No Pepper Spray on Nonviolent Protesters

posted 2/25/03

A Short and Sordid History of Pepper Spray

By Detective Habanero

(Note: this article appeared in "Fire in the Eyes," a chemical weapons primer insert in the Yule (Dec/Jan) 2000 issue of the Earth First! Journal.  Journal authors often write under colorful pen names Habanero is the name of one of the hotter chile peppers.)

Dating back at least to ancient China, we can find the fiery lil' red chili pepper's stinging bite used not only as a zesty spice to a meal, but also as a weapon. The Chinese put ground cayenne in rice paper and flung it in the face of their opponents, and Japanese ninjas used ground pepper to disable opponents as well. During Japan's Tukagawa Empire, police used the "metsubishi," a box used to blow pepper into the eyes, as an instrument of political torture against the dispossessed.

Chemical agents, from primitive to complex, have been sparking pain, revenge, or riot for ages now. Mustard gas, an oily volatile liquid, has long been used in warfare as a gaseous blistering agent. Tear gas, a.k.a. CN (Chloroacetophenone) gas, was first created in 1870 in Germany. In World War 1, CN gas was used against the Germans. CS came out in the 1950s, and was named for the two scientists that created it, Corson and Stoughton. Orthochlorobenzamalononitrile is the actual compound name. Like CN, CS is a white crystalline powder that is heated and exploded as gas. The end of 1999 saw a modernized CN, along with pepper spray, used by the Seattle Police during the epic WTO (World Trade Organization) protests.

Today in the United States, chiles are processed, mixed with DuPont emulsifier, and sprayed at people of all sorts, but particularly folks that usually get the brunt of America's police state: youth, people of color, those lacking capital, mental institution patients, elderly people in "homes," and political dissidents. Basically, anyone who gets in the way of business as usual.

Pain as a corporate/governmental tool of repression is obviously not a new thing, but the modern chemical concoctions we now find launched, sprayed, and swabbed on us are dangerous not only for the painful pepper, but also for the distilling solutions, toxic additives, and propellants used. Little, if any, real research has been done on the long-term effects of chemical agents, and there is essentially no regulation. Like genetically-engineered foods, toxic waste, and other abominable industrial civilization schemes, chemical weapons are an unknown and we, and the Earth, are the experiment.

Pepper spray in particular stands out as the newest and least-researched of the bunch. Also known as oleoresin of capsicum (OC) spray, pepper spray was originally introduced in the U.S. in the 1980s by the Postal Service as a dog repellent. It was also used on bears and other animals. The FBI endorsed it as an "official chemical agent" in 1987 but it wasn't until 1991 that more than 3,000 local law enforcement agencies added it to their arsenals. This surge of interest hinged on a widely-circulated and influential study by FBI special agent Thomas Ward. As the FBI's chief expert on OC, Ward peddled the painful stuff like he was in a state of police-state-hallelujah.

On February 12, 1996, we find Thomas Ward pleading guilty to a single count felony for accepting a $57,500 "kickback" from the manufacturers of Cap-Stun brand pepper spray. The second-largest company in the growing pepper spray industry, Cap-Stun also happened to be owned by Ward's very own wife, and, coincidentally, was the exact brand recommended by Ward as far back as the mid-'80s. Initially facing a $250,000 fine and five years in prison, Ward got off with two months in prison and three years probation. The FBI responded to his conviction by proclaiming it would continue using Cap-Stun since it was "unaware of any basis for finding that pepper spray is and effective." Ward's corrupt study is still cited today as justification for use of OC. Yet in Ottawa, Ontario; Berkeley, California; and Tucson, Arizona; police departments have chosen to stop using pepper spray due to the controversy (and costly lawsuits) it brings with it.

Pepper spray use continues to be debated, and the skepticism about this unpredictable weapon is growing. As we enter into the 21st century, chemical weapons are used more and more by the police as yet another tool to protect corporate profit and the status quo. There have been an increasing number of pepper spray incidents at protests, often with nonviolent demonstrators being doused in the caustic chemical. In countless, outrageous circumstances, OC spray is used in discriminatory ways on low-income people of color.

Since the early '90s, over 100 people have died nationwide after being pepper-sprayed by police officers. Especially when restrained, people have suffocated or their hearts have stopped beating. In regard to long-term risk, the U.S. Army has reported in internal documents that pepper gases and sprays are carcinogenic and mutagenic. Pepper spray incidents have also shown it to be fairly ineffective at subduing combative people, instead making the recipients more angry.

On top of all this, OC falls through the cracks of FDA (Food and Drug Administration) regulation by not being a "food" or a "drug." The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, which oversees household products like toys and toasters, requires pepper spray to carry the same kind of warning label used for all possibly hazardous products, but that's the extent of its regulation. This required warning label ironically reads "Warning irritant, avoid contact with eyes." [For those who want to know what's in these chemical agents, "material safety data sheets" can sometimes be obtained (this is where you'll find things listed like DuPont emulsifier).]

However, OC is finally starting to be looked at with a critical eye and many groups are working to have it banned. Convicted FBI agent Ward's promise was that it is "100% effective". A late-1997 Berkeley Police Review Commission study found OC to not only be a "serious" health risk, but also ineffective at stopping an attack 53%-63% of the time. This study, amidst the larger political climate, led to Berkeley banning it. In May 2000, a pivotal appeals court decision was won by activists sprayed and Q-Tip-swabbed with pepper liquid while protesting the logging of ancient redwood trees. The win gets the activists another jury trial (the first was split 4-4) and holds the top officers personally liable.

Additionally, and this is more important than any study or verdict, people are hanging together and staying strong despite ever-increasing police brutality. With civil rights suits, demonstrations, sneaky antics and sass, and through the act of community itself, we are nurturing self-survival and a healthy distrust of the cops.