Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Profits Over People: The Lie of "Routine" Tear Gas

When police choose to use tear gas that is objectively harmful to people to respond to threats (often paranoid) of property crimes like looting and vandalism it is important to grasp that their choice is always unambiguously the choice of elite profit-taking over popular citizenship. It is not enough to critique the militarization of police: What we are seeing more specifically is the corporate-militarization of police (and, crucially, prisons), which prioritizes the policing of profit through the policing of people.

Melissa Harris-Perry is indispensably resisting the ongoing effort to routinize tear gas as "harmless" "crowd control." The physiological and psychological effects of tear gas are far from harmless. The "crowd" in question is We The People, and the "control" in question is the violent curtailment of Constitutionally supported free speech and free assembly.

As I said, threats to property are usually exaggerated, and often paranoid, but Professor Harris-Perry points out that even when there really is property damage arising from a popular assembly the choice of police to harm citizens indiscriminately with tear gas is far from self-evidently justifiable -- even if prevailing media narratives seem all too eager to take such justification for granted in the name of "police protection" or stopping "mob violence."

It is far from justifiable to harm an innocent majority in the policing of a guilty minority -- although, again, prevailing media narratives seem all too eager to tar the totality of legitimate mass public protests with the brush of looting or vandalism happening at its margins. One of the reasons capital punishment cannot be justified, for example, is because the practice inevitably entails the execution of the innocent.

However, harmful measures like tear gassing are always a disproportionate response even to the reality of property crimes. International laws already forbid the use of tear gas in the policing of crowds in the context of foreign interventions. In a free society, nobody would be tear-gassed ever, because tear gas does real harm, and that real harm should matter at least as much and surely much more than the also real harm done by petty theft and petty vandalism of property -- quite apart from the fact that majorities innocent of the latter real harm are being subjected to the former real harm, which makes the bad worse, and quite apart from the fact that the former real harm tends to be exaggerated if not manufactured whole cloth in the first place, which make even worse the already bad that was already worse.

To continue the capital punishment analogy above, stealing cigars or selling single cigarettes on the street without a license may be petty crimes, and rightly so, but neither is a capital crime outside of tyrannies -- and in any society where their policing routinely eventuates in execution tyranny becomes a more readily applicable designation for it. (And I guess I'm setting aside the question of deliberate exposure to secondhand smoke as violent assault in these cigar/cigarette analogies, even though that connects up to the violence of tear gassing pretty obviously, too. Oh, well.)


Ian Alan Paul said...

I wrote a piece on teargas last year during the Gezi struggles, although it probably falls too far on the "spontaneous" side of the spectrum for your taste. Either way, the proliferation of its use requires a strong critical and ethical response from the left, just as all historical moments require struggles for the prohibition of more and more advanced (and inexpensive) weaponry.

Dale Carrico said...

Very fine piece. The ever wider recourse to tasers in individualized policing seems to me of a piece with the recourse to tear gas in the policing of crowds (images of which are becoming more ubiquitous -- Occupy seemed an inflection point). And the public discourse trivializing tasers is longstanding and probably a model for the present mainstreaming of tear gas. Tasers have been incessantly narrativized for over a decade as either as non-lethal despite the deaths attributed to their use or as non-violent (as compared to conventional weapons, presumably) despite the general escalation of violence attending their use, not to mention the revolting spate of "comedic" skits and stories ("Don't tase me bro.") involving tasers at once habituating us to their commonplaces usage and rendering their threat ridiculous.

I must have missed any genuflections to spontaneism or references to anarchism in the piece. Public assembly and collective expression/petition of grievances to authorities are indispensable to democratic citizenship. Free clinics near public events or to provide basic services in failed states (and of course for me any state without equal recourse to law, universal franchise and eligibility for office, trial by jury, minority rights, sustainable public maintenance of common resources (water, air, topsoil, parkspace, ecosystemic support for urban settlement, etc) and utilities (energy, transportation, communication, finance, etc), lifelong basic healthcare, education, food assistance, housing, long-term unemployment insurance, extended family leave, and retirement pensions for every citizen is a state that is failing in some significant measure by my lights). And I doubt that's too far on the democratic socialist side of the spectrum for your taste at all.