not only the domestic market, but police forces in Egypt, Israel, Tunisia, Chile, Bolivia, Guatemala, Germany, the Netherlands, Argentina, Thailand and Hong Kong, among others. When US-China relations were hitting rock bottom in 2019, the US passed a law prohibiting the export of tear gas to Hong Kong. This, of itself, was a remarkable piece of news. The USA had been selling tear gas to China. Then an apparent moral dilemma confronted the US government. It suddenly became wrong to sell the chemical weapons to China so that they could then be deployed to the Chinese-backed police to use in street protests. These are surely days of wonder.
What is even more extraordinary is that Article 1.5 of the Chemical Weapons Convention, which was signed into effect in 1997 and now has 193 nation-state signatories, prohibits tear gas and pepper spray being used in times of war. It’s not alright to spray enemy soldiers with tear gas or pepper spray. It is a war crime, but it is alright to gas and spray protesters just about anywhere in the world.
The events of recent days in the United States are an indication that there is something terribly wrong. The cannisters of gas that are outlawed for use on the battlefield are positively sanctioned not just in the United States but in so many of the same countries that are signatories to the Chemical Weapons Convention. The police forces in these states have become more obviously militarised, often barely distinguishable from the army that is supposed to exist to defend the rights and freedoms of the citizenry that can be gassed for protesting.
Two rather depressing factors come together. Firstly, we see police forces around the world looking and behaving more as a military force. Secondly, we see states actively promoting an acceptance of militarisation in their communities as a means of promoting a sense of unity and national awareness.
Police have been described as sometimes looking more like post-apocalyptic military mercenaries than protectors of the peace. Their hardware now includes vehicles that look just a little out of place in a western capitalist city. We all, unfortunately know the sort of thing. Armoured vehicles that we see on our news screens rumbling through the streets of Baghdad or Kabul. The same sights are now common across continents. Rather than being seen as intimidating, which is what such shows or force are, the heavily armed military-styled police in Germany have been described as offering psychological reassurance to the public. In the United States, the public felt less than reassured. The Australian government recently enacted legislation that gives the army the right to take control from the police when protests become violent or order is deemed to be endangered. This legislation came into effect with support from both sides of politics.
The violence on American streets is a visible reminder of the shortcomings of that society. But can we, in all seriousness, believe that we are exempt from seeing such images a lot closer to home?