100 Years of Tear Gas

Leading American tear-gas manufacturers, including the Lake Erie Chemical Company founded by World War I veteran Lieutenant Colonel Byron “Biff” Goss, became deeply embroiled in the repression of political struggles. Sales representatives buddied up with business owners and local police forces. They followed news headlines of labor disputes and traveled to high-conflict areas, selling their products domestically and to countries such as Argentina, Bolivia, and Cuba. A Senate subcommittee investigation into industrial-munitions sales found that between 1933 and 1937, more than $1.25 million (about $21 million today) worth of “tear and sickening gas” had been purchased in the U.S. “chiefly during or in anticipation of strikes.”

Prior to World War II, Italy used tear and other poison gases extensively in its war with Ethiopia, the Spanish used them in Morocco, and the Japanese used them against the Chinese. Although Western nations did not engage in chemical warfare during World War II, the use and development of tear gases became even more widespread afterward. In Vietnam, the U.S. fired tear gas into Viet Cong tunnels; the gas also landed in bomb-shelter dugouts, asphyxiating civilians trapped inside. In 1966, the Hungarian delegation to the UN, backed by other Eastern European nations, put the matter on the international agenda. “The hollow pretexts given for using riot-control gases in Viet-Nam,” the Hungarians argued, “had been rejected by world public opinion and by the international scientific community, including scholars in the United States itself.” Hungary called for the use of these chemical weapons in war to constitute an international crime.

Back in the United States, Vietnam War protesters faced tons of tear gas. In one of the largest deployments, California Governor Ronald Reagan ordered the National Guard to break up demonstrators in Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza in 1969. Helicopters carrying tear gas showered thousands of peacefully assembled students, as well as bystanders, including nursery-school children and  swimmers in the university pool.

Meanwhile, France was busy expanding its use of new tear-gas formulas to quell student and worker uprisings that broke out in 1968. The French became so accustomed to facing tear gas that they trained residents in Derry, Northern Ireland to repel its effects during fighting in August 1969 between the Royal Ulster Constabulary and Catholic residents that came to be known as the Battle of the Bogside. This event marked the U.K.’s first civilian deployment of its new tear-gas formula—and brought the British military into Northern Ireland. 

A circular distributed in Derry, Northern Ireland, in 1969 (Museum of Free Derry)

In the 1980s, human-rights groups increased their monitoring of the use of tear gas and riot-control techniques in zones of conflict or protest. South Korea came under increasing international pressure for its use of the chemical weapon against student protesters, as did Israel for deploying tear gas against Palestinians during the First Intifada. Between January 1987 and December 1988, the United States exported $6.5 million worth of tear-gas guns, grenades, launchers, and launching cartridges to Israel. Rights groups recorded up to 40 deaths resulting from tear gas during the First Intifada, as well as thousands of cases of illness.

Tear gas was once again transformed by the manufacture of handheld aerosol sprays beginning in the 1980s, when chemical-agents expert and inventor Kamran Loghman worked with the FBI to develop a weapons-grade aerosol pepper spray—an alternative, faster-acting form of tear gas designed to be more debilitating to the target. By 1991, Loghman’s invention was on the utility belts of police across the United States. Soon after, similar sprays were developed in the U.K. and France. It didn't take long before lawsuits arose, accusing police of harassment and, at times, torture. Between 1990 and 1995, more than 60 deaths linked to this “non-lethal technology” were reported in the United States.

Harking back to its large-scale use during Vietnam War protests, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, police forces deployed tear gas en masse against anti-globalization demonstrators in Seattle, Vancouver, Prague, and elsewhere. Though the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention again confirmed an international prohibition on the use of tear gases in warfare, it made an exception for their use in riot control by law-enforcement officials. Reporting on the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City in 2001, Saul Hudson wrote for Reuters, “Eye-stinging tear gas floated through the sealed-off zone in the historic city and entered venue building vents, reminding the presidents and prime ministers that violence marring major summits has become as predictable as their closing statements.”

During the Arab Spring, Occupy, and anti-austerity protests of 2011, tear gas once more made headlines. Mass shipments entered Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, and Tunisia, largely from Combined Systems Inc. in the U.S. and Condor Nonlethal Technologies in Brazil, while tear gas was also deployed to break up protests in the U.S. and across Europe.

A Year in Mass Tear Gassing, 2013

A map of locations worldwide where tear gas has been fired on groups of people and large crowds. (Anna Feigenbaum/Bournemouth University)

Ovrr the past two decades, sales of tear gas, and less-lethal weapons more broadly, have grown substantially. Just as tear-gas salesmen in the 1920s monitored news headlines, today’s chemical executives receive market reports informing them, for instance, that “civil unrest has become commonplace in many regions of the world, from protesters in Brazil to activists in the Middle East. Governments have responded by purchasing record amounts of non-lethal weapons.”

Police fire tear-gas canisters at anti-gay rights protesters in Podgorica, Montenegro, in 2013. (Stevo Vasiljevic/Reuters)

In the 100 years since it was first developed, tear gas, advertised as a harmless substance, has often proven fatal, asphyxiating children and adults, causing miscarriages, and injuring many. The human-rights organization Amnesty International has listed tear gas as part of the international trade in tools of torture, and Turkey’s medical association has condemned it.

Yet while tear gas remains banned from warfare under the Chemical Weapons Convention, its use in civilian policing grows. Tear gas remains as effective today at demoralizing and dispersing crowds as it was a century ago, turning the street from a place of protest into toxic chaos. It clogs the air, the one communication channel that even the most powerless can use to voice their grievances.

In this way, tear gas offers the police a cheap solution for social unrest. But rather than resolve tensions, it deepens them. This week in Ferguson, police fired tear gas into people’s backyards, set it off near children, and launched it directly at journalists. This treatment of a civilian neighborhood further damages the already highly fraught relationship between many Americans and those employed to “serve and protect” them. As those who signed declarations at The Hague back in 1899 knew, peace cannot be made through poison.

Presented by

Anna Feigenbaum is a lecturer in media and politics at Bournemouth University and the author of the forthcoming book Tear Gas: The Making of a Peaceful Poison

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