Trinidad and Tobago must condemn tear-gas use

 Dr Gabrielle Hosein -
Dr Gabrielle Hosein -

WE should all condemn the police's use of tear gas.

This painful poison has long been marketed as a technology to control what are considered riots and unruly crowds. It’s been used against workers’ strikes, pro-democracy uprisings during the Arab Spring, those resisting apartheid in South Africa, Indians fighting for independence from the British empire, Ethiopians in their struggle against Italian imperialism, migrant families, Black Lives Matter marchers, Palestinians and anti-war protests.

Its history is opportunistic, authoritarian and extremist. Its origins are colonial, racist and inhumane. It’s a disturbing moment in our contemporary history when we in TT can say it has again been used against us too.

Who authorised purchase of what Amnesty International lists as “part of the international trade in tools of torture”? There’s a constant stream of securitisation and surveillance experts and companies, along with FBI agents and warmongering Republicans, rolling through TT hawking their wares, facilitated by the business class opening doors to governments and police.

That’s just how the use of tear gas was first popularised, like other weapons which stockpile when war ends and are sold to governments for use against citizens, so manufacturers keep making money.

How much was spent on these weapons? What was their justification? When were they purchased? Isn’t this exactly why there are growing calls across the hemisphere to defund the police and for greater transparency regarding police spending?

The country couldn’t get the PM to provide answers to the Police Service Commission debacle, and such lack of accountability remains an unforgotten scandal. We should certainly demand a government position against tear gas until we get one. If it’s in the police's arsenal, won’t they think they can legitimately use it? When and against whom?

Shockingly, the police used tear gas in a major artery of Port of Spain, affecting harmless families and children driving around the Savannah. There are actually protocols regarding its use – you don’t shoot canisters over crowds; canisters shouldn’t land in random compounds; wind direction matters.

It makes one think that semi-trained boys just want an excuse to play with their combat toys, riot gear, drones, Tasers and hazardous weapons. Last year, police warned me they had Tasers if students and young women protesting killings of women didn’t follow covid physical-distancing rules.

Then, as now, there was no threat of uncontainable or destructive violence, no property at risk, and no justification for such action by human rights principles.

Indeed, even while tear gas has been sold for use against ordinary people everywhere, for decades it’s been banned from warfare under the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention. There is a reason for this. It’s an indiscriminate and terrifying chemical. It doesn’t spare the non-violent or innocent.

Inevitably, it is used, not in response to danger, but to “incapacitate and punish” people expressing a right to peacefully challenge governments, injustice and state power.

As an instrument of state terror, it exacts submission through confusion, fear and pain. It escalates, rather than quiets, animosity toward police, creating the conditions for its own justification. It also produces toxic atmospheric waste.

On Sunday, we witnessed an unconscionable slippage between legitimate and illegitimate force because of a turn to the methods, materials and mentalities of hyper-militarised policing.

Anyone who has ever attended a protest has seen such risk in heavy-handed, machine-gun-toting men. As I have written before, in Manning’s dystopian days of the blimp, I watched a maxi of overly-outfitted guys in riot gear regularly offload at civil society gatherings where they appeared to be the greatest threat to peace.

What’s next? Tanks and amoured personnel carriers (APCs) on the streets?

The government cannot wash its hands of this. Policy direction for policing comes from the Cabinet through the Ministry of National Security. And no head of the TTPS who defends such tactics should ever be Commissioner of Police.

One may disagree with anti-vaxxers, with protests occurring without police permission, with gatherings that can irresponsibly increase the covid infection rates, with poor civic leadership that fails to properly manage marchers’ risk, with religious resistance to public health interest and science, and with refusal to disperse when police ask nicely.

But, as they say, be careful about your silence when riot police come for those you think should have stayed home or behaved themselves or had permission or been more orderly or held more sensible views.

Tomorrow, when it is our peaceful gathering, shouts of injustice or legitimate anger, police will have a precedent for wielding chemical weapons against me and you.


"Trinidad and Tobago must condemn tear-gas use"

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