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Banning tear gas in Madison shouldn’t even be a debate

The Common Council should unanimously pass a new resolution restricting MPD’s use of “less-lethal” weapons.

I have one of Defense Technology Inc.’s line of “chemical agent” canisters. That’s a euphemism for a tear-gas grenade. I found it on the ground on State Street while covering the riots there on May 30. As best I can tell, it’s the top third of a device that pops apart into three pieces, each one spewing clouds of noxious chemicals that burn the eyes, inhibit breathing, send people running down the street in near-blind stampedes, and linger in the air so long and so powerfully that they’re bound to harm people nearby who had nothing to do with dispersing a crowd.

That day, I picked it up with some napkins and stuffed it in my backpack. When I got home I put it into a container of water, thinking I should rinse out any lingering harmful chemicals and make it a bit safer to handle. So now I have one small Talenti container (endlessly useful around the kitchen!) of toxic sludge, which I think I should return to the Madison Police Department one of these days. And in another container, over my desk, sits the remnants of this maniacal device. I didn’t want a souvenir. I just wanted evidence in case anyone tried to deny that the cops repeatedly used tear gas. It also serves to remind me, a white man who grew up with money and doesn’t usually have to worry about run-ins with police, of the casual and cruel violence the state will use against its own people.

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At the Madison Common Council’s July 14 meeting, Alder Max Prestigiacamo introduced a resolution “to prohibit the Madison Police Department from using tear gas, mace and impact projectile devices as crowd control measures” and another “to prohibit the Madison Police Department from obtaining any property from the Defense Logistics Agency under the 1033 Program.” (The 1033 program transfers military gear from the Department of Defense to your local police agencies. The Marshall Project has a great database, where you can find info about the things cops across the country, including MPD, have gotten through 1033.) The Council will debate these resolutions and vote on them at future meetings. As The Capital Times’ Abigail Becker has reported, there’s a separate proposal that would require MPD to stop using tear gas as of November 17 and to study alternatives, from Alders Patrick Heck, Shiva Bidar, District 5, and Keith Furman. 

Prestigiacamo’s resolutions offer the kind of firm checks the Common Council need to be placing on MPD right now. The other is a bit more wishy-washy and suggests that some alders haven’t fully come to terms with what it takes to grapple with the impunity and brutality of policing in the United States. Either way, all three indicate that there’s a decent bloc of the Common Council that’s unhappy with MPD’s response to the protests and is willing to take material actions to hold MPD to account. Granted, we know that simply writing down new rules for cops only does so much, because cops routinely violate the law and their own departmental rules and lie about it. But the Common Council has the power of the purse, and can use it to keep MPD from acquiring weapons that it largely uses to abuse unarmed civilians. 

The Common Council should adopt the resolution banning MPD from using tear gas, mace, and projectiles. Neither MPD nor any police agency should have access to tear gas or pepper spray or any other such chemicals, which I’ve personally witnessed large crowds of riot cops used on absurdly small groups of protestors. The city should never pay for these weapons. It should also confiscate and dispose of any such weapons that remain in MPD’s armory. 

Any Alder who votes against prohibiting their use should be driven out of office and public life at the nearest opportunity. There are no two ways about it. Get it the fuck done.

The United Nations prohibits the use of tear gas in warfare. In other words, it is a war crime. Legal loopholes give cops an opening to use tear gas against civilians for “crowd control” in settings that aren’t war. The dissonance here is absurd. It’s also at odds with the violent reality of life and power in the United States. Police here have always been at war, and on an increasingly militarized footing, against dissent and against racial, social, and economic equality. A country in which a fascist race cult holds much of the state’s political power and civilians increasingly feel the need to take to the streets and push police out of their communities is a country at war with itself. But whether you consider yourself to be at war or not, doing something to civilians that you couldn’t do to other combatants is irredeemably vile. 

So let’s call this what it is. The Madison Police Department and reinforcing agencies including the Wisconsin National Guard and Wisconsin State Patrol committed war crimes against civilians during the weekend of May 30. 

No doubt MPD and its political defenders will say that “chemical agents” were an unfortunate necessity, because people mobbed State Street and damaged property and this was the only way to make them go away. This is stupid on many levels, and ignores the reality on the ground. Yes, people smashed up businesses on May 30 and 31, in some cases stealing a bunch of inventory. From everything I personally witnessed and all the information I’ve been able to gather, it seems that people broke into Goodman’s Jewelers before the police crackdown, but that most property damage and theft happened after the crackdown.

When considering a riot that involves a show of force from police, we can’t discount the role said police had in actually fomenting the riot. More to the point, the tear gas didn’t actually make people go away; it drove them to stampede up and down the street and it prompted more protestors to show up in solidarity. 

MPD has claimed that a few people arrested during the protests had guns, but no other reports indicated that BLM protesters were armed. Some of them broke shop windows and stole stuff—but last I checked, looting didn’t make a war crime any less than a war crime. Throwing rocks or water bottles at more than adequately shielded riot cops doesn’t make a war crime any less than a war crime. 

