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