An officer fires tear gas at head height in Instanbul. Photo by Mystyslav Chernov/ Wikimedia.
In the past few years, tear gas has become an essential element of any protest; from Rio to Istanbul, Caracas, or Athens, there is almost a mathematical certainty that sooner or later canisters of gas will flood the streets and town squares, suffocating protesters without gas masks and, in extreme cases, hitting kids in the head and killing them.
For their part, the media dwell extensively on the images of a square surrounded by a cloud of tear-gas chemicals but rarely talk about the companies that produce and sell these tools to governments, making huge profits in the process.
Anna Feigenbaum, a professor at Bournemouth University, is in the process of writing a book about how tear gas and other "non-lethal" weapons have changed the management of public order. In a time when tear gas and stun grenades are used to suppress hundreds of Brazilians outside the World Cup stadiums, Anna Feigenbaum seemed to be the most appropriate person to make a phone call to.
Brazilian officers in riot gear. Photo by Rafael Vilela
VICE: Hi, Anna. Let’s start with the World Cup–related protests across Brazil. While police forces have been brutally clamping down on demonstrations for more than a year, you recently wrote that “the World Cup is like a fashion week” for the country’s security industry. Why?
Anna Feigenbaum: Fashion designers host shows and catwalks year round, but Fashion Week is the time to really shine in the spotlight. The best talents from around the world come together and the media flock to look at them. Brands know this is the time to showcase their best.
For the even-security industry, in addition to industry exhibitions like Brazil’s LAAD Defence and Security Expo, the World Cup, and Olympics offer an opportunity to show-off their new season in riot control style under "real-life" conditions. Products move from glass cabinets to the streets, and buyers around the world can see them in action.
Almost every demonstration ends up with police using large amounts of tear gas, rubber bullets, stun grenades, and other “non-lethal” weapons. Was it always like that?
I think the problem comes from a combination of how governments tolerate police violence, mixed with the huge range of less lethal arsenal that the police now have access to. Researchers have found that often the more weapons police are provided with, the more like they are to make a decision to escalate force. Combine this with a situation in most countries where the rate of convicting police for abuse is incredibly low, and you will continue to see excessive force.
In terms of history, less lethal weapons tend to be used excessively in times of uprising and global unrest. So different countries have faced excessive use at different times—the US in the 1950s, South Africa in the 1970s, South Korea in the 1980s, anti-globalization activists in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as you saw in Genoa in 2001. However, with the Arab Spring and austerity protests that are happening around the world now, there is a huge boom in the industry.
Egypt. A protester shows cartridges and canisters used by police against the crowd. Photo by Trevor Snapp
International and national media always cover riots and violent protests, but they seem to be way less interested in reporting on tear gas and other “non-lethal” weapons suppliers. How has the security industry developed across the globe in the recent years?
That’s a very important point you raise. If a country is found to be stockpiling missiles or medications, the media wants to know where they came from. But with less lethals, it’s just a bunch of smoke in the streets to compliment the story; it’s as if tear gas has become the essential backdrop to make us believe we are seeing a riot.
In terms of the industry’s development, there has been a nascent market in less lethal weapons since the early 1900s. But it was their wide development and promotion in the 1990s that really led to a growth in the market. Small national manufacturers teamed up and we saw a lot of horizontal and vertical integration in the industry. International exhibitions spread around the world as goods were showcased to military and government buyers.
Because less lethal weapons like tear gas are not well regulated under international law or trade policies, it’s relatively easy for security forces to acquire large quantities of them without public scrutiny or human rights oversight. If you are a manufacturer or supplier, a good market is one where you can easily move your product. In business terms, less lethal weapons create and then fill a niche—the demand for political control without catastrophic death rates.
Currently, many African and Middle Eastern countries are embracing the likes of tear gas. Since these weapons are currently tolerated, and often promoted by Western democracies, countries can generally use them to suppress protest without coming under international scrutiny.
What is the relation between governments and security corporations? I mean, who’s really in charge? Who makes the big decisions—governments or security corporations?
It depends on the contract. Sometimes it is the government who is the purchaser, other times it might be a purchase direct from a corporation, as with an African mining firm that recently purchased the world’s first riot-control drone. Promisingly, there are some cases where campaigners have gotten a government to ban its corporations from supplying to particular countries. For example, Brazil, the US, and now South Korea have stopped their nation’s corporations from supplying tear gas to Bahrain because of the ongoing human rights abuses. However, Chinese companies can still supply.
