To weapons companies, Turkish protests sit alongside terrorism as another sales opportunity. It’s time to stop the mass poisoning.
This picture of Ceyda Sungur being sprayed with teargas has become a symbol of the protests in Turkey. Photograph: Osman Orsal/Reuters
In the wake of the protests in Turkey, much has been written and said about the iconic “woman in the red dress” pictured in Istanbul’s Gezi Park. But there’s another story in the photograph that has been circulating around the globe. What do we know about the spray can in the policeman’s hand?
First developed for domestic markets in the 1920s, teargas dispensers expanded from first world war grenades to a series of other hand-held contraptions. Everything from fountain pens to police batons were designed to shoot out spurts of poison. Early industry leader, Lake Erie Chemical Company, promoted its gas as “an irresistible blast of blinding choking pain”. These weapons quickly caught on, bought in bulk by police departments, colonial outposts and prison security guards.
In the 1960s mace sprays came on to the market following advancements in aerosol technologies. Lake Erie again led the way, packaging its product with holsters designed by Smith & Wesson. But it wasn’t until Kamran Loghman worked with the FBI to develop a weapons-grade pepper spray that teargas really caught on as an everyday control agent.
By 1991 Loghman’s invention was on the utility belts of police across the United States. Soon after, similar sprays reached Canada and the UK, with growing exports elsewhere. It didn’t take long before legal cases arose from sprays being abused during arrests to harass and, at times, torture people. By 1995 more than 60 deaths from this “non-lethal technology” had already been reported in the US alone.
Point-blank pepper-spray blasts continue today, from Occupy pensioner Dorli Rainey to Turkey’s woman in the red dress, Ceyda Sungur. But as Sungur reminds us, she was far from the only one pepper-sprayed that day at Gezi Park. With 628 tonnes of teargas ordered by Turkish authorities since 2000, there is plenty to go around.
While people on the streets flush out their eyes with lemons and soda, leading teargas exporters cash in on Turkey’s uprisings. Companies making a profit out of world protests include US-based Combined Systems, Inc., Federal Laboratories, the Orwellian-sounding Non-Lethal Technologies and Brazil’s Condor Non-Lethal Technologies.
These chemical weapons manufacturers trot their wares around the world, showcasing the latest devices for international buyers at convergence centres such as London’s Counter Terror Expo and Qatar’s Milipol. Profiting off the Arab uprisings, the Middle East’s internal state security market segment increased 18%, reaching a value of €5.8bn in 2012.
Teargas, and the wide array of projectiles that “weaponise” it, make up just one part of this vast counter-uprising economy. Since the mid-1990s, counter-resistance products began to be mass-marketed, drawing on the Northern Ireland and Israeli “experiences” in the occupied territories to bring weapons such as rubber bullets to broader markets.
Today, while people around the world face austerity measures, the counter-terrorism industry is predicted to grow by 20% until 2020. Among police, the Home Office and other military buyers, this year’s 2013 Counter-Terror Expo held at Kensington Olympia played host to Bahrain’s Royal Guard Commander Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, one of the men accountable for 34 teargas-related deaths at the hands of security forces.
With the recent wave of uprisings since 2011, the counter-terrorism industry has embraced and cultivated this expanding market for repressing dissent. In promotional materials, the Arab spring gets listed alongside al-Qaida as a reason to purchase more security products. This further blurs any division between crowd control and counter-terrorism, justifying ever more excessive force and repression.
The corruption behind those capitalising on protest has led to an upsurge in campaigns against teargas. Spearheaded by the War Resister’s League, Facing Tear Gas brings together organisations across the US, Bahrain, Egypt, Greece, Canada, Chile and Palestine “to form a global initiative to ban teargas”.
Even those not yet ready to call for a ban are demanding an end to the deceitful language of non-lethality. More pressure must be put on governments to fund independent inquiries into the death rates and serious injuries from teargas abuses as well as the long-term health effects from exposure – both issues even the experts know little about. All import and export sales of teargas should also be made publicly available. It is time we held our governments accountable for their mass poisoning of people at home and abroad.
07 July 2013