I Can’t Breathe: Braving Tear Gas in a Pandemic

How a counterproductive crowd-control tactic could make the outbreak worse

A protester, immediately after being teargassed and pepper sprayed
Dominick Williams

The first time I was teargassed, in Istanbul, Turkey, I thought I was going to die. Overwhelming pain flooded my eyes, nose, throat, and lungs. I couldn’t breathe. The most recent time I was teargassed, in November in Hong Kong, I paused to assess the situation, and nonchalantly reached for my mask in my backpack.

I had ducked into a building in the middle of Hong Kong’s swirling protests and had walked out, unexpectedly, into a cloud of tear gas. I wasn’t calm because I had somehow mutated to become resistant to tear gas. But like every protester in sustained political movements, I had been through the experience enough times to know what to expect. I knew about the first moment of existential horror, the shock of losing one’s breath, and the deep indignation of being gassed like an insect. I knew how to acclimate, adjust, and gear up. If you’re teargassed repeatedly, as I have been as an academic researching protest movements, you learn how to hold your breath and close your eyes. You learn how to avoid gulping a huge amount of wretched air in sheer panic, and how to quickly move toward an area with less concentrated gas. Most important, you learn to acquire a full-face respirator that keeps the gas out.

Being teargassed during a pandemic, as so many have been this past week in the United States, is a different experience. Tear gas is a major irritant to one’s throat, nose, and lungs, the very places the coronavirus attaches to in order to start its silent invasion. The U.S. Army found that recruits who were exposed to tear gas—to ensure that their first shocking experience with the weapon was in a controlled environment—had more respiratory illnesses in the following days. A study from Turkey similarly found chronic respiratory problems, persisting for years, among activists, journalists, and students frequently exposed to tear gas. Many reported ongoing dyspnea—the medical term for “I can’t breathe.”

Now some of the millions of people who turned out in the streets to protest the killing of black people by the police with apparent impunity are being suffocated, momentarily, by clouds of gas. Many are protected by little more than cloth masks because, in a pandemic, how do you get respirators? If doctors cannot find them, millions of protesters aren’t going to be able to procure them.

The response to being teargassed follows a typical pattern: shock, outrage, gear up. In the summer of 2019 in Hong Kong, at the beginning of its latest protest wave, when tear gas landed near the crowds, there would often be panic and screaming (a bad way to gulp air!) and confused running (which can be dangerous by itself). Only a few months later, Hong Kong’s frontline protesters showed up clad in standard-issue global protester gear: respirators, helmets, and long sleeves. They also learned the trick beloved by many movements: using heat-resistant gloves to toss canisters back at the police or to dunk them in water. Sometimes they swatted the canisters back at the police with badminton rackets. When the police charged to arrest them, they ran so that they could fight another day, but they almost never ran from the gas.

Extreme soccer fans, used to having rowdy interactions with the police, have also learned to acclimate to the gas and gear up. These fans can become frontline fighters of protest movements, as the so-called ultras (devoted soccer fans) did during the Arab Spring, or as the left-leaning “Çarşı/Beşiktaş soccer club” fans did in Gezi Park protests in 2013. In one remarkable video from those protests, Çarşı soccer fans in their home neighborhood of Beşiktaş, Istanbul, can be seen chanting defiantly in the middle of gas so thick that the police aren’t visible, although it’s possible to make out the protesters’ middle fingers.

In a non-pandemic world, tear gas will disperse marchers for a week or two while they gear up, but it will shock and anger them for years, something I heard from many protesters among the growing global fraternity of the teargassed—such a common experience that I titled my book on 21st-century social movements Twitter and Tear Gas. The indignation and rage that follow the experience can propel people from being casual participants to lifelong activists.

