Tears In Their Eyes
Amorphous both literally and conceptually, The Crowd is the focus of Critical Mass, a 42-page dossier originally published in WIP magazine issue 07. It spans interviews with artists and football Ultras alike, as well as essays that explore the idea in many ways: throngs of skaters descending on an idyllic Scandinavian cityscape, religion and fuel shortages in eastern Europe, the future of crowd control. Accompanying these are various visual conceptions of the crowd, from archival footage gathered by video artist Rawtape that trace visual archetypes across different gatherings, to AI-generated images that reckon with the power of the masses in an age of misinformation and manipulation. As artist Clemens von Wedemeyer puts it: “Crowds form because the individual imagines something within it.” Exactly what is up to you.
Outlawed in warfare by the Geneva Convention, but a recurring motif of protest in the modern-day metropolis, Real Review founder Jack Self offers an eye-watering look at tear gas when used to tame a crowd.
Words: Jack Self
Civil disobedience is the idea that sometimes it is ethically justified to disregard power that makes arbitrary, irrational or immoral demands. A good example is conscientious objection (the refusal to take part in a war), or ignoring bans on basic freedoms like homosexuality, or peacefully resisting an occupying power. The most common purpose of civil disobedience is to force the authority to make concessions – change a law, withdraw from a territory, or even dissolve itself. There are many successful movements taking place at this very moment, such as the unfolding revolution in Sri Lanka.
The core assumption of civil disobedience is that the offending authority will have enough humanity or humility to reform their approach in the face of popular discontent. Gandhi’s bet was that an imperial power was capable of feeling shame and embarrassment. This is not always the case. Authoritarian regimes have a habit of doubling down on violence, leading to a two-sided escalation: the military junta in Myanmar has created a civil war; the Russian kleptocracy has imprisoned or assassinated its opposition; the Syrian regime is still barrel-bombing its own citizens.
No government wants to end up in this situation, and an increasingly popular preventative measure is the use of “non-lethal” crowd-control weapons. It is almost always preferable to subdue your people into a sullen obedience than kill them – if only because widespread death undermines your tax base.
The global market for these (indeed very lethal) devices is projected to reach $9.2 billion by 2028, up from $6.15 billion in 2021. The compound annual growth rate is 6.1%, which is great news for investors during a global recession. Where there’s tragedy there’s trade. According to Warren Buffett’s company Berkshire Hathaway, this growth is mainly being driven by military adoption in the developing world and law enforcement acquisition in developed nations.
From another perspective, we can say that global unrest is rising by at least 6.1% per year. If you haven’t experienced non-lethal weapons firsthand, in all likelihood you will soon.
There are three main categories of non-lethal weapons used against protestors by law enforcement in developed nations. There are disorientation devices like flashbangs (stun grenades), long-range acoustic systems, or simple loudhailers. There are kinetic impact projectiles: sting-ball grenades, sponge or beanbag rounds, water cannons, tactical batons, rubber or wooden bullets, caltrops, and ‘modular crowd control weapons’ (civilian claymore mines that spray plastic pellets instead of ball bearings). Electroshock and thermal shock devices are sometimes included under this umbrella: tasers or ‘laser interdiction systems’ (a high pulse of light that causes the skin to rapidly superheat, blister and explode). Finally there are chemical irritants like pepper spray, ‘pepper ball’ rounds, or just good old-fashioned tear gas.
Some of these weapons are so exotic, so blatantly dangerous, that we immediately see them for what they are. Others, like tear gas, have become so normalized that protestors themselves are rarely surprised by their use. During the last gasps of Hong Kong’s democracy struggle, police could anticipate resistance whenever they saw activists collecting traffic cones (which could be used to contain and extinguish tear gas canisters). In the media, it hardly counts as a protest unless there are picturesque clouds of haze drifting and spiraling up over a crowd.
Tear gas remains the weapon of choice for riot control because of its low price and high efficacy. What is it like to be gassed? In 2014 Mike Brown was shot by police in Ferguson, Missouri, and the protests that followed brought the Black Lives Matter movement to international recognition. One protestor, Tory Russell, told the BBC he had been teargassed for several days in a row: “It does something to you first mentally before it even hits you. You smell the tear gas, as it goes in. It’s not even air when you breathe it in, so you are actually choking… It takes away your reasoning, instantly…. Then you try to scream, you can’t breathe. It goes into your lungs, your chest, it constricts… And all this is in like ten seconds. Then you just start crying. Tears just flow down, you start sneezing, coughing. If you don’t get out of that five-yard ratio, then you’re instantly going down to the ground.”
The effects of teargas can include losing eyes and limbs or suffering brain damage (from being hit by projectile canisters), third-degree burns, respiratory problems and miscarriages. At least several hundred people around the world have died from its effects, although there are no official figures. There is no legal obligation in any country to record the number of deaths and injuries from tear gas, because it is a ‘non-lethal’ civilian product.
