Clouded judgment

What do we talk about when we talk about banning tear gas?

What do we talk about when we talk about banning tear gas?

This is our newsletter-first column, Microtones. It runs on the site on Fridays, but you can get it in your inbox on Thursdays by signing up for our email newsletter.

Madison is sizing up its political will to keep police from using tear gas and military-style weapons. At this past Tuesday’s meeting of the Madison Common Council’s Executive Committee, Alders debated two resolutions, one that would ban the Madison Police Department from using tear gas as of November 17, and another that would limit MPD’s use of the federal 1033 program, which provides excess military weapons to local law enforcement around the country. The committee adopted the 1033 resolution and voted down the tear-gas resolution. Both still have to work their way to a vote on the full Council, so neither of these is a done deal yet.

Both of the proposals debated on Tuesday are essentially watered-down alternatives to resolutions that Alder Max Prestigiacamo introduced in July, which would have prohibited MPD from buying anything through the 1033 program, and would have provided a more rigid ban on tear gas. The alternate tear-gas proposal gives MPD a little more latitude for winding down the use of tear gas and studying other “crowd-control tools,” as The Capital Times has reported. The alternate 1033 policy still allows MPD to buy gear through the program, but with more oversight from the Common Council.


Even flawed versions of these policies would help the city tamp down on the indiscriminate violence MPD has committed during recent protests against police brutality and systemic racism. There’s still plenty of hope that we’ll at least get something out of this process. But Tuesday’s discussion took place along the wrong baseline. 

Alders on the Executive Committee mostly made this a discussion about what the police need in their toolkit to manage a given situation. Really, it should have been about reacting to these situations—from protests to incidents involving people with severe mental illness—with someone other than cops, skill sets other than violence. And given that it’s a war crime to use tear gas in other contexts, no one should want police to have it in the first place.

Alders Zachary Henak and Barbara Harrington-McKinney especially seemed concerned that police needed to maintain their access to various alternate weapons—often categorized under maniacal euphemisms like “less-lethal” and “chemical agents”—so that they wouldn’t have to default to shooting at people with their service weapons. Acting MPD Chief Victor Wahl has used much the same narrative, arguing that “less-lethal” weapons save lives. Well, sure they do—within a limited and warped paradigm. Similarly, Wahl has claimed that tear gas and other “crowd-control” weapons are meant to de-escalate protests. Anyone who was on the ground during the late May and early June riots knows that these weapons accomplished the opposite.

Henak claimed during Tuesday’s meeting that he hadn’t heard of any historical examples of mismanagement of the 1033 program. I suppose he’s right about this, in a way. When local police use things like tear gas and mine-resistant vehicles, to terrorize the public, they’re fulfilling the purpose of the 1033 program and the historical purpose of American policing itself—social control through state violence. Henak also argued that banning tear gas would hamper MPD’s ability to provide “mutual aid” to other police agencies in the area. If you’ve done even some surface-level reading on anarchism, his use of that phrase in a police context probably made your brain feel like a toaster with a fork stuck in it. We want other cops from around Wisconsin to be able to come to Madison and gas people here. We want Madison cops to be able to go to other communities and gas people there. It’s a neighborly exchange of suffocating, eye-burning poison and it must be preserved, especially during a respiratory virus pandemic.

Banning tear gas is only one part of the much bigger debate about police brutality, but the way our leaders talk about it is revealing. Let’s keep demanding bigger things, and replace elected officials who can’t deliver.

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