How Suppression is Euphemized

Jordan, a 22 year-old graduate student and local Texan, is treated after being pepper sprayed by police at a protest. Photo by Laura Borealis (Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Today the Berkeley City Council passed a resolution allowing police to use pepper spray as “targeted” crowd control. This development is being mischaracterized by the City, police, and media as routine and reasonable when it is everything but.

The proposal requesting to suspend the 1997 ban on this use portrays the use of pepper spray as more efficient, noting that tear gas has a tendency to spread over crowds and impact an area larger than intended. Further along in the document, however, we uncover the real reason that cops desire to suspend the ban: protestors come prepared. They wear masks to limit exposure, they use makeshift shields to thwart canisters and other projectiles launched at them, they know to protect their hands when they throw the canisters away from crowds — or even when they throw them back beyond the police line.

“Shields render less-lethal projectile weapons ineffective as well [as defend against impacts],” the document notes. “However, pepper spray is markedly more effective against those using shields, as shields do not give full protection against the effects of directed, focused applications of chemical irritants.”

This is correct. Something they don’t mention is that police prefer pepper spray to tear gas because the latter takes a while to take effect, whereas the power of pepper spray to neutralize people is instantaneous. They’re not lying when they say it’s more effective. It is more effective. It is incredibly effective at causing the immediate inflammation of throat membranes and paralysis of the larynx, leaving you gagging and gasping for air and unable to call for help. It is incredibly effective at inflaming any biological surface it touches, especially mucous membranes. It’s so effective, it can cause burns. (These are chemical burns, please do not apply aloe vera goo as the gel may trap irritants on the skin; in fact, avoid any oils and oil-based products if exposed and seek medical attention.)

Police pepper spray into the crowd. Photo by Steve Kaiser (Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

One of the things you learn very quickly when you’re doing decontamination is how persistent this stuff is. Once applied to a surface or body, it will continue to give off irritants capable of affecting the respiratory system until that surface is decontaminated, thereby turning a shield, clothes, or sign into a dangerous hazard. There is no way to prevent this irritant from affecting others who happen to be around a person that’s been sprayed (indeed, the document can only promise that cops will “attempt to limit collateral exposure”). This isn’t possible. Just walking into a room with this stuff will make the space unsafe for anyone with respiratory sensitivities until the room can be cleared — that’s how effective this stuff is at causing inflammation of respiratory passages. Even if you don’t have respiratory sensitivities, you too will experience some swelling of the throat, spike in blood pressure and agitation.

Removing pepper spray from the skin in situations without access to running water is such a risky procedure that the street medics willing to do it are rightly unwilling to do it without a station that ensures the multi-step process can be completed, since disruption midway can result in severe burns. Many street medics won’t do it at all. It’s not as gruesome as Samwell Tarly treating Ser Jorah’s greyscale on Game of Thrones, but it is just about as painstaking. And it can go wrong — very, very wrong if the timing is off. Additionally, because police are always looking to retain the upper hand, many jurisdictions can no longer rely on the procedure, since newer sprays are increasingly formulated to make field removal more difficult.

There really is no way to sugar coat this: even in limited amounts of more moderate formulations, this stuff is extremely harmful. And it is specifically formulated to be this harmful.

This is what the Berkeley City Council has approved. This is what many departments all over the country already use. The fact that few media outlets question the use of the euphemism “less-lethal” and “targeted crowd control” when referring to chemical weapons like these should concern you. The fact that the media is reporting on this as though this is routine and police are doing us a favor should terrify you. Wake up.

Police pepper spray into the crowd. Photo by Steve Kaiser (Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Perhaps the most unsettling thing about this document is the undisguised implication of who this weapon is for. Time and again the proposal for suspending the ban on pepper spray for crowd control alludes to “violent, black-clad extremists” — the very ones who only weeks ago put themselves between police and other protesters to shield the latter from projectiles, the ones that drove off far-right extremists that were pepper spraying people at Civic Center Park, the ones that guided clerics through a mob of genocidal racists in Charlottesville, the ones who are willing to charge police and release those who have been arrested for the mere infraction of protesting.

Do far-right extremists get a mention? Are preparations being made to prevent the running down of protesters by car? This measure is explicitly about regaining the ability to control a crowd by neutralizing protestors’ only line of defense against both state and far-right violence. We saw in Charlottesville how willing police are to stand by as a Black man gets beaten by white supremacists. We saw them stand by as genocidal racists with torches overwhelmed a group of students standing peacefully against white supremacy. This isn’t isolated: we’ve seen, too, the countless Black men, women, children shot in the streets while white spree killers are gently loaded into police cars. Now we’re seeing how willing police are to arm themselves against self-defense even as the country deprioritizes countering the risk posed by white supremacist groups.

As organizers have pointed out, this measure will invariably translate into the explicit profiling and targeting of folks wearing masks and carrying shields, regardless of their actions during a protest. The targeting of masks is incredibly dangerous given the risk protestors face from the far-right, which is not content (or able, if we’re being honest) to get people fired for standing up against white supremacy. The risk of physical violence, especially through state mechanisms such as SWATting (the practice of engineering a SWAT response to someone’s home under phony pretenses) is real and could be lethal for marginalized folks, as well as to totally uninvolved Black, Latino and other bystanders of color.

Is this the America we want?

Read previous standards under General Order U-2, which dictates police department use of force. Section 20(b) previously prohibited the use of oleoresin capsicum, or pepper spray for crowd control.

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