Op-ed: Don’t call what Berkeley Police used ‘tear gas’

“We believe ‘tear gas’ is a misnomer for a group of poisonous gases which, far from being innocuous, have serious acute and longer-term adverse effects on the health of significant numbers of those exposed.”

Physicians for Human Rights wrote the above paragraph after studying the health effects of the chemical agents commonly known as tear gas on human health after the government of the Republic of Korea admitted to using 351,000 canisters against civilians in 1987.  Physicians for Human Rights’ work was an effort to “bring the skills and influence of the American medical community to the defense of international human rights.”

Under the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1997, CS gas was banned from use as a method of warfare because it is capable of causing long-term incapacitation and even death, but it continues to be used by law enforcement for riot control, as Berkeley residents witnessed recently.

It is early in the analysis of the use of toxic chemical here in town, but there is no controversy about some of the facts: the police claim the use of chemical agents was necessary because of projectiles thrown at them, if press reports are accurate.

The hurling of rocks and bottles at anyone is an outrage, to be sure. It is also a criminal act. No crowd commits such a criminal act; most of us have seen that an extremely small group of two or three individuals uses the cover of a larger crowd to throw things. The larger, peaceful crowd is as much at risk as the police officers.

Responding with CS gas which blinds, terrorizes, and in some cases incapacitates the entire crowd, rather than the individuals responsible for throwing objects, is an absurd, logic-free police response. The object-throwing individuals are usually furthest away, least liable to be affected by the chemical agents, and the haze in the street further obscures their movements and identities. The peaceful crowd is liable to get hurt trying to find a way out of the toxic air.

Our community has work to do to ensure that we as a community can safely express our outrage at the injustice of racism, which falls primarily on people of color. We need to demand that our police force be required to respect those rights, which are precious.

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Carol Denney is a Berkeley writer and musician.