You are never quite able to forget the first time you are teargassed. If you’re lucky, you see the teargas being fired and have time to make sure you get out of the canisters’ ballistic paths (police often aim for your head when deploying them). Almost immediately, the loud hiss of the gas pouring out of the cans drowns out almost every other sound. The white clouds rapidly engulf you, obscuring your vision and seeping into your lungs through your lips and nostrils. The sharp burning in your lungs and sinuses brought on by the gas leaves with you with the impression that you’re not getting enough oxygen, causing you to desperately gasp for more breath which only allows more of the gas to pour in, increasing the effects. The experience invariably leaves an affective imprint on you, as you become severely aware of your dependence on the air around you precisely at the moment it is filled with gas and becomes acidic.
A demonstrator throws back a teargas canister in Istanbul, Turkey.
The images of people’s uprisings that circulate on social networks are often characteristically marked by these curious white clouds; they have become the visual hallmark of social struggles the world over. The long term health effects of tear gas are well documented, as are their increasingly popular use at demonstrations. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of tear gas is produced by U.S. weapons manufacturers and sold to governments around the world in a kind of neoliberal counter-insurgency arms trade. Tear gas is established as the weapon of choice for modern police forces when dispersing crowds because of its ability to be deployed across entire environments; it’s a weapon that fundamentally changes the existential conditions in which the protests take place.
The use of tear gas comes to be expressive of an attack on the human condition itself, a weaponization of the atmosphere upon which we all rely, an offensive against the very circumstances that make life possible in the first place. The violence enacted through the toxification and acidification our shared environment is meant to transform the space of the common into a hostile territory, a space incapable of supporting human life. Clouds of teargas effectively declare: “Your form of life is no longer welcome here”.
Clashes between police and demonstrators in defense of Gezi Park.
However, most remarkably, the gas that is meant to drive people out of public spaces, to break up gatherings, to make it impossible to remain together in the streets, often has the opposite effect. While the trauma of being exposed to tear gas is not to be discounted, people in the momentum of a collective struggle somehow manage to find the courage to stay together, to care for each other, and even to return to the affected area to face new confrontations. As common as the images of police firing tear gas into crowds are, even more common are the images of people picking up the canisters and throwing them back at the lines of police, of using antacid solutions to wash off each others’ faces and neutralize the effects of the gas, and of people running into the clouds to help wounded protesters escape.
In response to the police’s attempts to make it impossible for people to stay together by enacting a violence on the possibility and conditionality of life itself, protesters respond in kind, by enacting the collective forms of care and resistance which equally make life possible. The uprisings of the last years, from the U.S. to Spain to Egypt and now Turkey, all have taken this form of organizing against the conditions of precarity. These were not movements shaped by marches or petitions, but rather centered themselves on the construction of occupations and encampments, producing the contexts in which new relationalities and ways of being-together in the world could unfold. Each of these movements were expressive of a desire, and perhaps a need, to be together and care for another in the space of the common, to refuse to simply ‘care or fight for ourselves’ but to fundamentally begin ‘caring and fighting for each other’.
Turkish protesters on Mayday finding each other in acts of resistant care.
The ways in which people have repeatedly resisted the existential violence of teargas points to a way of being in the world that exceeds simply satisfying the need to endure a situation, or to preserve life, but rather fundamentally comes to be about reproducing the conditions the shared struggle itself. Not only do we live out our lives together and depend on others to continue living, but our struggles equally necessitate imbricated and resonant forms of support and care to allow for them to grow in intensity and have duration; our care for each other allows for us to fight together.
Austerity, as an economic and social policy enacted in response to the economic crisis, aims to remove many of the ‘common’ forms of support and welfare historically provided by states by shifting more of these services to market-centered approaches. It is no wonder, then, that the movements that have arisen to resist these policies take the form of generating autonomous systems of care, ones that cut the state out of the loop and prefiguratively carve out new kinds of spaces and relationalities. These fights never exist in social vacuums in which hero-protesters spontaneously wash over lines of riot police in a one to one correspondence, as neoliberalist imaginaries would like us to believe. Rather, these fights exist and resonate the through the channels of the social space itself, calling upon mobile and dynamic flows of solidarity and antagonism in the struggle to produce the conditions for new forms of collective living and shared antagonism.
Riot police disperse the crowd at Taksim Square in central Istanbul.
Resistance that comes to matter historically requires that we not only take the necessary risks brought about by the fact of being in the streets together, and enduring the attacks from the state that typically follow, but in tending to the conditions that allow for the reproduction of the shared struggle itself. This means protecting and caring for those we find ourselves in the streets with, and also in protecting and caring for the relationships that allow us to resist and fight back against attacks that threaten our ability to collective endure. Teargas acts according the logics of conditionality, by attacking the existential bases which allow for collective and shared resistant relationalities to unfold. Our resistances must always respond in kind, by collectively attenuating to the reproduction of our shared conditions of struggle in the face of such existential violence.