Various MPD officers and their leadership are war criminals.

We can debate endlessly the silly language police use to talk around the fact that they’re using tear gas. They’re generally not the brightest bulbs, but they are undeniably brilliant when it comes to obfuscation and officialese. “Chemical agents” is the go-to phrase for any police official who wants to elide the issue in a press conference—but there’s no hemming and hawing about how this stuff feels. Even when the air isn’t visibly clouded with tear gas, you can walk into the stuff and immediately experience burning eyeballs and pulmonary discomfort. During the protests, my colleague Alice Herman and I encountered people who were having panic attacks, and the fact that tear gas hampered their sight and breathing did not help matters. It’s repulsive and painful and it’s an affront to the conscience for one human being to use it on another.

Police are also using tear gas as the world battles a deadly respiratory virus, a problem Isthmus‘ Kori Feener has broken down in great detail. Protestors have been incredibly careful about wearing masks and preventing the spread of COVID-19, or at least as much as they can when holding large public gatherings. Tear gas makes people cough and cry and spew mucus. People who’ve been tear-gassed seek relief by having other people pour water or milk onto their faces. How is MPD not directly responsible for increasing the public health risk of a pandemic? Doesn’t this represent a greater threat to our community than smashed windows and downed statues?

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In June, the Common Council unanimously blocked an MPD request to spend $50,000 on launchers that fire “sponge rounds,” part of the ever-growing array of “less-lethal” weapons available to law enforcement. Even Ald. Paul Skidmore, perhaps the Council’s most virulently pro-cop member, seemed to realize that this would be the worst possible time to give MPD more stuff to shoot at people. 

MPD Acting Chief Victor Wahl, in the unmatched sensitivity and wisdom we’ve come to expect from police, argues that cops need “less lethal” weapons at their disposal because otherwise they will have no other choice but to shoot people with their standard-issue handguns and other firearms. Wahl has disingenuously told protestors he has little power to influence the city budget debate, but in a blog post this week he made his case for funding “less-lethal” weapons. Wahl’s post detailed an incident in which MPD officers used a Taser and one of the aforementioned sponge-round launchers to subdue a man in a mental-health crisis. This man, Wahl writes, had a “large butcher knife” and “indicated that he was intent on forcing officers to shoot him.” The officers on the scene used their “less-lethal” weapons instead of their guns, and took him to a hospital.

Just for argument’s sake: If the police narrative is true, a distraught and mentally ill person attempted what we often crudely call “suicide by cop.” He failed because the police shot him with weapons that are not as deadly as guns, though still sometimes deadly. And so now we have a test case for giving police money to get more weapons that shoot things other than metal-coated bullets. We have an argument for why these weapons should be in every squad car and available to every MPD officer. 

We don’t know this man’s name or the specifics of his situation. We can also safely assume that when it comes to severe mental illness, people will sometimes have to deal with volatile or violent situations, no matter the context. But still, we must examine how we get to a scenario where someone is attempting to die by suicide via a police officer’s gun. 

For one thing, without knowing this person’s history of treatment and attempts to get help, we can’t assess whether better public funding for professional mental health care, on an ongoing basis and without economic burdens, would have reduced the likelihood of a violent crisis. But we do know that it’s hard enough to get access to mental health care in Dane County even if you have good health insurance, and that it’s exponentially harder for people dealing with poverty and other forms of social instability.

Second, what happens to the concept of “suicide by cop” if we stop responding to mental illness with people trained to kill? Why don’t cops want out of situations that other elements of our threadbare social safety net should be handling instead? To what extent do severely mentally ill people engage in violent behavior because they are up against a lack of good, easily accessible resources? Don’t we get into a lot of these situations in the first place because mentally ill people know that our society will respond to their crises with violence, treating them as messes to be cleaned up and controlled rather than as human beings who need professional treatment? 

I defy you to witness a person being Baker Acted, to witness a person you love being committed to the average psych ward, and believe that a system that depends on police for mental-health intervention is a system built on healing rather than a system built on containment and disposal. When people do get into these crises, isn’t a system that can only think of shooting someone with a projectile, no matter its degree of lethality, fundamentally primitive and broken?

I hope the person Wahl used as a budgetary pawn gets the treatment and healing he needs. I hope that person’s family has support and treatment as they deal with their own trauma from this event. Everyone should be able to get mental-health care without worrying about costs or administrative bullshit. 

Instead, we’ve got a world where police can count on very generous funding compared to most other public services, and people who desperately need help just have to keep on hoping.

Subduing a mentally ill person and attacking a crowd of protestors are very different things on the surface. But in each case, we’ve basically got people’s rage and desperation boiling over and police responding with violence that will likely just make it worse. In each case the state is essentially saying “don’t make me shoot you,” as if the presence of its own heavily armed agents did not inherently escalate the situation. In each case we are asking the wrong kind of institution to do the wrong job.

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