THE UNSPIN ROOM: Put Away The Tear Gas Please
The author on assignment in Northern Ireland during the height of “the Troubles.”
THE UNSPIN ROOM: Put away the tear gas please
By DALTON DELAN
In the bitter winter of 1979 rolling into 1980, at the height of the “troubles” in the north of Ireland, I found myself in Belfast and Derry for an extended period with ABC News — long enough to get well acquainted with armored Saracens, Armalite rifles and the less lethal but still dangerous rubber bullets. These could take out an eye, as one did recently in this country when deployed amidst the protests over George Floyd’s killing. But one thing the British military didn’t use was CS gas; they had put away the tear gas in 1972, after unleashing more than 1,100 canisters in Derry in 1969 and nearly 1,600 canisters along Falls Road in Belfast in 1970. I was glad I hadn’t been there then. Tear gas is nasty stuff.
More than a century after the gassing horrors of World War I, American police in cities large and small still use tear gas. It is, not to play semantics, a form of domestic chemical warfare, only it is against our own citizens rather than on the battlefield. It’s no walk in Lafayette Park. It is a clear deterrent to the Constitutional right to protest; tear gas is fear gas. Police departments in nearly 100 cities deployed CS or OC tear gas grenades, canisters and shells during the post-Floyd events. Its use has caused pain, suffering, cardiovascular effects, asthmatic reactions and vision impairment that could persist indefinitely, and left American citizens with inflamed bronchia which, as doctors know, renders them more susceptible to coronavirus infection — which was already afoot on the streets. All this despite that such crowd control weapons are banned in warfare by the 1997 international Chemical Weapons Convention, signed by the U.S. Yet it seems it’s good enough for our own cities. Like fire hoses in Birmingham in 1963, tear gas bears a stench of racism.
As a child, I watched with fascination as my uncle Lou handled his dentures, caused by gum damage from gassing in the trenches in the First World War, the first time such weapons were widely deployed. Chlorine, phosgene and mustard gas injuries such as blinding were recorded among one million soldiers and nearly 300 thousand civilians. Police departments which use OC “pepper spray” contend it is safer or more humane than CS weapons, but this is gaslighting. It is all “tear gas,” and it is all bad. OC gas, derived from chili peppers, is hundreds of times more potent than any naturally occurring levels, causing searing pain and breathing distress. Having caught a whiff of it in my career as a journalist, it triggered asthma. I would dread a full dose. Peaceful protesters and onlookers experienced tear gassing last month, and they are unlikely to forget or forgive — it hardly endears the police to them.
Poison gas has a history of horror over the course of the last 100 years. Most infamously, the Nazis used Zyklon-B in the gas chambers of the Holocaust. In this century, the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad has repeatedly gassed his own citizens. My investigative experience of deadly chemical agents came in 1981, when my team at ABC News brought back a sample of T-2 mycotoxin, or “yellow rain,” scraped off of leaves in a Hmong village in Laos that saw its population hemorrhage and die. Their crime: having assisted the U.S. and South Vietnam in the Secret War. Decades later, poisonous rain fell from planes. Those who disbelieved such weapons were being used said the “rain” was a naturally occurring phenomenon, but chemical analyses of our sample yielded a manmade weaponizing agent, polyethylene glycol, such as you might have had then in your underarm deodorant spray. Tear gas is less lethal, but it is far from safe.
The deployment of chemical weapons against unarmed citizenry is unacceptable in civilized society. Municipalities should ban their use. The gassing of civilians is tantamount in this case to a racist act. Police departments seem to believe they are a humane alternative to physical force for crowd dispersal. They should strongly consider revising their tactics: to inflict pain and suffering on those protesting the killing of George Floyd is one more stain upon a nation already tainted by racial violence.
If your local police use these weapons, of any kind, don’t be fooled: they are all “tear gas” regardless of chemical composition. If we care about freedom of speech, we should not act like a cruel and heedless bully against our own population. To protest without fear of harm is an American right. The British stopped using tear gas in the North of Ireland nearly a half-century ago. And believe me, our urban protests are no more difficult to manage safely than theirs were. We should know better. Don’t gas and don’t gaslight. Get these arsenals gone. No more tears.
Dalton Delan can be followed on Twitter @UnspinRoom. He was won Emmy, Peabody and duPont-Columbia awards for his work as a television producer