As the weekend’s brutal drama unfolded at the U.S.-Mexico border, with American authorities firing tear gas across the border fence at would-be asylum-seekers, an iconic image emerged. Captured by Reuter’s photographer Kim Kyung-Hoon, the photo shows a woman wearing a Disney princess T-shirt running from plumes of white gas, dragging two young children with her, both little girls in diapers, one wearing no shoes. The razor wire border fence stretches behind them as they run away.
The logic behind tear gas is one of torture: to render a situation unbearable.
Tear gas burns the eyes and skin. It causes choking, gagging, and temporary blindness. The logic behind it is one of torture: to render a situation unbearable. It also produces a violent spectacle, which is why the deployment of tear gas so often constitutes a media event.
Since the shift from its deployment as a chemical weapon in World War I to its use in putting down anti-colonial uprisings from Ireland to India to Palestine, to its ongoing deployment by domestic governments against dissent, this is how states use tear gas — for repression. In firing tear gas at asylum-seekers at the Mexican border on Sunday, U.S. border agents reaffirmed America’s willingness not only to act as a repressive anti-immigrant state, but to embrace the optics of fascistic cruelty while doing so.
Violence against immigrants at the border is not new and has been far deadlier than Sunday’s tear gas attacks. Just last week, U.S. Border Patrol agent Lonnie Swartz was found not guilty of second-degree murder for fatally shooting an unarmed Mexican 16-year-old through the fence with Mexico in 2012. Swartz claimed that the teen, José Antonio Elena Rodríguez, had been throwing rocks, but José Antonio was found with bullets in his head and back.
The deployment of tear gas, however, provided a visual representation of violence at the border that has proven rare. When they do emerge, the photos are extremely affecting. Think of the images published by The Intercept of migrants’ dead bodies found in the desert borderlands. Or the photos of caged children and toddlers separated from their parents by the Trump administration — and why media access to those detention centers has been under fierce government control.
The violent optics of tear gas, then, represent the affirmation of an existing state of affairs and the strengthening of an anti-immigrant agenda by means of the administration asserting a state of crisis.
It is for good reason that the photographs and footage from the border on Sunday produced outrage, but it would be a mistake to presume this to be some sort of watershed moment for the government’s racist and brutal immigration policy.
Like the disturbing images of children and toddlers in cages, footage and photographs of tear-gassed asylum-seekers prompted numerous Democrats to decry the situation as somehow un-American. California’s Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom tweeted, “These children are barefoot. In diapers. Choking on tear gas…That’s not my America. We’re a land of refuge. Of hope. Of freedom.” Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez tweeted, “Shooting tear gas at children is not who we are as Americans.” Responses like Perez’s and Newsom’s are no doubt preferable to the barbaric comments from the Trump administration defending the gassing. But the outraged Democrats’ comments miss that the use of tear gas against groups and people the U.S. wishes to exclude and oppress has been a common American practice since the invention of tear gas over 100 years ago.
Newsom, 51, and Perez, 57, were perhaps too young to recall U.S. armed forces filling Viet Cong tunnels with tear gas before the chemical weapon was banned for use in international war. But they should recall the clouds of tear gas choking protesters — children among them — at Standing Rock in 2016, or the gas canisters lobbed at teenagers protesting in Ferguson in 2014.
When the state uses tear gas, it does so under the purported rationale of a crisis in need of control. As such, tear gas becomes the mark of state-defined crisis. It can play out in a number of ways — and not always in the state’s favor.
When the Ferguson police released lashings of tear gas at protesters, the images of a poor, black suburb under military occupation drew widespread outrage and increased support for the uprising. The police handling of the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle drew broad censure after so much tear gas was used that summit guests had to be evacuated from their hotels. The use of tear gas by French law enforcement against refugees, including many children, before the Calais “Jungle” camp was torn down, provoked international condemnation, but to little avail for those fighting for the encampment.
None of that means that Sunday’s brutality will work against President Donald Trump simply by virtue of producing outrage. There’s even reason to believe that the spectacle of crisis could work in his favor — and to assume otherwise would be dangerous.
In September 2015, a perturbingly similar scene to that at the U.S.-Mexican border played out at Hungary’s border with Serbia. Around 2,500 refugees fleeing war, devastation, and persecution in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere had set up camp near the border, hoping to cross through Hungary to head further west. Hungary sent hundreds of riot police to block the Horgoš-Röszke border crossing. When a few hundred refugees attempted to breach the border fence, the police shot tear gas and aimed water cannons into the crowd. Images of screaming, gassed children produced international censure and outrage then, too.
Yet the far-right Hungarian government blamed the refugees and doubled down on its virulent anti-immigrant agenda. The government and its supporters circulated images of refugees throwing rocks and attempting to tear down the border fence. The Hungarian government’s invented crisis was made material through the entirely superfluous use of tear gas and riot policing. This fascistic narrative of fictitious immigrant threats continues to win the day.
Like Hungary in 2015, Trump on Monday already used the optics of the militarized immigrant “crisis” zone, which he himself choreographed, to call for tighter border controls, even threatening a border closure. The images coming from the border may be barbaric, but they also present a picture of crisis — something tear gas is most effective in producing — which is entirely what Trump has been working toward conjuring with regards to the migrant caravan.
Even well-meaning outrage at Sunday’s violent spectacle risks feeding a narrative of a border crisis where there is none. The only crises are those faced by the migrants stuck in Tijuana seeking American asylum, which this country can well afford to provide. A violent spectacle is not a turning point unless we make it one.