‘I can’t breathe.’
These were the last words George Floyd uttered before he died after a police officer pinned his neck to the ground during his arrest last week. Riots and protests have since ensued across the world, with demonstrators demanding justice for the 46-year-old’s death and to protest against racial inequality at large.
From ‘taking the knee’ in front of a wall of riot police and holding placards with the names of other black people who have died at the authority's hands, through to chants, tearful speeches and more, anti-racists are physicalising their anger towards racially motivated police brutality.
However, many protesters are now finding themselves the victims of physical force themselves.
While some demonstrations and the consequent responses have been peaceful, certain US states including Nevada, Minnesota and Washington D.C. have witnessed more tumultuous scenes, with police deciding on various courses of action for crowd control, some of which have included tear gas, rubber bullets and flash grenades, to disperse the gatherings and put an end to large-scale violence and looting. Footage has emerged of police using batons against bystanders, journalists and protesters and even more harrowing scenes of police cars ramming into protesters in New York and a mounted officer trampling over a woman in Houston.
Mayors like Bill de Blasio of New York and police chiefs have attempted to both defend or promise investigations into the actions of officers filmed in these terrifying videos. Donald Trump, on the other hand, promises to greet protesters outside the White House with the ‘most ominous weapons.'
While one must imagine that undue violence against protesters isn't outwardly sanctioned by the authorities, some common ‘crowd control’ tactics - like rubber bullets and tear gas - are. But while these methods of quelling unrest might have been widely approved, do they actually constitute a non- or less-violent response?
We investigate the use of tear gas to find out whether it really is a ‘non-lethal’ weapon.
What is tear gas?
Contrary to popular belief, tear gas isn’t so much a gas as a pressurised powder that creates a smoke when fired. Common symptoms from exposure to the powder include skin burning, blurred vision, a running nose, chest tightness, coughing and nausea.
Tear gas is usually fired from canisters, grenades, or pressurised sprays and its most common form is 2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile (CS gas), which was first discovered by American scientists in 1928. While the gas was used as a chemical weapon in World War I, the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993 – which was signed by almost every country in the world – banned its use in wartime. However, it is still permitted for domestic law enforcement and crowd control, according to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
In the US' Customs and Border Protection handbook, for instance, officials are permitted to use so-called ‘less-lethal force...that is not likely to cause serious physical injury or death’ and it ‘must be both objectively reasonable and necessary’ in order to carry out enforcement duties. As for the UK, in addition to the use of tasers and batons, police are trained to use CS spray only ‘when they feel that the offender poses a risk to themselves and/or the police officers and others in the vicinity’.
In recent months, tear gas has been used for crowd control purposes during protests in the likes of Chile and Hong Kong, resulting in scenes of demonstrators sprinting away from clouds of smoke on the streets and pouring milk over people's eyes as a salve for the excruciating burning sensation. However, its use has been criticised for years, with some arguing that it’s anything but a ‘non-lethal’ or ‘less-lethal’ force.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has been an ardent opponent of the use of tear gas in the US and filed numerous lawsuits challenging unconstitutional, excessive use of force.
‘Tear gas cannot distinguish between the young and the elderly, the healthy and the sick, the peaceful and the violent; it cannot tell whether a person is an unarmed rallygoer or a curious bystander,’ a statement on the organisation’s website reads. ‘That is why it is rarely appropriate to use against protesters, and why its use should be regulated.’
Dr Anna Feigenbaum, author of Tear Gas: From the Battlefields of WWI to the Streets of Today, also warns that tear gas is only legal because ‘protesters are always supposed to be able to get away from the smoke, and the smoke is always supposed to be able to evaporate and be ephemeral.'
Speaking about the dangers of it to the South China Post last year, with regards to tear gas in Hong Kong, she added: ‘You have a situation where there are lots of cordoned-off streets, there are barricades, and there are narrow roads that have been blocked by police lines.’
One look at footage of US protesters in tightly-packed crowds and pushing against police barriers and the idea of escaping a shower of tear gas seems near impossible.
What does it feel like to be tear gassed?
It’s one thing to see images of protesters and bystanders doused in a cloud of tear gas, clutching their mouths with arms outstretched in a bid to find safety. But it’s another to experience it first-hand.
Naomi Larsson is a freelance journalist who experienced tear gas while reporting on the Chilean protests last year for Aljazeera, The Telegraph and the BBC World Service.
Chileans took to the heart of the city of Santiago in a square known as ‘Plaza Italia’, which was later dubbed as ‘Plaza de la Dignidad’ ('Square of Dignity') by protestors. Larsson lived five minutes away from the square and was in a taxi when tear gas was used against citizens on the first day of the demonstrations.
‘I got out of the car and started asking people what was going as they ran away from the square,’ she tells ELLE UK.
‘I didn’t run because I didn’t really know what was going on. There was a horrible taste in the air. The gas blinded me and clogged my throat. I was completely disorientated and dizzy; I lost all control of my body. I was overcome by this feeling of wanting to be sick and I sat on the ground, waiting for the pain in my body to stop. It felt like it was never going to end, I was terrified. Fortunately, a group of young girls saw me on the floor and walked me away from the area.’
Larsson says that one of the main issues in Chile was that police using ‘non-lethal’ firearms, like those currently being employed in the US, were shooting tear gas canisters and rubber pellets directly into people’s faces.
‘So many people were shot in the face, had severe eye traumas and blinded,’ she said, adding that the eye soon became a symbol for protestors against police brutality given the widespread suffering they endured.
For the next three months, Larsson reported from the protests, interviewing people who were beaten with batons, water cannoned, shot with pellets at close range and allegedly sexually assaulted by officers. She says she became accustomed to working in the toxic environment and was as close as two metres to some gas explosions.
