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Coming Soon to a Riot Near You

All sorts of horrible weapons that could make you stink, cry and bleed.

Today is May Day, AKA International Workers' Day. Which is a pretty ironic name for it, given that it's traditionally been a day where people don't go into work so they can fight police, scream at the sky outside burning branches of Starbucks and generally set the tone for a summer of gleeful protest. While today's demonstrations are unlikely to veer in any significant way from that familiar script, last year's August riots did spook the Home Office enough that they may soon be giving the police some new toys to ruin your day with.


We spoke to buddies of ours in Germany, Egypt and Israel/Palestine to get the lowdown on the weapons that British police may soon be using to pour cold water on your righteous and burning fury.

Tear Gas

What the hell is it gonna do to me?
The backbone in every self-respecting riot control arsenal (apart from ours, for now), tear gas does exactly what it says on the tin, making you cry like a baby and stopping you from breathing effectively so that you think you're going to die. Although advertised as non-lethal, Sarit Michaeli, spokeswoman from the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, claims otherwise: "Tear gas itself is considered by most to be non-dangerous in normal use. However, vulnerable people, like the elderly, children and people with respiratory problems, can be hurt and killed by tear gas."

While inhaling the tear gas can be dangerous in itself, Sarit explains that "the main danger is the canisters it comes in, which in the West Bank the IDF routinely use – particularly the 40mm aluminium canister – as weapons. They fire the canister at people, in some cases from a very short distance, using it as a missile."

This results in scenes like those captured in the video below, where a Palestinian man named Bassem Abu Rahmah lost his life at a peaceful protest after being shot in the chest at close range by a soldier. So, not only will you be running around the streets of London crying and leaking snot, if the Met get too gung ho, you'll also have to do it whilst dodging searing hot metal missiles.


What's the best way to deal with it?
"Tear gas convinces your body that you can't breathe," explains Sarit, "so the best thing to do is breathe in perfume, alcohol or even onion odour, which tricks your body into breathing properly again. You'll often see Palestinians walking around with onions, spraying perfume into the air. Or just buy a gas mask. One thing to mention is that you should never wash your face with water after being tear gassed, as it aggravates the gas making it a lot worse. Stay out of soldiers' lines of sight so they can't get you with the canisters, take cover when you need to and, if you can, wear some protective gear."

Water Cannons

What the hell are they gonna do to me?
Created in Germany in the 1930s, the water cannon is considered to be one of the safest riot control weapons. We spoke to veteran German anarchist Ninjo about the many times he's been blasted in the face with one. "The first was on May 1st, 2008 in Hamburg. I went there for an anti-neo-Nazi demonstration and the police lost control so they brought in the cannons. When the water hits the ground it sounds like a really loud whip, and when I heard that, I knew I was in trouble. I got hit in the back, my whole back was a blue bruise and you could see blood running down under my skin. It looked like red rain on a window, or something."

That time Ninjo had been hit with the old and more brutal model the Wawe 9, but now the German cops have upgraded to the Wawe 10. It's less painful, but the police don't tend to go any easier: "They use pepper spray mixed with water and that is really ugly. When you get hit, your clothes are soaked with this stuff and it burns like hell. The best thing to do then, is to take off all of your clothes and have a cold shower for hours, because if you use warm water the pores open even more and the gas gets even deeper into your body. You have to wash your clothes three or four times before you can even wear them again."


What's the best way to deal with it?
Asked whether there's any way to fight against water cannons, Ninjo didn't seem to have much hope. "Since the eviction of Mainzer Straße in 1990 the police has a test for water cannons. Part of this test involves a slab of concrete being thrown out of a fourth-storey window on top of one of the vehicles. You can‘t fuck that thing up. It has three cannons, including one in the back, and I think there are nine people inside to control it. The stream is as thick as a soccer ball and it's powerful enough to break your ribs. The new one can also shoot left and right simultaneously, creating a water wall big enough for 200 cops to hide behind.

"There was an interesting photo from the riots in Mainzer Straße, though. They threw a washing machine filled with concrete on one of the cannons and it broke through the water tank." So there you go, guys, when you're out buying your onions and cheap Brut to deal with the tear gas, make sure you pick up a washing machine filled with concrete, too.

Rubber Bullets

What the hell are they gonna do to me?
The UK already has a few boxes of these lying around leftover from the Troubles, but rarely makes use of them. The hunger for deploying them after the summer riots has been pretty voracious, however, so expect to see them soon. They're described as "less-lethal" but again, that hasn't stopped them killing or maiming people.


"Calling them rubber bullets is quite ridiculous," says Sarit. "They're not made of rubber, they're metal covered with rubber or plastic. If you're far away enough the bullet won't penetrate but sometimes the metal core will go through your clothing and skin. The pain is very severe and after, you get an enormous bruise that can scab over – bones can break. On one occasion an Israeli protestor, Limor Goldstein, was hit in the back of the head and it penetrated his skull. They're not non-lethal."

As Waleed, an Egyptian protester, learned all too well during riots in February: "Me and three other guys managed to steal some shields from the riot police, and formed a barricade with them as other protesters gathered behind us, throwing rocks toward the police. After an hour, a solider with a shotgun sneaked into a side alley and started firing at us. I got hit in my side and was bleeding badly. The bullets made my left side freeze – I could hardly walk. At the field hospital, the doctors told me they got like, 18 small pellets out of my body. One's still in there now."

What's the best way to deal with it?
To protect themselves, Waleed and his friends used safety gear like goggles, helmets, safety boots and gas masks, wore two pairs of jeans and taekwando vests. "The killing range is 10 metres, so make sure you're as far away as possible. My friend Basim lost an eye at the Battle of Mohammed Mahmoud Street."


Skunk Oil

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What the hell is it gonna do to me?
With the British press being particularly averse to police brutality, it's easy (and horrible) to imagine our streets being caked in skunk oil soon. Completely non-lethal, skunk oil is fired from a water cannon vehicle and effectively disperses any crowds that come up against it. It's frequently used in the West Bank by the IDF and some say it's more feared than tear gas. "After being hit with the skunk you wish it was tear gas. Tear gas lasts for like, five minutes but the skunk stays with you," explains Sarit. "Skunk is the most disgusting smell you'll ever come across. The Palestinians call it "shit water". According to the Israeli police force that developed it, it's some kind of organic compound made out of yeast and protein. It's so disgusting it makes you wretch, but I haven't heard of any cases of it harming or killing anyone."

What's the best way to deal with it?
"If it's not diluted it takes a couple of washes for your clothes and at least several showers to get rid of the smell. If that doesn't help, people find that if you swim in the sea that can get rid of the smell much quicker. The smell can stay with you for weeks or months though, you can't escape it!"

Sounds like an especially foul and repulsive friend of mine. Maybe we should make our own VICE skunk oil?

I hope you've appreciated this advice from experts who've been dodging these things for years. It won't be cheap to bring these weapons in (you don't just need to buy them, you need to store them and train officers to use them, too), but if they are, protests in the UK won't ever be the same. So far water cannons have been confined to Northern Ireland and rubber bullets still need special authorisation to be deployed – when protests in the UK have turned violent, loss of life has in most cases been prevented, (apart the dark days of the Troubles, of course).

But in countries where the police are armed like this, instances of serious injuries and deaths are much more frequent. That, plus extortionate costs and the possibility of protesters responding by upgrading their armoury, might conspire to keep this shit out of the hands of our police for a while yet. (Here's hoping.)

Follow Henry on Twitter: @henry_langston