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Katie C. Reilly Police tear gas George Floyd protests despite proof it's dangerous. Time for a ban.

If anything, the unnecessary use of force is more likely to antagonize civilians, focusing protesters on the need to defund and demilitarize police.
Image: US-POLITICS-RACE-UNREST
Police officers wearing riot gear push back demonstrators shooting tear gas next to St. John's Episcopal Church near the White House on June 1, 2020.Jose Luis Magana / AFP - Getty Images

Tear gas engulfed protesters just steps from the White House last Monday, June 1, forcing peaceful demonstrators to disperse with eyes and throats burning. Many had their hands in the air as they shouted “peaceful protest” through the fog of smoke that covered the street.

As thousands of Americans have taken to the streets to protest George Floyd’s death, they have been met often by heavy police resistance. Sadly, the scene in Washington is not an anomaly. Tear gas has been used against demonstrators in cities large and small across the country.

But while it is known as a “nonlethal” form of crowd control, the gases used to disperse protesters are dangerous and unnecessary.

But while it is known as a “nonlethal” form of crowd control, the gases used to disperse protesters are dangerous and unnecessary.

Riot control agents, also referred to as tear gas, “are chemical compounds that temporarily make people unable to function by causing irritation to the eyes, mouth, throat, lungs and skin”, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although several compounds are considered to be tear gas, the most common compounds are chloroacetophenone (CN) and chlorobenzylidenemalononitrile (CS).

While police on the streets of U.S. cities have turned it against civilians this summer, the use of tear gas during warfare is prohibited under international law. The Geneva Gas Protocol of 1925 banned “the use of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases” in warfare but did not specify which gases. The U.S. did not ratify this agreement until 1975 and reserved the right to use it in “situations where civilian casualties can be reduced or avoided,” among other exceptions.

The 1993 Chemical Convention, which became effective in the U.S. in 1997, specifically prohibited the use of riot control agents in warfare and also banned the development, production or stockpiling of these weapons, which the protocol had failed to do. But the convention also made an important exception: the use of tear gas was still permitted for law enforcement purposes.

Despite this legal loophole, tear gas can and does cause severe harm. Victims of tear gas can experience a range of symptoms, such as nose and throat irritation, crying, vomiting, uncontrollable blinking, a feeling of suffocation and sometimes temporary blindness. In addition to all of the potential physical symptoms, tear gas also provokes terror and fear among its victims, negatively affecting their mental health.

The physical effects of tear gas should subside in hours but, according to the CDC, prolonged exposure can “lead to long-term effects such as eye problems including scarring, glaucoma and cataracts” and exposure to a large dose in an enclosed space can cause death. Its use has been linked to miscarriages and may also increase the risk of the coronavirus. One study by the U.S. military on recruits exposed to tear gas during training exercises revealed the young soldiers were at a higher risk of contracting pneumonia and influenza, among other respiratory illnesses. Further, we do not fully understand the long-term health effects of tear gas, including repeated or excessive exposure.

Tear gas is considered to be less lethal when used outdoors, but it can be difficult to control and drift towards individuals who are not targets. The picture of a toddler, Gracie, in Fort Wayne, Indiana, has been shared more than 40,000 times on social media after she was exposed to tear gas this way at the end of May. The child’s mother was not part of a local protest, but her car was gassed on her drive home.

The chemical compounds are not the only safety concern. The way the gas is employed can also lead to injury and death.

The chemical compounds are not the only safety concern. The way the gas is employed can also lead to injury and death. When launched at a short distance, tear gas canisters can cause eye, brain or chest injuries from the impact. A 21-year-old college student in Indiana lost an eye when a tear gas canister hit him in the head last weekend. Another protestor in Kansas City suffered a severe leg injury, which he believed was the result of a tear gas canister. Picking up a canister may causes burns, given that canisters can detonate.

Vulnerable populations, such as childrenor those with asthma or other respiratory issues, are more at risk of severe complications when exposed, a serious concern during mass protests. The individual’s distance, the concentration exposed and the person’s health status all influence its effect.

In addition to these potential health effects, tear gas may disperse a crowd, but it certainly does not have much impact on demonstrations in the long term, as proven by the stamina of American protesters these past few weeks. If anything, the unnecessary use of force against peaceful participants is more likely to antagonize civilians, and focus protesters on the need to defund and demilitarize police forces.

Worse, combative police action often escalates violence, rather than reduces it. From 1967 to 1970, three federal commissions were established to investigate riots and demonstrations. They all concluded that the escalation of force by police can lead to further violence. One of them, the Eisenhower Commission, wrote in 1969 that “the excessive use of force is an unwise tactic for handling disorder. . . [and] often has the effect of magnifying turmoil not diminishing it.” This is a lose-lose situation for police and protesters alike.

Fortunately, many political leaders now recognize that tear gas should no longer be used. Lawmakers such as state Sen. Kshama Sawant of Seattle, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Massachusetts state Rep. Mike Connolly and New Orleans Councilman Jay Banks have all spoken out against tear gas; several have proposed legislation against its use on demonstrators. Seattle’s police chief, Carmen Best, banned the use of tear gas for crowd management for at least 30 days, and Portland’s mayor also suspended its use unless “there is no other viable alternative for dispersal.”

“Even though tear gas is far from perfect, it continues to be used in that role because there’s nothing else better,” said David A. Koplow, a Georgetown University law professor. According to this argument, tear gas is being used because it is the most effective and least lethal means of crowd control available. But simply because police have failed to provide better options doesn’t justify its continued use. Rather, we need to work harder on a national level to find more effective alternatives than the indiscriminate use of chemical weapons against our fellow citizens.