Tear Gas

Anna Feigenbaum – Tear Gas (Verso, 2017)

Late last year, I paid my first visit to Argentina, to write about the contemporary art scene in Buenos Aires. On Thursday December 14th, sizeable demonstrations were about to take place in the city centre, protesting against President Macri’s pensions reforms, which threaten to impoverish the elderly by raising the pensionable age and change the way payments are calculated. Congress was due to vote on the legislation that day, but early morning TV news reports showed several Congress members being physically prevented from entering the building.

One Congresswoman was filmed being pepper-sprayed in the face at point blank range by a police officer. The entire area around the building was surrounded by a steel wall, behind which hundreds of armed police officers in riot gear waited to greet demonstrators. I joined a large group of trade unionists and students from the National University of the Arts and we quickly found ourselves wandering through a grey mist that I mistook, initially, for smoke. In a matter of seconds, I couldn’t breathe, my eyes were streaming, and the insides of my mouth and throat were burning. It was my first experience of tear gas.

For many of us, tear gas lurks deep in folk memory. Historic episodes such as the Paris “evenements” of May, 1968, police attacks on demonstrators at the Democratic Party Congress in Detroit also in 1968, and, closer to home, the Battle of the Bogside, in Derry, in August, 1969, all continue to provide powerful evidence and dramatic images of the use of this drifting, airborne weapon.

But tear gas continues to be the crowd control method of choice for police and military forces worldwide. Recent events testifying to this include those that unfolded in Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park, in 2013, (where peaceful protesters exposed to tear gas included the famous “woman in red”, Ceydar Sungar, photographed being held down and gassed by police), and in Ferguson, Missouri, where protests and riots followed the shooting dead of Michael Brown by white police officers, in 2014. The reasons why tear gas continues to be used, and used brutally, are skilfully explored by Anna Feigenbaum in her new book.

Tear gas isn’t really a gas. It’s composed of solid matter, floating around in aerosol form, the exact mix varying with the branding of the product. Tear gas is closely related, then, to pepper spray, CS gas, Mace, and other scintillatingly-worded labels, whose contents may at some point be launched, sprayed, fired at or dropped on you or me.

Emerging from the wide ranging and horrific experiments in weaponry during World War One, where it was first used by the French and German armies to “dislodge” troops from enemy trenches, tear gas can be rightfully associated with those other, infamous, poisonous chemical weapons, like chlorine and mustard gas, all of which emerged at the same time. As Feigenbaum notes, the use of gas was justified at first as a scientific and “rational” way of achieving military advantage on the battlefield.

After all, it was much less messy than blowing humans to pieces. The eventual use of tear gas on civilians could therefore be seen in similar terms: it was easier to use and less violent than clubbing people over the head, or firing live ammunition at crowds, plus it did not kill or injure anyone – or so it was claimed. So, despite the fact that the use of all gas, including tear gas, was banned by international legislation after the end of World War One, tear gas escaped, literally, because, suddenly, the evolving peacetime weapons industry could justify, legally, its use in a non-military capacity.

But tear gas is not harmless, and it is not totally reliable, as Feigenbaum explains in detail. It was learned from its earliest use that tear gas is most effective in confined spaces – as Bogside residents learned in 1969, when it was fired by police directly into flats, causing widespread illness, including vomiting, diarrhea and nausea, in an incident the sheer size of which gave rise to an official medical investigation, published as the Himsworth Report.

Furthermore, the projectiles that release the gas can also be used as offensive weapons that can prove useful to the forces launching them. Hundreds of injuries were caused this way during the Occupy Gezi protests, for instance. And inhaling tear gas, as I know from what happened to me in Buenos Aires, induces a sense of confusion: you lose track of where you are, and what is happening around you.

