Tear Gas shows that, historically, the use of tear gas escalates violence against protest, but movements can overcome such repressive force, argues Tom Whittaker
Anna Feigenbaum, Tear Gas: From the battlefields of World War I to the streets of today (Verso 2017), 224pp.
I’ve only experienced tear gas once, at the protests against the G8 in Genoa 2001. As I recall, a canister was fired into the ground floor of an apartment block where we were sheltering, which immediately forced us to evacuate the building. On our way out, we received a beating from the Carabinieri’s batons, fortunately to the back and body rather than head, before we were able to flee. It is this beating rather than the experience of the tear gas that has stayed most prominently in my memory.
However, as Anne Feigenbaum makes clear, the use of tear gas to force people from the building, square or barricade that they are occupying is one of its main methods of deployment. They are then frequently exposed to other forms of police violence, meaning that tear gas - rather than being a somewhat less violent method of crowd control as is often claimed - acts as a ‘force multiplier’ in an often escalating cycle of violence.
The origins of modern-day tear gas lie in the poison gases designed for use against enemy combatants in World War I. At the time, proponents of the use of gas argued that it was a more humane way of killing than artillery bombardment (pp.16-20). However, despite poison gas being outlawed as a weapon of war under the Geneva convention, tear gas came to be recognised as a legitimate means of dealing with domestic social unrest and suppressing popular protest.
Important in this regard was what we might consider the then nascent ‘military-industrial complex’ in the USA. Particular individuals with close links to the military, business and government, sought to promote the use of tear gas by focusing on its ‘psychological advantages’. Through its ability to cause sensory torture and disorientation, tear gas would demoralise a crowd and force it to retreat and ultimately to disperse. Crucially, all this could be achieved without recourse to lethal force and would therefore lead to minimal negative publicity (p.28).
One infamous early deployment of tear gas occurred when US army veterans, demanding their bonus payments, were forcibly evicted from their protest camp in Washington DC in 1932, in what amounted to a military-style operation. Arguably the attack on the Bonus Army campaigners at the height of the Great Depression played a significant part in Herbert Hoover’s electoral defeat in 1932. However, this did not stop manufacturers of tear gas using pictures from this attack in their sales brochures. They were particularly keen to try and sell their product to US police forces who were attempting to suppress the growing labour unrest of the 1930s.
Britain’s colonies would also ultimately prove to be a testing ground for the new gas. Following the Amritsar massacre of 1919, in which over four hundred peaceful Indian protesters were killed, the colonial authorities were spurred into the search for alternative methods by which to control crowds. This was not out of any humanitarian consideration, but rather because the use of lethal force on such a scale ran the risk of escalating the protests to a level beyond the ability of the authorities to control (p.47).
Faced in 1930s with Gandhi’s adoption of tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience, the dilemma facing India’s colonial rulers was whether to fire like at Amritsar and risk another massacre, or essentially to do nothing and risk losing control of the population. Tear gas came to be seen by an increasing number of people as offering a way out of this particular diplomatic bind (p.53).
Despite this, for the time being the prohibition on the use of tear gas held. However, it wasn’t long until the prohibition was breached within the British Empire, in Nigeria, to suppress an anti-colonial women’s movement, and also in Palestine (p.60). Eighty years later, Palestinians are still routinely tear gassed, no longer by the British but by the Israeli Defence Force whose use of lethal force is reminiscent of the violence of European colonialism.
As these examples make clear, tear gas is intimately bound up with the state’s ability to refuse demands for change. Feigenbaum suggests that for governments it has a dual function: both the physical act of dispersing a crowd and the psychological act of demoralising them. Tear gas enables both the suppression of the masses and the calculated undermining of attempts at civil disobedience (p.61).
The 1960s saw tear gas really come into its own. From the civil-rights march in Selma Alabama, to the protests outside the Democratic Party Convention in Chicago in 1968 and the student protests at Berkeley and Kent State, its use was part of an offensive strategy of riot control in which the US government and authorities sought to maintain control, rather than seek compromise or consensus with the protestors.
Again, it was often used as a ‘force multiplier’ to increase the effectiveness of other forms of force such as baton charges or birdshot (p.70). At Berkeley, it would be dropped out of helicopters in the manner it was used in Vietnam to force the Vietcong from their tunnels. Amidst clouds of tear gas at Kent State in 1970, four students protesting the extension of that war to Cambodia would be shot dead.
During the 1960s, tear gas was also first used in Northern Ireland during the Battle of the Bogside, an uprising by the Catholic population of Derry against the systematic discrimination and violence they faced at the hands of the Orange State and its supporters. Widespread public anger about the use of tear gas in a densely populated, civilian area forced the British government to commission an enquiry into its use. The Himsworth report essentially rubber stamped the further deployment of tear gas in Northern Ireland, despite the residents of the Bogside objecting that it resulted from a flawed investigative process in which their experiences of gas were frequently disregarded. Subsequently the Himsworth report has been used by governments across the world to justify their use of tear gas.
Feigenbaum ends with an account of some of the acts of collective resistance to tear gas and defiance in the face of its use. One example is that of Ceyda Sungur, a woman in a red dress who was pepper sprayed at close range in Turkey’s Geyzi Park on an anti-government protest in 2013. That she should became symbolic of the movement’s defiance in the face of police violence, should serve to remind us of the limits that exist to repressive capacities of governments and states.
Moreover, this left me wondering how decisive this particular chemical agent has been in determining the outcome of popular protests and class struggles over the last ninety years or so. Ultimately when states feel threatened they will seek to escalate their repressive violence if they believe they can get away with it, and, as Feigenbaum’s account makes very clear, tear gas is frequently an enabler of further violence, rather than a barrier to it.
As with any act of repression, the question becomes how the movement from below responds: can it find ways to broaden and deepen the struggle, to extend the spaces in which popular power is expressed? Crucially, through its strength, can it begin to neutralise and ultimately disperse the violence of the state that is brought against it?
More articles from this author
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- Why pulling down Colston's statue was right
- A People’s History of the German Revolution 1918-19 - book review
- The dawn of Thatcherism, 40 years on
- Bristol marches to demand justice for Grenfell 9 months on
- Poll Tax 1990: the revolt that sank Thatcher - video
- Bristol: a city prepared to fight