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Shedding Democracy for Tears

by Dru Jay Tuesday, Jul. 17, 2001 at 2:50 PM

The effects of using tear gas against democratic dissent are medically and politically problematic.

When the meetings and were over at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City last April, police had used 4,709 canisters of tear gas over a 72 hour period, effectively filling downtown with gas. A month later, homes and other buildings in downtown were still contaminated by the gas, and calls for a public inquiry had been dismissed.

Prime Minister Jean Chrétien congratulated police for "conducting themselves in an exemplary manner", said their actions were "appropriate", and mentioned their "restraint" while noting that protestors "had the right to protest but we will not tolerate breaking the peace of the people...You have the right to speak but you have to respect the law." Other officials were more cautious, noting that Quebec had gone better than recent mass protests in Seattle and Washington DC as a result, or so the implication went, of the police's actions, not the protesters's.

Chrétien's comments are curious, given that people who intend to do serious damage would have likely forseen the need for a gas mask. Conversely, being bombarded with tear gas was a strong impetus for many otherwise peaceful protesters to throw rocks. The tear gas did as much to break the "peace of the people" as any action on the part of protesters. Despite repeated condemnations of a "violent minority", the massive use of tear gas effectively assaulted thousands of peaceful protesters and peaceful residents. According to multiple eyewitnesses, medics who were treating tear gas victims were targeted by police. Additionally, the police raided a temporary, volunteer clinic space where injured protesters were being treated.

[Police] marched everyone...in the alley (the decontamination space) out at gunpoint. This included many medics and their patients, even seriously injured ones. The cops forcibly removed all the protective gear from everyone, including gas masks, vinegar bandannas and any goggles, saying "No more protection for you guys!".

They also took all the medical supplies and equipment that was in the alley or being carried by the medics. They then marched them, hands in the air and at gunpoint, out into the gas. They made them walk one way, then changed their minds and marched them another direction. My friend Sean said that one guy next to him was hit in the head with a rubber bullet, and the cops wouldn't allow him to stop and treat the person.

(from an account by Sara Ahronheim, a volunteer medic during the protests. I heard many identical firsthand accounts from people who had been in the clinic space when police drove them out.)

Aside from the rhetoric of politicians, the use of tear gas raises some serious health and human rights issues. The type of gas most often used by police to deter protests is o-chlorobenzylidenemalononitrile, often called "CS gas" or just "CS".

CS gas, along with its relatives, CN and CR, consists of crystals which vaporize at high temperature. Technically, then, it's a spray, not a gas. CS irritates the skin, eyes and upper respiratory tract, causing severe discomfort, pain, or, in high concentrations, asphyxiation. Proponents of continued use of CS note that when "used properly" (i.e. outdoors, in low concentrations), it is effective in dispersing crowds without causing permanent damage.

But these conclusions depend on the assumption that people are otherwise compelled to leave an area contaminated with gas, which is not always the case with urban protests. In Quebec City, for example, police fired tear gas canisters into a crowded staircase, where people could not easily leave. In other cases, passages were blockaded by police, making it easy to be trapped. Or, as the authors of an EU report mentioned below put it, "operational usage sometimes means individuals face additional punishment or even death if they seek to leave a contaminated zone." But forcing individuals to leave the "contaminated zone" is often precisely the point of deploying CS in the first place.

A survey of medical studies reveals that

  • CS is both clastogenic and mutagenic;
  • severe injury from exploding tear gas canisters is possible and has been documented;
  • CS has caused lethal toxic injury in documented cases.

A European Union report on crowd control technologies (available in pdf, excerpted here) goes into greater detail, noting that extended exposure to CS can cause, in ordinary terms, "victims to die by drowning in their own lung fluids" and "severe blistering". More simply, exposure to CS even in low concentrations raises blood pressure, which can be a serious risk to people over 30 or those with heart conditions. CS is especially harmful to infants, of which there were many in the populated downtown area of Quebec. Outside of medical studies, protesters who've been exposed to CS have reported weakened immune systems for months after exposure, and women have experienced premature menstruation within hours of exposure.

CS is not the only substance delivered by tear gas canisters. Methyl isobutyl ketone (MIBK), is used as a solvent for CS, which is normally in crystal form. MIBK has a number of effects, including headaches, vomiting, and dizziness. It has not been established whether MIBK is carcinogenic.

Asphyxiating gasses like CS are prohibited for military use by the 1925 Geneva protocol on chemical weapons. But you wouldn't know it given Chrétien's smug comments and the lack of concern shown by other governments which use CS. Indeed, the British and American governments asserted after signing the protocol that CS was not covered because it's "not harmful to man". CS was allowed for specific applications, such as dispersing rioting prisoners of war, later on, but it remains banned for offensive use.

Gassing citizens, whether peacefully protesting or simply because they happen to live in the wrong place at the wrong time, is apparently a different matter altogether. Further, in war it's generally understood that medics and downed victims are not to be targeted; indeed, the Geneva Convention forbids both. Medics and tear gas victims were intentionally gassed in Quebec. Dispersing a crowd might be within legally accepted uses of CS, but using it as an offensive weapon against passive crowds, peaceful protesters, medics, and injured people is not. Or so one might hope.

The clear message sent by police actions in Quebec, then, is that even the most basic standards of conflict can be set aside when dealing with domestic protests. That governments feel compelled to be more civil in war than in confrontations with their own citizens is a grave sentiment indeed. Not only does it escalate the mistreatment of protesters, which, by most indications, is being consolidated in Genoa, but has real health

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