An Alchemy of Smoke and Flame: The Politics of Tear Gas Use Against Social Movements in the United States

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Virginia Tech


Tear gas is a chemical weapon used by the police to put a stop to protests, riots, and other large-scale political actions. It has been employed for over one hundred years, yet our historical and political understanding of the technology is relatively limited. The historical framings of tear gas are dominated by deference to state and military claims and the biomedical literature furthers this one-sided approach to the security technology. At the same time, many groups have fought against tear gas and fought through tear gas as part of the struggle against state politics. The history of tear gas is deeply intertwined with that of policing and questions of state violence against protest movements. A deeper knowledge of tear gas enables us to better understand how and when it is used against protestors as well as how protestors challenge dominant narratives of security.

As a scholar of Science, Technology, and Society, I am interested in understanding the sociotechnical elements of tear gas and how it operates within racial capitalism. This dissertation asks, in what ways has tear gas been used as a security technology mobilized to protect the State from political dissidents and what lessons can be learned from how social movement activists challenged the sociotechnical narratives surrounding tear gas?

This is a social study of a particular security technology that is used in moments of contestation between State forces (military, police, and weapons industry) and radical social movements. I look at two specific kinds of contestation. The first are historical examples of contestations. That is, the interwar historical context in which tear gas emerges and examples from the 1960s through our contemporary political moment where it is used against social movements. The second is the contested space of biomedical knowledge, which has two major narratives associated with it. On the one hand, mainstream medical literature has examined tear gas using military research labs and military test subjects. This selective research has facilitated claims that tear gas is a "less-lethal" weapon that is practically harmless to those it is used on. On the other hand, social movement activists and street medics who are exposed to it on a regular basis have identified some real concerns surrounding its deployment, thereby challenging claims to its harmlessness.



tear gas, social movements, science and technology studies, atmosphere, social studies of technology