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The history of teargas

Opposition demonstrations in Kenya are often marred with the destruction of property, running battles with law enforcement and theft- vices sometimes caused by looters and detractors taking advantage of the mass demonstrations to carry out their own agendas.

Kenya law enforcement authorities, including Kenya Police and the General Service Unit, often respond to the demonstrations with crowd control measures such as using water cannons, firing rubber bullets, or using tear gas.

The water cannons spray demonstrators with water laced with pepper spray. When the demonstrators disperse in several directions, using tear gas canisters becomes more efficient to disperse them from gathering and continuing their protests.

So used are opposition supporters to the use of tear gas that many often tell the law enforcement authorities, jokingly, to pack enough stock and not use expired products as was seen in the March 20, 2023, Maandamano (demonstrations) called by Azimio La Umoja’s leader Raila Odinga.

Also read: Layman’s advise on how to avoid Maandamano drama to and from work

Other demonstrators were quoted in media telling anti-riot police that they would not be leaving the streets until the police ran out of tear gas and that tear gas had become a sweet smell to some of them because they were used to it.

And so, what is the history of tear gas, and why is it a staple for law enforcement when carrying out their crowd control and dispersion duties?

According to the Science History Institute, tear gas was invented by the Germans and was first used in 1921. Scientists created a tear-inducing chemical- chloroacetophenone- which was manufactured into a micro-pulverized powder such that when it is dispersed in the air, it causes victims to cry uncontrollably, experience irritated breathing and escalating pain.

National Geographic also reported that tear gas is a solid or liquid that turns in aerosols when dispersed in the air via use of sprays, grenades, canisters and shells as well as fog generators.

A number of chemicals are used to make tear gas, and they include the main active ingredient, oleum capsicum (OC which is chili pepper oil), capsaicin, the extremely pungent smell which is a byproduct of pepper spray and CS, a gas containing 2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile, a highly electrophilic agent activating pain receptors.

Also read: Why police withdrew Azimio politicians security

The Science History Institute found that the weapon was used during World War One “in dispersing waves of attackers, stinging opponents’ eyes to spoil their aim and otherwise rendering soldiers inoperative.”

Soon, war veterans from the United States of America’s Chemical Warfare Division oversaw a series of tear gas tests and sales to police departments across their country to battle organized crime.

To test its efficiency, 200 Philadelphia policemen were exposed to the tear gas chemical and no sooner had the gas been fully exposed to them than they ran away weeping.

By 1923, chloroacetophenone (tear gas chemical) was available in more than 600 cities worldwide- it transitioned from a war time weapon to a police tool.

It is not advisable for people with asthma or other conditions to be exposed to tear gas because victims can suffer from respiratory complications, severe injury and burns.

The second opposition demonstrations are set to take place on Monday, March 27, and Thursday, March 30, 2023. The opposition is demonstrating against the runaway high cost of living in Kenya as well as against President William Ruto’s presidency from an allegedly stolen election.

Also read: Raila vows to ignore Police ‘ban’ on protests