The gas, which is designed to affect the respiratory organs, can also damage those of the elderly, or the very young, or people already suffering from lung disease, or chronic conditions like asthma. And last but not least, tear gas can kill. In Bahrain, in 2011, as Feigenbaum notes, referring to a report from Physicians For Human Rights, there were 34 reported deaths relating to tear gas during pro-democracy demonstrations. Tear gas is, therefore, not simply a way of controlling crowds; it has become, as Feigenbaum puts it, “an object designed to torment people, to break their spirits, to cause physical and psychological damage.”

Feigenbaum’s narrative moves between histories of its use, and its manufacture and marketing. Tear gas clouds have spread worldwide, therefore, not just because the gas evolved during periods of massive unrest such as the beginning of the end of British India in the 1920s and 30s, or the campaigns for Civil Rights in the USA during the 1960s, but also because police and military forces purchased it, insisting it was “safe,” and chemical manufacturers profited from publicising it as such.

Nor does the UK escape the worrying direction the use of tear gas takes us, from streets, squares and parks and into domestic space, to its use as a “chemical straightjacket” on the mentally ill. The case of one asylum seeker, Ibrahima Sey, who was suffering from a form of mental illness, and who died in 1996 after being sprayed in the face with CS gas, by police, after being arrested, is particularly disturbing. Yet, at the time, the use of CS gas by UK police forces was persistently defended by Home Secretaries like Michael Howard, who argued that it helped to defend police officers from the potentially violent behaviour of those they were trying to arrest.

It masquerades as a peaceful way of controlling civilians behaving badly, but as Feigenbaum argues, tear gas threatens our democratic rights. “By poisoning the air,” she writes, “Tear gas makes speaking out, together, in public, impossible.” Its use, in fact, has become increasingly militarised, as evidenced throughout Feigenbaum’s book, from her description of its use on Civil Rights marchers and innocent African-American civilians in Selma, Alabama, in 1965, where tear gas becomes a “punitive device”, used during “proto SWAT-style attacks on civilian homes,” onwards.

In Buenos Aires last December, it was obvious to all of us that tear gas was being used to soften demonstrators up immediately before further violence was unleashed in the form of water cannon and shotgun fire. Meanwhile, the business deals behind the selling and buying of tear gas are as murky as the gas itself.

But, if my limited experience of it is anything to go by, tear gas can’t stifle the will to resist. In fact, it only increases it.

– Bob Dickinson 

Small man, big politics

Marcus Rediker – The Fearless Benjamin Lay (Verso)

This is a great addition to literature addressing radicalism in the 17th and 18th centuries: Peter Linebaugh et al; The London Hanged; Many Headed Hydra and Albion’s Fatal Tree, for instance, much of it also published by Verso.

Marcus Rediker is part of this group of writers with his new book The Fearless Benjamin Lay, a man originally from Essex who was one of the first to demand a total, unconditional end to the slavery of Africans globally.

He went to one Quaker meeting in America, a gathering of friends, with a hollowed out book containing a balloon of animal skin with red fruit juice in it. At the climax of his speech he stabbed the book to release the fake blood. He wrote a tract against slavery which was published by Benjamin Franklin in 1738.

He told the printer to take the pages and publish them in any order. It did not matter which part of his dissent came first. Benjamin Lay tried to speak in new concepts that were not immediately sensible. Lay was tiny, described as ‘a dwarf’, but his courage was gigantic.

The Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was established in 1787. There is, therefore, a very long pause between the savage and strange moment of tearing done by Benjamin Lay and the moment where slavery as a universal evil can be seen.

The first open public meeting on abolitionism, according to Andrew Shanks, was ‘in the Collegiate Church of Manchester, which was later to become Manchester Cathedral.’ The campaigner ‘Thomas Clarkson was riding back to London from Liverpool’, where he had been interviewing the crews of slave trade ships. He had been ‘collecting true horror stories from them’. In Liverpool, he was physically attacked.

In Manchester Clarkson ‘was asked to speak on the subject of abolitionism. He was by no means an experienced public speaker. But he’d studied theology […] The church was packed. And in the congregation he counted some 40 or 50 Africans. At that moment a whole new species of political campaigning was born.’

