Tear gas in America: The past, the present, and the future

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Police in riot gear walk through a cloud of teargas at a protest. Dale Staton, Unspalsh

“Nothing about April 19th [1993] started normal, nothing […] it was windy,” David Thibodeau said in an interview with ABC News. Wind would be the least of his concerns, however. That is because for Thibodeau and eight other individuals residing in the Mount Carmel Center outside of Waco, Texas, April 19th, 1993 was the day they barely escaped with their lives. The day when US federal agents pumped tear gas into the compound. The day a massive blaze would kill seventy-six men, women, and children.

Twenty-seven years later, no one knows for certain what happened on that fateful day. A panel of arson investigators concluded that the Branch Davidians residing in Mount Carmel, led by David Koresh, deliberately started the fire. However, several surviving Branch Davidians assert that they did not start the fire. Regardless, the tragedy at Waco, along with the use of tear gas in response to nationwide protests sparked by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others, point to an important topic: the past, present, and future of tear gas in America.

Tear gas is an umbrella term used to describe any gas that uses a lachrymator agent. The most common lachrymator used today is CS gas. CS gas was invented in 1928 by American scientists Ben Corson and Roger Stoughton, though other forms have been in use since World War One. After the war ended, military officers began lobbying so that they could continue using their new inventions. One of these officers was Amos Fries, who led the US Army’s Chemical Warfare Service at the time. He hired lawyers and businessmen to find a commercial use for tear gas, and by the end of the 1920s, police departments in New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, San Francisco, and Chicago were buying it. Over the next few decades, tear gas would spread to police departments across the country and the world.

Since the 1920s, US police and military have used tear gas in many different ways. In 1932, tear gas was used to push out protesting veterans during the Bonus Army March, allegedly killing a young baby by asphyxiation. In 1969, California Governor (and future President) Ronald Reagan deployed National Guard soldiers and helicopters to disperse protesters in UC Berkeley, resulting in extensive tear gas usage. In Vietnam, CS gas was often used to clear out Viet Cong tunnel networks, where “those caught inside were often asphyxiated, and even survivors suffered respiratory lesions,” according to the New York Times. The US signed the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993, banning the US military from using tear gas in war. However, law enforcement is still allowed to use it. For example, tear gas was used during the 2014 demonstrations in Ferguson, where, in one case, a canister was fired directly at an Al Jazeera reporter. It is clear that tear gas is no stranger to American law enforcement.

With tear gas playing such a large role in US law enforcement, it is important to understand the short and long-term effects of tear gas. Firstly, tear gas is actually not a gas. It is a powder, and it can lead to irritation in the eyes, skin, and respiratory system. More specifically, it can cause burning, watering, and redness in the eyes, coughing and wheezing, nausea, and rashes. These effects should go away in 15-20 minutes. In a viral Instagram video, a former US Marine, who specialized in nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare, explains how to respond to these effects and limit their duration. Tear gas canisters, often used by police, can also cause damage. For example, a protester in Fort Wayne, Indiana lost an eye after it was struck by a tear gas canister. Tear gas can have long-lasting effects, as well. Prolonged exposure can cause glaucoma, eye scarring, and breathing problems according to the CDC. It may also hinder the body’s immune system; US military recruits exposed to tear gas were at higher risk for contracting acute respiratory illnesses, such as the common cold, flu, and bronchitis. Additionally, the use of tear gas may worsen the COVID-19 pandemic. In an interview with ProPublica, immunologist Dr. Purvi Parikh said “we just got through a brutal two months, and I’m really scared [tear gas] will bring a second wave [of COVID-19] sooner.” 

Tear gas is mainly used for “dispersing mobs, disabling rioters, and flushing out armed suspects without the use of deadly force,” according to Britannica. However, tear gas has been used for much more than riots, especially in the last several months. The death of George Floyd while in police custody sparked protests in Minneapolis, which triggered a severe police response. An LA Times reporter covering a protest in May recounted that a group of peaceful protesters was met with tear gas fired “indiscriminately into the street.” The Minnesota State Patrolmen fired rubber bullets at her, resulting in “blood [covering] the face mask of a reporter next to [her], who was so stunned someone had to tell him he was hurt.” In June, tear gas was also allegedly used against protesters in Washington DC’s Lafayette Square so that the President could walk to the nearby St. John’s church for a photo shoot.

Recently, there has been a push for police departments to stop using tear gas. California lawmakers have proposed bill AB 66, which would restrict the use of tear gas and other less-than-lethal weapons across the state. Similar bills have been proposed in eight other states. However, at least 100 police departments have used tear gas in response to the recent protests, and according to the Pew Charitable Trusts, these restrictions are not gaining traction. Supporters of these restrictions point to the excessive use of tear gas by police and its indiscriminate nature. Opponents argue that banning it would be too restrictive for police departments, and that the gas is an effective crowd control agent.

It is impossible to know for certain what the future holds for tear gas in America. Maybe it will be banned across the country, or its usage will become obsolete. Perhaps it will continue to be used in cities across the country as it is today. Or maybe our nation’s law enforcement will eventually move away from tear gas in favor of a new, more powerful weapon. Mark Twain once wrote, “no occurrence is sole and solitary, but is merely a repetition of a thing which has happened before, and perhaps often.” World War One brought us tear gas, so another event could lead to the development of a new weapon. Perhaps, it will be one that makes tear gas look tame in comparison.