Distraction Free Reading

Tear Gas as Punishment

Colorful collage illustration which provides information about how to handle teargas and pepper spray at protests

(Public Domain, from the zine: A Direct Action Handbook)

Tear gas is a chemical weapon that was developed in the early 20th century and has been predominantly used by police or military forces to stifle political unrest. As a result, tear gas serves as a manifestation of state violence; by forcefully reminding us of our need to breathe, its function is to break collective solidarity. Over time, the tactics surrounding tear gas have evolved and become more militarized. Typically, this has looked like both a general greater use of tear gas at protests, and the development of tear gas as punishment. As a researcher of radical, left-wing social movements in the United States and the security technologies used by the state to suppress them, tear gas is particularly interesting to me because it serves as a security technology par excellence. By examining the interplay between state use of tear gas to punish activists and the protestors fighting against it, we catch a glimpse into the racial capitalist operations of the United States and where it is vulnerable to resistance. This essay examines the police tactic of kettling, how it is wielded to punish activists, and how radical left-wing organizers respond.

As a security technology, tear gas has always, to some extent, extended the punitive logic that is part and parcel of carceral technologies (Rodriguez 2006; Adelsberg 2015), and so it has always carried with it an element of punishment (Davis 2003). We can see this in its use by prison guards against incarcerated people, who are trapped behind bars with the caustic fumes of tear gas, unable to seek fresh air, and whose lives and wellbeing are left unprotected by the state (Gilmore 2007). Behind bars, the use of tear gas is framed as a necessity for breaking up riots and protecting guards, but underneath this justification is the idea that the punitive violence inflicted by tear gas serves as a kind of rehabilitation. As scholar of mass incarceration Lisa Guenther argues, the narrative of rehabilitation provides cover for carceral systems by justifying extreme violence as necessary for reforming supposed social deviance (Guenther 2013).

However, beginning in the 1960s the punishment aspect of tear gas shifted from a peripheral utility to a central motivation for deploying the chemical weapon. Throughout much of the radical 60s and 70s, tear gas was used explicitly as a form of punishment, instead of crowd control, in order to break the spirit of social movements and attack its most dedicated members. Scholar Anna Feigenbaum describes this function of tear gas clearly when she writes,

Its dual function as a physical (dispersing) and psychological (demoralizing) force meant that a certain amount of civil resistance to new rules and regulations could be easily contained. Further, because these weapons could now be legally used against peaceful or passively resistant demonstrators to make them “look silly,” authorities were no longer as threatened by new nonviolent forms of collective action. Tear gas became a go-to tool—not only for suppressing the masses but for calculatedly undermining acts of civil disobedience (Feigenbaum 2017, 61).

The punitive logic of tear gas and the increasing militarization of policing has led to strategic innovations with tear gas that have come to define the tenor of contemporary protest policing. Perhaps the most violent of these strategies is the tactic of kettling. The basic principle is straightforward. When the police deploy tear gas, they are supposed to provide a clear path of egress (California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training 1994, 51-53). Tear gas works quickly and does not require repeat exposure to inflict debilitating respiratory irritation, so additional exposure from being trapped with it is deemed needlessly cruel by training materials. This is why tear gas in prisons and jails is particularly punishing. A lack of egress means that people are overexposed to the weapon, often for hours at a time. Kettling borrows this tactic from prisons and jails and weaponizes the cruelty of tear gas for protests.

In a kettle, police surround the protest crowd and cut off avenues of escape before flooding the streets with tear gas. Kettling produces two immediate effects. The first is a panicked mob whose sensory perception of the area has been deeply limited by tear gas exposure. In the crowd of smoke, it is far more likely for protestors to injure each other as they try to flee for an exit that doesn’t exist. The second is that it continually exposes protestors to tear gas. This creates quite literally prison-like conditions in city streets, where tear gas is transformed from riot control to punishment.

The tactic of kettling is widespread, and wields tear gas as a form of collective punishment for the most dedicated organizers and protestors (Neal, Opitz, and Zebrowski 2019). This is evidenced by the fact that police can’t kettle large crowds because they will always be outnumbered by civilians by an order of magnitude that makes it logistically infeasible. For example, if you have a group of 500 police officers trying to manage a crowd of 15,000-20,000 people, it will be nearly impossible to keep protestors from breaking through any barricades the police set up for the kettle, especially after tear gas is used and causes panic. Kettling thus requires there to be a close proportion of police to protestors in order to be deployed (Posadas and Teknomo 2016) as well as a strong control over space, both of which come later in the night following protests when most of the protestors have dispersed and the police have had a chance to lock down areas.

The people remaining are typically the most dedicated activists supported by legal observers, street medics, and protest marshals, who all have defined roles at the protest and a responsibility to stay until the crowd completely disperses. Performing these roles often means being tear gassed more often and more brutally than the average protestor. The overrepresentation of support activists among those kettled is known by the police; they broadly monitor the identities of organizers serving in these roles as part of their standard intelligence operations (Passavant 2021; Levinson-Waldman 2024). Kettling serves as a de facto punishment for the most dedicated, and an attempt by the police to chill political participation by demoralizing protest infrastructure with harsh, respiratory violence.

There is also a public-spectacle element of kettling. As Mark Neocleous writes, “Such force, fear and awe are to be experienced not only by those in the kettle but also by those watching, for whom the kettle appears as a spectacle of absolute police power and hence a form of deterrence” (Neocleous 2021, 184). Additionally, Michel Foucault argues that the goal of punishment is ultimately framed as a way to prevent the specter of mob violence (1995, 34-35). Punishment is, at one level, about inflicting pain, but as Foucault points out it is also about establishing a social order. As he writes, “the punishment is carried out in such a way as to give a spectacle not of measure, but of imbalance and excess; in this liturgy of punishment, there must be an emphatic affirmation of power and of its intrinsic superiority” (ibid, 49). Kettling represents a malicious combination of militarized policing tactics and tear gas as visible punishment, with the cruelty of the punishment intended as a deterrent for the public and a reminder of the overwhelming violent power behind the state. Following Foucault, kettling as punishment is a form of statecraft that reaffirms the singular right of the racial capitalist state to determine punishment.