What this detail shows is that it was not in any way obvious to Quakers who preached universal love and vegetarianism that African slaves should be freed. They had done well from maritime trading that was inextricably tied up with slaving and indeed many were slave owners.

Benjamin Lay was not welcomed by many Quakers and it took years for the cause of abolitionism to become ‘common sense’. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries dissenter Christian sects were many and the practice of exile was widespread.

Quakers, Methodists and other groups sailed to be free to practice in the new world, a world ironically lit up by the French Revolution’s ‘Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite‘ and, in many cases, slave ownership.

So what? If the things Lay said were not sensible in their time, it is not because he was a madman drooling at the fringes of reason, it is because he was expanding the boundaries of that reason. Here are the best dimensions of the Abrahamic faiths: Their sheer openness to radical absolutes. But the Abrahamic faiths are so often much less than this.

This book is a great addition to both a theological and leftwing library. It it detailed and engagingly written, it will appeal to scholars of the era as well as to the interested reader.

– Steve Hanson

Footprints in the Snow

Han Kang – The White Book (Portobello Books, 2017)

They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Nonsense! Books are physical objects. Things to be experienced. That a writer should leave a book’s design to chance, or worse, a half-conscious set of inherited expectations, strikes me as carelessness.

That isn’t to say that every writer should be considering presentation from the moment of conception, but when a book comes along to which this level of thought has been put, one can’t help but take a moment to appreciate it.

Han Kang’s The White Book is the novel to which I’m alluding. It is a novel about a woman reflecting on life’s poignant moments and its presentation – stark white with short paragraphs like footprints through snow – invites a mood of reflection before one has even read the first page. We are addressed by the narrator, who begins her story by listing white things: ‘swaddling bands, newborn gown, salt, snow, ice…’.

We find she has moved from Korea to a ‘town with white walls’ in the Mediterranean. From here she imagines her mother who, lost in a snowstorm deep in their rural homeland, gave birth to a stillborn child.

Her mother told her the baby was as white as a ricecake. From here the colour white enters, and then recurs, recurs, recurs, at times clever, at times surprising, at times heartbreaking, until the close of the book. As the book moves forward in short, self-contained sections it is tempting to compare it to poetry. The use of the poetic moment, deep but without obvious metaphor, is most closely associated with haiku (particularly Basho).

But this is nevertheless a rigidly structured novel. Each step forward in the narrative is subtly announced beforehand, a catalogue of white imagery interlaces disparate sections, tying together moments across time. The recurrence itself is accounted for, becoming a metaphor for memories whose emotion fades more with each remembering. The translation by Deborah Smith is itself a thing of subtle beauty.

Some Korean words appear, couched naturally in context, as do some translated phrases – ‘laughing whitely’, for example – which draw attention to themselves as curiosities of language to be commented on. The unjustified text and short sentences complement the sense of the writing as a fragile thing. Small marks stamped black on a white page, the whiteness threatening to swallow it all up.

White is not a colour, it is an absence of colour, and The White Book is made, in a similar paradox, of words defined by their silences. The sparing black on the tundra of white pages, the scattering of moments which rely on white images to connect them together; all of it seems to suggest our continued desire for language to communicate in the face of its impossibility.

The use of traditional imagery reinforces this; snow, the sea, birdsong, all carefully deployed to invoke the poetic while avoiding cliché. Trying to say something about the unsayable, again.

We are wandering on, leaving footprints in snow, as more and more snow seems to fall. It’s difficult to review a book like this other than to admire its power and the wholeness of its vision.

The White Book represents a significant achievement in the area of book-as-experience. Everyone who picks up this book will get something out of it, but people who read a lot of novels will, I think, adore it. There is nothing careless about this book. It commands the whole attention. It is a book which realises that reading too is an art form.

– Joe Darlington