Bahrain. Photo by Ahmed Al Fardan
Talking about Bahrain, protests have been shaking up the country for the last three years. Local activists said the misuse of tear gas by security forces “amounts to chemical warfare,” and someone wrote that the government is “addicted to tear gas.” Do you think Bahrain is almost a case study in modern public order policing?
What makes Bahrain’s tear gas and "less lethal" abuse so visible is its excessive use in ways that are known to cause increased suffering and possible death. This includes close-range shots to the head and upper body, tear gas fired into enclosed spaces like cars, stairways, and homes, and the aggressive use of birdshot, which is supplied by UK and Italian security companies. Bahrain should serve to highlight the dangers of these weapons, but also should remind us that such abuses occur around the world.
Do you see a trend towards police militarization and/or a more “sophisticated” riot control? And how is that related to the non-lethals’ booming business?
I would say that both the military and the police are becoming more militarized. The police and the military have a long history of exchanging tactics and equipment that dates back to the earliest formation of police forces. For example, tear gas moved from the military to the police in the 1920s. In the 1960s, ex-military officers wrote the first widely used manuals on riot control. And more recently, acoustic weapons, body armor, and tactics like swarming and snatching have traveled from the military to police forces.
The industry of training and tactics is as big as the industry of the weapons themselves. Since the 1990s, with lapsed trade restrictions and digital communication, the industry has become increasingly transnational. This transnational exchange of "expertise"—still dominated by the United States—leads to a more "sophisticated" riot control.
Turkey. Protests over the death of Berkin Elvan, the 15-year-old hit by a tear gas canister. Photo by Barbaros Kayan
Why do governments and, to a certain extent, public opinion see tear gas and other “non-lethal” or “less than lethal” weapons innocuous or even “humanitarian” methods of crowd control?
When talking about less lethal weapons I hear lots of people say, “at least it’s not real bullets.” But this is not the problem. Of course, if I was faced with a choice between tear gas and machine gun fire, I would take the tear gas. The real problem is that the use of these less lethal weapons is premised on the notion that they are a harmless drug when used in the correct dose. But in reality, there are many deaths and injuries from less than lethals every year. Long-term effects have barely been studied, and the psychological impacts are unknown.
Non-lethals are only seen as weapons when there is a direct hit. And even then, in order to sway public opinion it must be someone important (like a journalist) or innocent (like a child) who bleeds.
This "invisibility" makes weapons like tear gas, and sound grenades whose harm to the ear and internal organs cannot be seen at all, appear innocuous. In part, these physical qualities are what have allowed them to be marketed as a humanitarian form of crowd control for nearly 100 years.
The history is also very important. In the 1920s and 1930s, very aggressive public relations campaigns were run to create a commercial market for war gases. Ads were taken out in trade magazines, there were editorials, live action demonstrations, government lobbying, and the suppression of negative scientific findings. Even the name "tear gases" was chosen because it sounds innocuous. “Vomit-inducing choking device for psychological torture” would not have sold as well.
Condor advocates a “controlled use of the escalation of force, without any harm to human rights,” and the corporate rhetoric insists on the “non-lethality” of riot control weapons. But how can you possibly protect human rights by deploying chemical weapons that are banned in war by international conventions?
The reason chemical weapons are banned in war is to stop them from being used offensively to intentionally cause harm. In international law, “riot control agents” are exempt from the ban on the grounds that they can be used effectively, in less toxic forms, for law enforcement purposes. However, in reality, this is not how the use of chemical agents against civilians usually plays out.
Riot control agents are much more frequently used to supress communication rights than they are used to stop actual riots. In fact, the use of riot control by security forces has been shown to cause violent riots.
In addition, riot control agents are often used offensively by security forces, rather than as a form of defence. We see this recurrently in street protests and in prisons around the world that deploy tear gases in confined spaces and fire at close-range against unarmed people. Plus, rubber bullets and live ammunition are often fired along with smoke, tear gas, and sound grenades, creating combat-like conditions.
This is why less lethals must be evaluated under real-life conditions and not just in clinical laboratory settings or at military training camps.