“Less Lethal” is a Lie

“Less lethal” tactics of protest repression uphold a deadly status quo.

Whenever people mobilize to protest injustice, they put their bodies and health on the line. In many places around the world, the pain and possibility of protest are routinely met by state violence and repression, including but not limited to supposedly “less lethal” tactics such as tear gas, rubber bullets, and pepper spray.

Today, as Black communities in the U.S. push through the fog of injustice and tear gas, we can clearly see how various human rights are interdependent: the right to health, the right to protest, the right to life. Likewise, from Minneapolis to Gaza, repression of the right to protest upholds the deadly violence of the status quo.

Prompted by the repressive actions of police against Black Lives Matter protesters, a conversation is currently unfolding in the U.S., across media, political, human rights, and even medical spaces, about the use of tear gas in policing.

CNN was one of several media outlets that explored why police can legally use chemical irritants on protesters when they are banned for use in warfare under the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Amnesty International UK issued a statement calling on the UK government to review its exports of riot gear to the U.S. A change.org petition followed, garnering over 750,000 signatures by the time of this writing.

In Congress, the debate on tear gas quickly led to new legislation, with Reps. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D, NY), Mark Takano (D, CA), and Jesus “Chuy” Garcia (D, IL) introducing a bill last week to prohibit U.S. police from using it.

How Can Tear Gas Be Deadly?

To fully understand the dangers of tear gas, we must look at the social context beyond the immediate outcome of interactions between protesters and security forces.

First, though, let us be clear: tear gas is dangerous at the moment of use. A strike by a tear gas canister can cause blindness, traumatic head injury, amputation, loss of limb function, or death. Breathing in spray or aerosol tear gas can also be dangerous, especially for vulnerable people such as children, the elderly, and those with asthma.

A 2017 review published in BMC Public Health looks at 5,131 people whose tear gas injuries were documented in 31 studies from 11 countries. The researchers concluded that “protocols to limit indiscriminate use of chemical irritants are urgently needed…to safeguard human rights and prevent unnecessary morbidity and mortality among protesters.”

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Reports of Black Lives Matter protesters with serious tear gas-related injuries already include a student losing an eye in Indiana, a woman having an asthma attack in Nebraska, and an investigation into a young woman’s sudden cardiac arrest after exposure in Ohio.

In 2019 alone, human rights groups spoke out again and again on the use of tear gas on protesters in multiple contexts. In Iraq, the use of tear gas led to “gruesome protester deaths”. In Turkey, it constituted “shocking unwarranted actions.” In Colombia, it was “excessive, disproportionate, unnecessary.” In Hong Kong, it was “the main cause of escalation.”

The argument is often made that “less lethal” weapons must remain available as an alternative to deadly force. This position ignores the potential of tear gas to provoke and escalate confrontations between security forces and protesters. The resulting chaos can become the pretext for mass arrests, or even possibly the unleashing of more deadly forms of force.

A Right to Protest Resource Packet from Amnesty International states “armored vehicles, tear gas and smoke bombs used large-scale against protesters in order to quell acts of violence by a minority only serves to escalate and exacerbate an already incredibly tense environment.”

Away from sites of protest, tear gas continues to threaten harm. In an open letter, hundreds of medical and public health professionals expressed concern that the use of tear gas on protesters “could increase risk for COVID-19 by making the respiratory tract more susceptible to infection, exacerbating existing inflammation, and inducing coughing.”

Even outside times of global pandemic, “less lethal” weapons like tear gas exist within the toolbox of a broader system of state-sanctioned violence. Repressing anti-racist popular protest allows for the continuation of that lethal system.

With “less lethal” weapons, deaths at the hands of the state are not avoided, but rescheduled. In the U.S. context, whether at a protest, in front of a store for a counterfeit $20, in a classroom at a defunded school, in a detention center or prison, or on a respirator in the COVID-19 unit, systemic anti-Black racism kills.

