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  • Narrator: Much of the coverage of the 2020 protests

  • against police misconduct in the United States

  • has looked a lot like this,

  • shrouded in a thick cloud of tear gas.

  • [people shouting]

  • Some of the sounds in this video may be shocking.

  • [explosion]

  • And some of the footage may be disturbing.

  • [explosion]

  • - Back up!

  • Reporter: Police on the roof

  • are firing volley after volley of tear gas.

  • Nobody was doing anything.

  • Reporter: Step back, get back, get back, get back!

  • You're ahead, you're ahead.

  • Reporter: There is so much gas that has been launched again

  • that you can barely even see that line of officers.

  • [explosion]

  • Narrator: The use of tear gas has almost

  • become synonymous with the protests,

  • and it's nothing new.

  • [people screaming] [explosion]

  • On June 1, law-enforcement officers used a variety

  • of less-lethal weapons on peaceful protesters

  • outside the White House,

  • creating a scene eerily similar to one

  • from nearly a century ago.

  • In 1930, police used tear gas to disperse a group

  • of unemployed demonstrators in front of the White House.

  • Announcer: Washington became a battleground.

  • Narrator: Two years later,

  • President Herbert Hoover authorized the use of tear gas

  • on American veterans gathered in Washington

  • to demand their promised, yet unpaid bonuses.

  • Announcer: Using tear gas,

  • the troops methodically set about dispersing the marchers

  • in as bloodless a manner as possible.

  • Narrator: In the decades that followed,

  • law-enforcement agencies around the world

  • commonly dispersed large assemblies

  • of protesters with tear gas.

  • But tear gas was initially developed as a weapon of war.

  • So how did it become the weapon of choice

  • against protests?

  • Today, the business behind tear gas

  • is worth billions.

  • Announcer: Reliability and high performance

  • are our binding guarantee.

  • Narrator: Less-lethal weapons, as they're called,

  • are weapons intended to limit the escalation of conflict

  • without lethal force.

  • This industry was worth about $6.3 billion in 2016

  • and is projected to grow to $11.3 billion by 2023.

  • Tear gas represents about 25% of the industry,

  • meaning by 2023, it could be worth about $3 billion a year.

  • Anna Feigenbaum: This is completely a for-profit industry.

  • Narrator: This is Anna Feigenbaum,

  • the author of a book about the history of tear gas.

  • Feigenbaum: There is constantly

  • new innovation in this industry.

  • We're seeing pushes to put more and more

  • equipment into police hands.

  • [explosion]

  • Narrator: And the industry's rise is tied

  • to why it was originally developed.

  • The first known use of tear gas was in World War I,

  • when French soldiers fired tear gas grenades

  • into German trenches.

  • It was one of many chemical weapons used in the war,

  • during which over 90,000 soldiers died

  • from exposure to poisonous gases.

  • Announcer: A meeting of European foreign ministers

  • in Locarno, Switzerland.

  • Narrator: A 1925 treaty known as the Geneva Protocol

  • banned the use of "asphyxiating, poisonous

  • or other gases" in combat.

  • But the United States would not ratify the agreement

  • until 1975 and held the stance

  • that the protocol did not apply to nontoxic gases

  • or chemicals that could be used for riot control.

  • Other countries disagreed.

  • Jamil Dakwar: The idea was that if you allow tear gas

  • to be used in armed conflict situations,

  • there could be escalation of other chemical weapons

  • that would be increasingly dangerous

  • and would cause mass casualties.

  • Narrator: And the protocol also did not limit production

  • of those weapons, so production of tear gas grew.

  • [gas spraying]

  • Feigenbaum: The Chemical Warfare Service,

  • which had been doing a lot of this R&D,

  • wanted to continue.

  • And there was a big push to try

  • and validate its continued existence.

  • And one of the main drivers of that push

  • was a guy named Gen. Amos Fries.

  • He decided that tear gas could have a lot of uses

  • for security and for law enforcement.

  • And so he worked to create this kind of commercial

  • or domestic market in tear gas.

  • Announcer: The jumper repeater grenade

  • discharges three large blasts

  • of tear gas in rapid succession.

  • Narrator: Categorized as a less-lethal weapon,

  • tear gas is defined by the CDC as any chemical agents

  • that "temporarily make people unable to function

  • by causing irritation to the eyes, mouth,

  • throat, lungs, and skin."

  • Announcer: Six smoke-filled jumper repeater grenades

  • make an impressive display of saturation.

  • Narrator: Tear gas manufacturers

  • aggressively marketed their products

  • to law-enforcement agencies.

  • - How are you, Mr. Matthews? - Stick 'em up!

  • Narrator: Like in this promotional film from 1930

  • that illustrates how tear gas can be used

  • to thwart bank robbers.

  • - That's my last job.

  • Narrator: The marketing worked.

  • - Well, it's better than being shot.

  • Narrator: Tear gas became a weapon of choice

  • for police tasked with dispersing large crowds.

  • Announcer: With the army on the way,

  • the strike scene is hectic.

  • Narrator: In the early 20th century,

  • police often used tear gas during labor strikes.

  • Announcer: Then comes trouble, and police tear gas.

  • [explosion] [people shouting]

  • After the pin is pulled,

  • the grip on the strap handle controls the firing mechanism.