Yet, the fact that medics, legal observers, and marshals who have experienced their fair share of tear gas are only emboldened to resist the police in the face of kettling is a testament to the power of social movements to resist racial capitalism. In response to the power of the kettle, organizers have developed a set of tactics to resist. While the kettle itself is difficult to fight against when deployed, activists use both preventative and post-hoc strategies to mitigate the violence of the kettle. I will highlight two examples of this by way of a conclusion.

Protest marshals are a key preventative measure. This is a role taken on by organizers of a protest and they typically wear a safety vest or some other distinguishing uniform and guide the protestor crowd. When faced with the possibility of a kettle, marshals strategically navigate a city and use their home-grown knowledge of the terrain to avoid placing the group in an enclosable environment. It sounds like a simple responsibility, but the police will follow the protest and close off streets to force the crowd into a kettle or a confrontation with a police blockade. This means that marshals have to respond quickly and leverage their local knowledge to ensure collective safety. In effect, marshals are not only keeping a crowd organized but also waging a geographic struggle against the police, using their familiarity with the terrain to prevent cops from inflicting collective violence and keeping activists safe.

Documentation of the kettle is another important component of keeping people safe, this time after a kettle occurs. As the police use the spectacle of the kettle to discourage protestors, activists respond by documenting this violence and using it to demonstrate both the violent intentions behind protest policing and the acts of care taken by activists after a kettle. Recognizing that protests always carry the risk of police violence, organizers will document and share their experiences with kettling on social media or through journalists to highlight the brutality of the police. During the 2020 uprisings, documentation was an incredibly effective tactic to reshape public opinion and reinforce the point of the protestors that the police were a force that exists purely to inflict racial violence (Speri and Mannon 2021). In Charlotte, North Carolina for example, activists captured over a hundred hours of footage of a kettle and used this documentation to sue the police department and curtail their power. This effort led to a four year ban on the use of tear gas and kettling, and it further engrained a collective understanding of the brutality of police violence (WBTV 2021).

As tear gas attempts to break apart crowds through exercising punishment, the collective spirit of solidarity on display by protestors provides glimpses of alternatives to this logic of punishment and the statecraft it implies. There are other examples of resistance in the face of police kettling worth discussing, and activists continue to innovate responses to the kettle. For now, it’s important to highlight that the support infrastructure of protests is premised on an ethos of collective care that fundamentally challenges the respiratory violence of the kettle and tries to restore the breath of activists stolen by punishing tear gas.

An illustration which also provides written details about how to best dress for a protest

(Public Domain, from the zine: Health and Safety at Militant Action)

This post was curated by Contributing Editor Gabrielle Hanley-Mott.


Adelsberg, Geoffrey, ed. 2015. Death and Other Penalties: Philosophy in a Time of Mass Incarceration. First edition. New York, NY: Fordham University Press.

CPOST. 1994. Basic Course Instructor Unit Guide: Firearms/Tear Gas. https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/Digitization/147042NCJRS.pdf.

Davis, Angela Y. 2003. Are Prisons Obsolete? Open Media Book. New York: Seven Stories Press.

Feigenbaum, Anna. 2017. Tear Gas: From the Battlefields of World War I to the Streets of Today. London ; Brooklyn, NY: Verso.

Foucault, Michel. 1995. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan. 2nd Vintage Books ed. New York: Vintage Books.

Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. 2007. Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. American Crossroads 21. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Guenther, Lisa. 2013. Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives. Nachdruck. Minneapolis London: University of Minnesota Press.

Levinson-Waldman, Rachel. 2024. “Directory of Police Department Social Media Policies.” Brennan Center for Justice. February 7, 2024. https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/directory-police-department-social-media-policies.

Neal, Andrew, Sven Opitz, and Chris Zebrowski. 2019. “Capturing Protest in Urban Environments: The ‘Police Kettle’ as a Territorial Strategy.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 37 (6): 1045–63. https://doi.org/10.1177/0263775819841912.

Neocleous, Mark. 2021. “Kettle Logic.” Critical Criminology 29 (2): 183–97. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10612-021-09569-x.

Passavant, Paul A. 2021. Policing Protest: The Post-Democratic State and the Figure of Black Insurrection. Global and Insurgent Legalities. Durham: Duke University Press.

Posadas, Vector Ion, and Kardi Teknomo. 2016. “Simulating Police Containment of a Protest Crowd.” SIMULATION 92 (1): 77–89. https://doi.org/10.1177/0037549715621388.

Rodriguez, Dylan. 2006. Forced Passages: Imprisoned Radical Intellectuals and the U.S. Prison Regime. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Speri, Alice, and Travis Mannon. 2021. “Ambushed by the Cops: When Police Deliberately Trap Peaceful Protesters.” The Intercept, June 2, 2021. https://theintercept.com/2021/06/02/kettling-protests-charlotte-police/.

WBTV. 2021. “Civil Rights Groups, CMPD Reach Agreement in Lawsuit Filed after Controversial Treatment of Protesters in 2020.” Https://Www.Wbtv.Com. July 23, 2021. https://www.wbtv.com/2021/07/23/civil-rights-groups-cmpd-reach-agreement-lawsuit-filed-after-controversial-treatment-protestors-2020/.


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