Black Lives Matter protesters’ cry of “we can’t breathe” speaks to the layered impacts of systemic racism. Of course, it viscerally takes up some of the last words of George Floyd and Eric Garner. It also brings to mind other symptoms of institutionalized discrimination. For example, Black people in the U.S. die of asthma complications at three times the rate of white people. We can’t breathe.

Around the U.S., coronavirus, known for its impact on the lungs, is disproportionately ravaging Black communities, reminding us that racism is a public health crisis. We can’t breathe.

And when Black people rise up to challenge these layers of oppression, they are met with more suffocating repression. We can’t breathe.

There is a deep irony in seeing U.S. police meet Black Lives Matter protesters with more police brutality and excessive force. But these tactics are further unmasking the truth Black and Indigenous people already knew and have long been telling us: their bodies and safety are not what these systems were built to protect. And as they mobilize to dismantle and replace these systems, their right to protest is closely connected with their right to life.

In Solidarity Amidst Protest Repression

In this crucial and urgent moment of resistance to the normalization of state violence against the bodies and lives it deems disposable, Palestinians are adding their voices and experiences to the conversation about lethal and “less lethal” force.

Repression, in various crushing forms, is the default Israeli reaction to Palestinian protest. During the Great March of Return protests in Gaza, at least seven Palestinians, including three children, were killed by tear gas canisters fired by Israeli forces directly into crowds of protesters, part of an overall open-fire policy that has so far killed 214 protesters and injured 36,100 more. Their lives became lines in a human rights report: “Samir, 47…a tear gas canister launched by Israeli security forces lodged in his face.” “Hassan, 16…he never regained consciousness after his injury.”

In Palestine, like in the United States, lethal and “less lethal” forms of force are deployed hand-in-hand as part of a system. Within both settler colonial systems of power, we see gross impunity for state-sanctioned violence, staggering investment in militarism, denial or erasure of the history and experiences of “disfavored” communities, criminalization of their mere existence, and deep disparities in education, health, and access to livelihoods.

While we recognize that the forces of white supremacy, colonialism, militarism, and capitalism put Black American and Palestinian communities on common ground, their struggles for survival are also distinct.

As Palestinians react to the killing of George Floyd, for example, they are also facing an urgent moment of their own. Israel has pledged to annex its West Bank settlements by July 1st, with U.S. consent. With coronavirus and a massive civil rights mobilization on their minds, few Americans seem to be paying attention to how their country continues to co-sign Palestinian death and displacement.

With so much going on, what does nuanced, contextualized, active solidarity look like? One project created after Ferguson begins by stating, “Black-Palestinian solidarity is neither a guarantee nor a requirement — it is a choice.” Palestinian activist George Zeidan, co-founder of Right to Movement Palestine, wrote that comparisons between Black and Palestinian experiences must be drawn “out of [a] careful understanding of both struggles.”

Jewish Voice for Peace, which organizes the Deadly Exchange campaign aiming to end police exchange programs between the U.S. and Israel, released a statement on the nuances of solidarity, emphasizing that police exchange programs are not the source of racist policing in the U.S., but rather constitute “a mutual exchange of rights violations between like-minded governments.”

In a conversation hosted by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Palestinian legal scholar Noura Erakat emphasizes the depth of “the long tradition of Black internationalism” and the choice many Black civil rights leaders made to explicitly align themselves with the anti-colonial movements of the 1960s. This is the history of Black-Palestinian solidarity that continues to reverberate today.

Indeed, when the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) launched their first policy platform in August 2016, it was a platform of internationalism that included Palestinians, clearly saying “Israel is an apartheid state” and calling for cuts to U.S. military expenditures (see Cut Military Expenditures Brief). This is one memorable example of a transformational practice of “solidarity as joint struggle.”

For those who choose it, active solidarity contains a shared vision. From Minneapolis to Gaza, protesters who face daily state violence and repression aren’t fighting for the promise of a “less lethal” future, but for a future where they can fully and truly thrive.

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Visualizing Palestine

Visualizing Palestine

Visualizing Palestine is a project that creates data-led, visual stories to advance a factual, rights-based narrative of Palestine and Palestinians