  • Narrator: Manufacturers weren't just selling

  • tear gas itself.

  • Announcer: When the handle is released in throwing,

  • the grenade is activated.

  • Narrator: They were also hawking must-have accessories.

  • Announcer: In a special kit available for immediate use

  • is a complete assortment of gas munitions,

  • including projectiles and grenades.

  • Narrator: And throughout the 20th century,

  • tear gas was used more frequently

  • on protesters around the world.

  • In Japan,

  • Germany,

  • Malaysia,

  • Vietnam.

  • Announcer: South to Saigon,

  • tear gas has been used to crush recent street rioting.

  • [explosion]

  • Narrator: Northern Ireland.

  • Announcer: Washington police used tear gas

  • to drive them away.

  • Narrator: Back in the US,

  • police continued to wield it on protesters.

  • Along with labor strikes, police used tear gas

  • at political and human rights protests,

  • like the 1965 Civil Rights protests in Selma, Alabama.

  • And in 1969, when police used tear gas

  • to disperse groups protesting the Vietnam War.

  • Feigenbaum: There was resistance and people saying,

  • "Well, how can you ban this in war but then allow it here?

  • How could we have said that these chemicals

  • have no place as part of military strategy,

  • and then you're using it on civilians?"

  • And so that strangeness or almost what seems

  • like an absurdity of that exceptional clause

  • has long been pointed out.

  • Narrator: But the United States always had exceptions

  • when it came to tear gas.

  • The country used tear gas and other chemicals

  • during the Vietnam War, both abroad and at home.

  • [explosion] [people shouting]

  • More limitations were put in place in 1993

  • with the Chemical Weapons Convention,

  • a treaty that explicitly banned agents

  • like tear gas "as a method of warfare."

  • [explosion]

  • But it still did not ban its usage in law enforcement,

  • including riot-control instances.

  • And so the tear gas industry continued to grow.

  • Announcer: Combined Systems delivers safety,

  • reliability, and effective solutions.

  • Narrator: Today, at least three

  • of the world's top less-lethal weapons manufacturers

  • are based in the US.

  • Feigenbaum: We have Combined Systems, Inc.

  • We have Safariland Group, NonLethal Technologies.

  • Announcer: NonLethal Technologies,

  • with over 50 years' experience in the tear gas industry.

  • Narrator: This 2016 video from Combined Systems'

  • YouTube channel provides a look at how less-lethal weapons

  • are marketed to potential buyers.

  • The video features drone footage

  • of less-lethal weapons being demoed,

  • set to the song "Back in Black" by AC/DC.

  • Back

  • Members of the demo team

  • playfully point the weapons at the camera.

  • Companies like Combined Systems share their inventories

  • on their website, where you can browse

  • their tear gas products, like this aerosol grenade.

  • Prices are available upon request.

  • But according to this price sheet

  • from the company Amtec Less-Lethal Systems

  • released by the state of Connecticut,

  • a tear gas grenade can sell for between $30 and $40.

  • [siren wailing] [weapons popping]

  • These American companies don't just supply

  • American law-enforcement agencies.

  • [explosion]

  • According to the Omega Research Foundation,

  • law-enforcement agencies in Hong Kong

  • used products made by NonLethal Technologies

  • during the 2019 extradition protests in Hong Kong.

  • [explosion]

  • Officer: Disperse the area now.

  • CS gas is being used.

  • Narrator: While tear gas is seen

  • as a less-lethal alternative to bullets,

  • [explosion]

  • the impact of tear gas can be far worse

  • than temporary discomfort.

  • Tear gas projectiles have caused serious injuries.

  • Protester: F---, y'all.

  • Come on, now!

  • Narrator: And the gas impacts people

  • with preexisting health conditions like asthma

  • more severely.

  • All of this during a respiratory disease pandemic

  • has re-sparked questions about the weapons' legality.

  • Dakwar: Tear gas doesn't distinguish

  • between the people who are violent

  • or not violent, obeying the law.

  • Narrator: This is Jamil Dakwar,

  • director of the ACLU's Human Rights Program.

  • And he's been working on a campaign

  • to ban the use of tear gas on assemblies.

  • [coughing]

  • Dakwar: In 2014, the protest in Ferguson, Missouri,

  • there was a massive use of tear gas, in fact,

  • in a very irresponsible and dangerous way.

  • [siren wailing]

  • We felt that there needed

  • to be also an international assessment

  • of the impact of those weapons.

  • Why are they being deployed very quickly and easily

  • without taking into account the impact on people,

  • on the rights of people, particularly the right to protest?

  • So, that was 2014,

  • and fast-forward, we are now in 2020.

  • Officer: Tear gas and other crowd-control munitions

  • may be deployed. Leave the area now.

  • Feigenbaum: We have seen a widespread use of it

  • not only in the United States,

  • but coming off the back of the uprisings in Hong Kong.

  • We are seeing lots and lots of cameras out,

  • lots and lots of video footage being caught

  • of a kind of indiscriminate

  • and excessive use of these weapons,

  • often against unarmed and nonviolent protesters.

  • Again, this kind of absurdity on this one level,

  • once people find out this is banned in warfare

  • but allowed for police use,