For many people, tear gas is their first interaction with state violence. It’s the first time they’ve been treated like an insect, usually by police geared up like robocops. That warlike stance is a strong escalatory agent in a protest. It’s common sense: Aggression from the police will fuel escalation. This is confirmed by decades of research: Combative and belligerent police action is often pivotal to starting and escalating a cycle of violence. After decades of research, I’ve personally concluded that perhaps the single most effective police action for crowd control would be for the police to show up dressed like humans, not terminators. But crowd control is often not the point of state violence. Its goal is usually to put people in their place, to “dominate,” as the president has called for. Viewed through that lens, it’s no wonder that tear gas is a tool of choice. Tear gas will enrage, but not deter. It will hurt and maim, but not de-escalate.

Tear gas is among the so-called cluster of nonlethal weapons—also including rubber bullets and water cannons—but those are anything but when shot directly at people, a too-common occurrence, rather than upward at a 45-degree angle, as they are supposed to be used. Already, two U.S. journalists have lost an eye this week, one from a tear-gas-canister strike, the other from a foam bullet.

In one incident in Miami, witnessed by reporters, the protester LaToya Ratlieff had been kneeling on the ground, urging the police in riot gear in front of her to stop teargassing the protesters. She was teargassed anyway. Choking, she stumbled, and another woman tried to lead her to safety, a moment captured in a photo by a reporter. Moments later, as Ratlieff was walking away, a police officer took direct aim at her—with no warning. Someone yelled at him to stop, but he fired anyway, hitting her with a projectile. Ratlieff, a black woman, was lucky by the standards of how these things usually go. Though her eye socket and skull were cracked, she will likely not lose her eye. She joins many victims around the world who have suffered from concussions, skull fractures, blindness, and even death due to such deliberate direct shots. Many human-rights organizations have repeatedly called for banning or greatly limiting their use, but they have made little progress. That’s why I keep my helmet on at all times in protest areas, and if tear gas is being fired, I’ll put on my shatterproof goggles before reaching for my gas mask.

But during a pandemic, the risk isn’t just flying rubber bullets or tear-gas canisters. The protesters descending on America’s streets this past week face an extra risk from the coronavirus, especially if they’re crowded into buses, jails, or other detention spaces—the very settings, indoors, crowded, and unventilated, that we now know lead to super-spreader events. Epidemiologists have been providing harm-reduction advice on how to protest as safely as possible. Wear a mask. Keep distance. Protesters can chant and yell, which produce the respiratory droplets that spread the virus. Maybe more signs and drums, less chanting. Stick with a small group to reduce unknown contacts. Given that this virus doesn’t seem to spread as effectively outdoors, a properly distanced protest with people wearing masks may be a relatively low-risk event. But that’s only if everyone cooperates—including the authorities. There have been videos of police pulling down protesters’ masks in order to pepper-spray them, of people being teargassed against steep hillsides that trap them, making them unable to escape the suffocating cloud. Many protesters report being shoved into packed buses, being housed in crowded garages, and being kept in jails without medical attention or the ability to distance. That’s one way to create new super-spreader events.

Some conservative commentators, especially those who oppose the ongoing lockdown policies, have been expressing frustration that beachgoers and park attendees have been scolded and shamed both by the media and on social media, while protesters have mainly received sympathy. They have a point; the scolding and shaming of park-goers and beachgoers was way overdone. But protesting police brutality and structural racism is an essential activity.

Most important, protesting is not about avoiding all risk. Protesting is about putting yourself out there despite all the risk, from the police and the virus, to engage in an act of shared vulnerability to make a political point: This will not stand. While I do keep my helmet on when interviewing protesters, I keep my mask in my backpack. A full-face mask also blocks eye contact and looks alien. If my interview subjects may be unpleasantly shocked by the sudden bang of tear-gas particles enveloping us, I don’t want to be more protected than they are.

And that’s the most remarkable part of these protests, now in their second sustained week nationwide. It’s not that the protesters are unaware of the risks; it’s that they are out there in spite of these risks, to say that black lives matter. Eric Garner couldn’t breathe. George Floyd couldn’t breathe. And now, by showing up day after day, even amid a widespread crackdown, the protesters are facing the risk of not just the tear gas that will cut off their breath, but also the very disease whose hallmark is dyspnea, the inability to breathe.