Tear gas is not actually a gas at all. It is a particulate smoke made up of several irritants, CS, CN and CR (unlike pepper spray, which uses the inflammatory chemical OC). It might look like a slow-moving cloud, but it is more like a sticky haze that attaches itself to everything it touches. Early forms of teargas were proposed and rejected during the US Civil War, and by the British during the Crimean War. In both cases this was on ethical grounds, although one British army advocate (named Sir Playfair) said this was absurd, since “poisonous vapors that kill men without suffering” were more humane than fragment shells.
The first recorded use was probably in August 1914, during WWI, when the French shelled a German position. This rapidly escalated the use of chemical weapons. In 1915, the Germans responded by releasing 180 tonnes of chlorine at Ypres, Belgium, wounding 3000 and killing 1200. By the end of the war, a whole spectrum of gases had been developed, including hydrogen cyanide (which the Nazis used during the Holocaust).
However, all parties came to the conclusion that these types of weapons were not really in the spirit of good warfare between civilized nations. This was not because chemical weapons were deadly, but because they caused high levels of long-term casualties – and most of all because their simple existence caused such widespread panic and fear amongst the ranks that it risked making any military ungovernable. Consequently, the Geneva Convention explicitly banned the use of teargas in military conflicts. A loophole did, though, permit the development of a related product; for riot control. Legally speaking, tear gas is too risky for use on soldiers, but perfectly legitimate for civilians.
While its use against domestic unrest or civil protest is well known, teargas is also increasingly being used for international crowd control. US Customs and Border Protection routinely use teargas in California and Texas against migrants. In November 2018, more than one hundred men, women and children were gassed while trying to cross into the U.S. Then-President Trump defended the move, saying that border forces were “being rushed by some very tough people.”
Trump’s response was hardly surprising, given his strategy of weaponizing anti-immigration sentiment to muster political support. What did raise eyebrows was the muted response such human rights violations evoked amongst civil society. This is perhaps explained by the complex relationship between the defense sector and cultural institutions in the United States. Indeed, the man responsible for manufacturing the gas, Warren B. Kanders, served as vice chair on the Whitney Museum’s board for more than a decade.
When Kanders’ involvement was outed – in a now-infamous open letter by Hannah Black, Ciarán Finlayson and Tobi Haslett – the Whitney director was unrepentant. Kanders only stepped down after half a year of mass mobilization and boycotts of the 2019 Whitney Biennial. At the time, Kanders reluctantly promised to exit the sector. In June 2022, The Art Newspaper reported his company Safariland was expanding production. As anyone who has been following the Sackler OxyContin scandal will know, as long as cultural production is financed by private patronage, institutions have little ethical autonomy.
America is not the only nation-state gassing foreigners. In 2021, Polish forces gassed refugees trying to cross their border with Belarus. “The migrants attacked our soldiers and officers with stones, and are trying to destroy the fence and get to Poland,” the defense minister tweeted at the time. He later added, in an offhand, matter-of-fact way, “Our services use tear gas to quell migrants’ aggression."
If the present of teargas is quelling protestors, the future of teargas is maintaining territorial sovereignty. Without teargas, it is doubtful that any nation-state will survive this coming century. We currently live in a global order based on nation-states. This might seem like a painfully obvious thing to say. But this condition was not inevitable. In fact, it is kind of incredible. The world’s ‘community of nations’ has only very slowly emerged, out of half a millennium of European-led imperialism. Generations of invaders and occupiers convinced or compelled whomever they encountered to adopt highly specific models of statehood and governance. Now every scrap of earth has its own flag, currency, fixed borders, capital city, and a bureaucratic class for administering taxation, funding a military, developing infrastructure and providing social services. Our species has been around in its current form for about 200,000 years. There has never been such a moment of apparent consensus before.
Prior to 1800 almost no one had a passport, there were no border controls, very few stable governments, and no representative democracies. Anyone who wanted to migrate faced little resistance. The belief in borders is very recent, and remains extremely fragile. There are several reasons to think that this type of global order will not survive more than a few hundred years at most. As the climate crisis worsens, many people living within the tropics will not want to stay there. By 2050, that will be about 5 billion souls. If only 10% of this group decide they can no longer live at 50C (120F), experiencing endless failed crop seasons, floods, droughts and bomb-like tropical storms, the world has a migration problem more serious than anything else in human history.
At that point, in spite of Europe, America and China’s best attempts to fortify their external borders, there is no power in existence that can prevent such a large number of people moving from one place to another. It is not certain that any nation-state, in their current guise at least, is prepared for the combination of internal unrest and external arrivals. In the short term, the use of teargas will definitely increase. But the ultimate solution must be political, not military, and the two choices are clear: a fundamental restructuring of how states are governed and people are represented, centered around accountability, compassion, care and mutual aid; or a bunker mentality that leads to increasing brutality, in which teargas may appear the lesser of all state-deployed evils.
My prepper bag now contains a gas mask.