Overnight on Monday, something happened on CNN that got a lot of people up in arms. A white woman anchoring a broadcast asked, “Why are they using tear gas, and not water cannons?” Given the shameful history of water cannon use in the United States, people were understandably somewhat outraged at her suggestion that police might use them.
The thing is, that horrible British CNN announcer is not 100% wrong, asking why the police in Ferguson don’t use water cannons instead of tear gas.
Yeah, I know that’s a statement that is going to make people mad. I can’t say that I’m entirely comfortable with having typed it. The first reaction of many people, her co-anchor included, ranged from side-eye to outright outrage. There are Americans walking around today who were subjected to fire hoses and water cannons as police broke up Civil Rights protests in the 1960’s. Images of water cannon use are still horrifying, decades on.
But, as terrible as it looks, as brutal as it is to be water cannoned (I have to assume, I have not had that experience) the consequences are shorter-lived and less devastating than those associated with the long-term use of tear gas. We, as Americans, are ashamed to be seen using a water cannon, because of their historical use against black bodies, but we are alone among first-world countries. The suggestion that we should use them forces us to confront a painful wound in our past, and instead, we choose to deploy internationally-banned chemical weapons against our own citizens.
Here’s what the National Institutes of Health have to say about CS tear gas (the type that has been deployed in Ferguson):
Based on our current knowledge, if CS tear gas is used by properly trained law enforcement officers and exposed combatants leave the area rapidly, few, if any, significant or long-term human disabling effects should occur.
Their recommendations are that people exposed to the gas leave the area within 10-30 minutes. Kinda hard to remove yourself from the exposure when it’s being shot into your front yard during a curfew, right? Or when you’re asleep in bed and it’s being fired indiscriminately into your neighborhood.
The NIH also acknowledges that there is precious little information about the long-term effects, but acknowledges that some populations are likely to be at increased risk of damage. Who are those populations?
those with asthma or chronic obstructive disease, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease and possibly those taking neuroleptic drugs.
Anybody wanna take a guess about which American populations are disproportionately affected by asthma, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease? Bueller? African Americans, of course, especially those with limited access to quality health care and nutrition.
While it feels extremely shitty to say “water cannons are better than tear gas,” the truth is that there’s not much damage a water cannon in the street can inflict on a kid sleeping at home, unlike the days and days of tear gas exposure. I still can’t believe I’m making this argument, but: a water cannon is a targeted tool. Tear gas is a blanket chemical weapon. Does that mean it’s a good idea to use water cannons? Good gravy, no.
I think every officer currently in Ferguson should be pulled from duty, the National Guard pulled out, Amnesty International and the Red Cross allowed in, and Darren Wilson arrested. Of course, in my fantasy world, Mike Brown would still be alive and in school today, and none of this would be necessary, but that is not the world we live in. I think we’re all right to give Samantha Church all the side-eye we can, but once we’ve done that, we should acknowledge that there’s something to her question. Why are we more comfortable deploying chemical weapons against our own people than facing the discomfort of our own history?