Cushman: Stop Using Tear Gas On Protesters

Members of the music industry support the BLM protests that have followed George Floyd's death.

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Members of the music industry support the BLM protests that have followed George Floyd’s death.

By KC Ellen Cushman, Opinion Writer

 

Last summer, major racial protests took place after cases of police brutality came to light. It was an emotional time that forced me to reassess my privilege. It was disturbing enough to confront the realities of systemic racism in our country, but it became even worse when peaceful protesters in our nation’s capital were tear-gassed by police to clear the way for President Trump to have a photoshoot. Now racial protests are erupting once again after more Black, Indigenous, and people of color have been killed by police, and tear gas is, once again, being used on protesters. Police tear gas Americans who are protesting for fair treatment and calling for an end to racially motivated policing. Tear gassing protesters is the opposite of the police’s duty to protect and serve. It is time to make using tear gas on protesters illegal.

The International Status of Tear Gas

Tear gas, while not usually lethal, does cause harm. It renders people temporarily incapacitated by making it difficult to breathe and it irritates the eyes, nose and mouth. During the pandemic, it is an even worse offense because it can increase the spread of COVID-19 by causing people to cough. Tear gas was originally developed as a chemical weapon for military use, but is now banned in warfare. A chemical weapon that is illegal to use in war should not be legal to use on American citizens. Our police shouldn’t be using chemical weapons against Americans when its long-term side effects are still being investigated by scientists. It is inhumane and dehumanizing to treat our own citizens more harshly than those we are at war with.

Perpetuating the Unnecessary Use of Force

If the international community can agree that tear gas is too harmful to be allowed in warfare, then there is no justification for police to use it against citizens. By allowing officers to use tear gas against Americans fighting for racial justice, we are allowing them to perpetuate a dangerous and lethal problem — the same problem that is bringing Americans out to protest in the first place: excessive force, especially against people of color. The irony is not lost on me that the people speaking out against excessive force are being subjected to it. 

During last year’s protests in May and June, Amnesty International recorded 125 separate instances of police violence, with some victims losing eyesight, experiencing severe beatings and suffering seizures and other wounds. Police in Buffalo, New York left a 75-year-old protester unable to walk and with a fractured skull. Aubreanna Inda had to be resuscitated 3-4 times after being hit by a flash grenade in the chest in Seattle. Elena Thoman had to remove her mask after being tear-gassed by Denver police, and her skin burned for nearly an hour. Those stories sound like the ones we would hear about coming from foreign authoritarian countries. It doesn’t sound like the actions of police in a democratic country. Tear gas is clearly not the only way police abuse protesters, but it is part of excessive force from our police force. Making the use of tear gas illegal on protesters is an important step in the police reform that we are protesting for. 

Protecting Our Civil Liberties

Moral and ethical arguments aside, the right to protest is built into our constitution. The First Amendment allows American citizens the right to assemble. Using an internationally banned form of chemical warfare on protesting Americans is nothing short of an inhumane attempt to stop citizens from exercising their constitutional rights. 

Police violence can harm medics, journalists and protesting citizens, and in each instance, it represents a move toward authoritarianism and away from the ideals that should define our nation. I love being part of a country that allows for political demonstration, and it’s gross to see police officers use excessive force under the guise of maintaining law and order. Defending law and order should also mean defending our constitution and the rights it grants us.

Using a harmful chemical that is banned in war to perpetuate police violence and attack our civil liberties is wrong. It is time for the police to stop using excessive force on Americans exercising their constitutional rights. It is time that we make the use of tear gas on protesters illegal.

 

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@kcellenc