‘The air was full of tear gas all the time,’ she recalls. ‘If you arrived at 10am before the protests started you could smell and taste it. I soon learned to protect myself by wetting a bandana with bicarbonate of soda and wearing it across my nose and mouth and carrying lemons in my bag to suck on; I was told they help lessen the effects of the chemicals.’
However, a month into the protests and the effect and appearance of the gas seemed to change. ‘The police must have put something peppery in the gas – it seemed so much worse and instead of grey it appeared yellow when fired out of the canisters,’ she adds.
The long-term effects of tear gas
In the short-term, it is estimated that the physical effects of tear gas can last up to 10-20 minutes. But given the relatively small number of people who are affected by the noxious substance, the long-term effects for those exposed by chemicals are still relatively unknown.
Over the years, there have been studies that have attempted to investigate the long-term impact. In 2013, scientists in Turkey researched the lung function of people exposed to the gas and found that their measurements showed a high restriction and/or medium and small airway obstruction among those affected. And in Bahrain, some women have recorded experiencing miscarriages after being exposed to the gas, but researchers could not say that it was definitively as a direct result of the chemical exposure.
‘It is very difficult to study because you cannot isolate or make separate what health conditions are caused by tear gas versus other environmental, social and genetic conditions,’ Feigenbaum previously told Business Insider.
That said, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has outlined the health problems that may come as a result of prolonged exposure, especially in enclosed areas, including eye problems (such as scarring, glaucoma, and cataracts) and breathing problems such as asthma. Studies have also found that children may also be at a greater risk when they come into contact with the substance.
‘Tear gas is heavier than air, so the concentrations are higher lower to the ground,’ Jordt explained to USA Today in 2018. ‘Children also have much smaller lungs, so if they inhale it, they are exposed to higher levels. And obviously, they cannot understand what’s happening to them, this pain developing, so they also develop much more anxiety and fear response.’
In addition to the potential physical side effects of tear gas exposure are its lasting psychological damage. Physicians for Human Rights has stated that prolonged or repeated exposure to it may result in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms.
Larsson believes she is yet to address the trauma of police brutality she’s suffered since leaving Chile.
‘It comes from the fear and relentlessness of the toxic air but also the trauma of feeling powerless,’ she says.
‘Ultimately, as a protester, your only weapon is your voice. For the people on the front line, they might throw stones at vans and shout as loud as they want but the authorities have forces that’ll wipe you out entirely. By being part of the protest and having to repeatedly run away from pellets and tear gas fire and running back into it is traumatising.'
The UK's supply of ‘non-lethal’ weapons
After almost a week of protests and social unrest, more than 9,000 people have been arrested in US cities and rage continues to sweep across the world, following the death of Floyd. And while some of this might feel like a distant situation, the UK has come under fire for the part they are playing in aggressive crowd control tactics.
The UK may not have used tear gas on British protesters in this recent spate of demonstrations, but it seems we have been complicit in the use of it elsewhere. MPs and anti-racists are now urging the government to suspend the sale of British tear gas, rubber pellets and riot shields to the US, amid concerns that the ‘non-violent’ weapons are being misused in the suppression of protests. According to The Guardian, the Department of International Trade states that it has licensed the export of riot control weapons and equipment to the US.
The Labour party insists that, under the current arms export control regime, the UK government must not grant licences for the export of arms and equipment that is intended for use against that country's own citizens. Shadow international trade secretary Emily Thornberry calls the UK supply of such materials to the US as a ‘disgrace’.
Facing additional pressure from the public, the party’s MPs are also calling on ministers to clarify whether any UK-manufactured equipment is currently being used in the US during the protests.
On Tuesday, Labour’s Claudia Webbe MP spoke about the supply of ‘non-violent’ weapons to the US in the House of Commons and shared a video of her speech on Twitter, adding: ‘UK should not be complicit in state sanctioned violence and racism.’
The UK must show leadership; stop selling rubber bullets, tear gas & weapons used by heavily militarised police in the US & worlwide on civilians engaged peaceful protests. UK should not be complicit in state sanctioned violence & racism#BlackLivesMatter#JusticeForGeorgeFloyd pic.twitter.com/5F7AkXL5KR— Claudia Webbe MP (@ClaudiaWebbe) June 2, 2020
Oliver Feeley-Sprague, Amnesty International UK’s military, security and police programme director, has added that ‘there’s a clear risk of further misuse’ of the equipment and that the UK is ‘obliged’ to freeze supply.
On Sunday, the organisation issued a statement calling for an end to militarised policing in the US and the use of ‘excessive force’ against demonstrators protesting against the sort of brutality they are now facing.
‘Equipping officers in a manner more appropriate for a battlefield may put them in the mindset that confrontation and conflict are inevitable,’ the organisation stated.
In light of the pressure on the government to cease supply, Boris Johnson has said controls on UK exports are highly ‘scrupulous’.
This isn’t the first time police aggression of this kind has been used to ‘control’ demonstrators who are protesting against the very existence of violent force. However, its continued use serves as a terrifying reminder of the dangers fighting for justice can involve.
‘Using "non-lethal firearms" is another way for forces to assert and abuse power,’ Larsson explains.
‘As a protester, you go out on the streets and risk your life. You might come home wounded or not at all.’
Like this article? Sign up to our newsletter to get more articles like this delivered straight to your inbox.
In need of more inspiration and thoughtful journalism? Subscribe to ELLE's print magazine now and pay just £6 for 6 issues. SUBSCRIBE HERE
You Might Also Like