Op-ed: Berkeley must prohibit use of CS gas on protesters

The Berkeley Police and the Police Review Commission’s (PRC) recent report on the police response to the Dec. 6, 2014 Black Lives Matter protests reflected a remarkable amount of agreement, and came up with commendable recommendations. But it had omissions which should not go unremarked, among which is the refusal to prohibit the use of CS gas on protesters.

CS gas is a chemical agent banned in warfare per the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993. Most nations, including the United States, have signed this agreement. CS gas, which is not technically a gas but rather an aerosol of a volatile solvent, causes an immediate involuntary burning sensation, vomiting, temporary blindness, severe pulmonary damage, miscarriages, and can significantly damage the heart and liver.

Three members of the Police Review Commission, Commissioners Bartlett, Lippman, and Sherman, issued a minority report dissenting on the use of CS gas, or “tear gas” as it is sometimes inaccurately described, recommending a prohibition on its use in crowd control and crowd management. There are good reasons for this since CS gas itself is indiscriminate. The severity of exposure is not a controlled or controllable matter, but depends entirely on:

  1. the setting — CS gas is less likely to disperse indoors or in settings densely packed with people or buildings
  1. availability of protective clothing or equipment — CS gas can take hours to dissipate but can soak clothing which often cannot be washed, such that first responders and bystanders are at severe risk of exposure.
  1. the weather —The weather can disperse chemical agents in unexpected ways putting protesters, bystanders, and police at risk.
  1. the availability of medical intervention — No arrangement for medical assistance were made for the injured in December of 2014 despite serious injury, and current policy precludes dispatching medical responders until a scene is secure.
  1. other uncontrollable factors — People in December of 2014 found themselves trapped between police skirmish lines, unable to get away or comply with dispersal orders.

CS gas, even when used correctly in optimum circumstances, creates panic, injury, and undermines rather than protects public safety. Its use profoundly chills the First Amendment expression the city is legally obligated to protect.

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Carol Denney is a singer, writer, and veteran activist of social justice movements.