History Of Tear Gas: When The U.S. Gassed Their Own Citizens

By Sophia Maddox | May 29, 2024

Tear Gas Is Having A Moment

The use of tear gas, a chemical weapon designed to incapacitate through intense irritation of the eyes and respiratory system, has a long and controversial history. Originally developed for use in warfare, tear gas has since been deployed in various civilian contexts, raising significant ethical and legal questions. This article delves into the troubling history of tear gas, particularly focusing on instances where the U.S. government has used it against its own citizens. From the labor strikes of the early 20th century to recent protests, tear gas has been a tool of control and suppression, often sparking intense public debate. Explore the origins of this chemical agent, its evolution, and the contentious moments in American history when it was turned on the very people it was meant to protect.

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(Public domain/Wikimedia Commons)

Tear gas, mace, pepper spray—we see them being used pretty much every day on the news without knowing exactly what they are. Essentially, tear gas is a chemical weapon that causes skin and eye irritation, respiratory problems, and blindness. It's not good. The effects of tear gas can be so harsh that its use has been banned in warfare, but it's still used by police in countries like the United States and Australia for crowd control. This nasty chemical has a violent history dating back to the 19th century, but it only recently (historically speaking) started infiltrating our streets.

Tear Gas Isn't A Gas

Despite its straightforward name, tear gas isn't a gas. It's more of a powder or an aerosolized solid that attacks mucus membranes and makes it hard to breathe or see within a minute of exposure. When the powder hits the air, it gloms onto any bit of moisture it can find, whether that's your tears, sweat, saliva, mucus, or even the products you use in your hair. Your chest tightens, you can't see, and as your body attempts to flush your orifices to get you back to normal, the symptoms get worse.

Gassed In The U.S.A.

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(University of Kansas Medical Center)

Tear gas wasn't designed to be deadly; it was just supposed to incapacitate people long enough to kill them with other weapons. After the Hague Convention in 1899 banned projectiles whose sole purpose was "the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases," French scientists concocted a less deadly version of the outlawed poison gas. Apparently, if it didn't kill or at least intend to kill, it was okay by the Hague. This rule was ratified by all of the major world powers except for the United States.

By World War I, tear gas was a mainstay with the U.S. military. Basically, if trench warfare were a video game, tear gas was constantly equipped. The gas was used to get soldiers out of their trenches through "non-lethal" force to give their enemies a clear (very lethal) shot at them. When American troops returned home from the front, they asked to keep their chemical weapons, specifically for use in crowd control. In 1921, an article in Gas Age Record profiling Amos Fries, chief of the U.S. Army's Chemical Warfare Service, explained that using noxious gas for crowd control was a step into a bright, crime-free future because it causes "such a diminution of violent social disorders and savage uprising as to amount to their disappearance."

Police started using tear gas regularly in the 1920s for riot control for a few reasons: They didn't have to use live ammunition, the gas dispersed without a trace within a day, and it didn't leave signs of a physical harm. In 1921, police had their first big tear gas test when they brought down a labor uprising in Logan County, West Virginia. For five days in August and September, 10,000 armed coal miners took on 3,000 officers and strikebreakers over their desire to unionize and be paid actual money rather than company currency. The miners had numbers on their side, but the police had tear gas, pipe bombs, and machine guns. The latter almost always beats the former.