• Protecting democratic protest from suppression by use of sublethal chemical weapons

    by  • December 11, 2011 • Everything Else • 3 Comments

    I have decided to do something to prevent the abuse of chemical weapons by police.

    If I was a lawyer I might sue. I’m an engineer: I design.

    So I am presenting a simple plan for a chemical weapons protection system which is suitable for construction by peaceful protesters.

    I am aware this is a technology which could be abused, however (as I will explain in a moment) I consider this to be a reasonable risk under circumstances where widespread punitive use of sublethal chemical weapons is a routine fact of life for many peaceful protesters.

    The Ethical Case
    Sublethal chemical weapons like pepper spray were originally intended as an alternative to lethal force like firearms. They were sold to the public as a solution to problems like a senile man with a knife: you can disable him with relatively low risk using pepper spray, or you can shoot him with a firearm, but there’s no other way to disarm him that doesn’t put a policeman’s life in danger in close combat with a knife-wielder.

    As an alternative to firearms or other likely-lethal force, sublethal chemical weapons have considerable utility.

    However, as we’ve seen recently in America, pepper spray and CS gas are being used in a different way: punitive torture using chemical agents (punitive chemical torture for short) is being used to punish people for protesting. This is problematic for multiple reasons, but two likely have legal force.

    Firstly, torture is not a means of punishment which is recognized as legitimate under US law, European law, or international treaties on human rights. The United Nations explicitly takes a stand against it, as does the European human rights system. Therefore punitive use of torture using chemical agents is likely illegal in the spirit of the law, even if it is temporarily legal by the letter of it in some jurisdictions.

    Secondly, police do not have the ability to impose summary judgement, and punishment. Even if chemical torture was a legitimized punishment for certain classes of crimes (“protesting and third class trespass, GUILTY!”) police do not have the ability to decide who is guilty or not guilty and hand out punishment: that’s the court system’s job, not the police’s. This is a very simple argument to make, and the usurpation of powers indicated by police action in this respect is much more in line with the kind of thing you might see under martial law than normative legal conditions.

    So on this basis, I feel it to be necessary and important to do something to reduce the damage done by likely-illegal punitive chemical torture by police and other actors. As noted, I’m a designer, not a lawyer, so here is my solution.

    Improvised Sublethal Chemical Weapons Personal Protective Equipment – Not the Riot Snorkel

    In the early phases of this project, I used the nickname “riot snorkel” for what I had designed. This name is not suitable for general use, because it includes the word “riot”, but as a working title it remains. I apologize for any confusion this may cause in future. This device is designed to protect peaceful protesters from improper use of sublethal chemical weapons.

    The ISCWPPE (“isc-wipe”) has three phases tiers of deployment.

    Firstly, one takes the mouthpiece from a cheap snorkel and pulls off the snorkel. The mouthpiece is joined to three or four feet of garden hose, which is run down the back of the protester and invisibly positioned out of sight. One breathes in through the hose-snorkel when pepper spray is in play, the air intake being hidden and protected from frontal assault with a spray. This should probably be paired with a pair of goggles and a nose-clip or a face mask from standard swimming gear supplies to protect the eyes and nose. Critically, this does not obscure the face, and therefore is not a likely to be a mask which police might compel one to remove for identification purposes: I believe the ISCWPPE to be legal. The net effect is that if one is pepper sprayed, the respiratory tract and eyes will be protected from the effect of the sublethal chemical weapon. Skin burns will still be sustained, but the essential functions of the body will be protected.

    The second level of the ISCWPPE connects the end of the pipe to a soda bottle based filter. Take a two litre soda bottle, connect the hose to the top of the bottle. An air intake goes into the bottom of the bottle, in the manner common in water pipes. The air intake tube starts above the level of the top of the bottle, so that liquid does not spill, and passes through the side of the bottle above the water line, while extending below the water line. The entire assembly could easily go in a small backpack, with the pipe from the snorkel going into the top of the backpack in a similar manner to Camelbak-type hydration packs. As one inhales, air is drawn through the water as a series of bubbles. Gravel or beads break up the bubbles, increasing the surface area. Allegedly vinegar counteracts CS gas, which is the primary modality this approach protects against. I cannot vouch for the safety of inhaling air passed through a vinegar solution (secondary drowning?) but this is terrain for analysis by medics, and possible experiment. Field treatments seem to focus on anti-acids like Maalox, but that seems to be for dealing with the impact of the gas post-exposure, where as vinegar-soaked bandanas seem to be used as face coverings. This is going to require experiment.

    Be careful with this! You will also need to add an exhale valve (see the standard N95 dust mask) to enable respiration. An exhale valve could also be fashioned from a tube-shaped balloon – cut off both ends, stretch over the pipe, and air can flow down the length of the rubber, but not back up. It’s a very simple, very durable valve, but may make a strange noise. Try taping a piece of such a balloon to a straw to understand the principle!

    The third level of the ISCWPPE places a plastic bag, sealed at the neck, over the face of the protester. The out breath through the exhale valve expands the bag, producing a clear, flexible bubble around the head of the protester. Pepper spray and CS gas swirl outside of the bubble, while one is safe within. Exhaling continues to keep the bubble inflated. This bubble is at positive pressure, which will stop infiltration by any gas in the environment. However, this setup may be dangerous, as a blow to the head which rendered somebody unconscious without breaking the bag could result in suffocation.

    This is all notional, first-pass work on protecting people, but I don’t know what else to do to stop that abuse of these weapons other than making them ineffective.

    Take care, and be at peace.

    Vinay Gupta
    Hexayurt Project

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    Vinay Gupta is a consultant on disaster relief and risk management.


    3 Responses to Protecting democratic protest from suppression by use of sublethal chemical weapons

    1. Joe
      December 11, 2011 at 11:04 pm

      I’m no expert, but I doubt breathing in acetic acid would be good for the lungs.

      Ultimately I think the design is sound, but would need to do more research on finding a safe reagent – strong acid is unlikely to be the answer IMO.

    2. Joe
      December 11, 2011 at 11:10 pm

      From memory, I think many improvised gas masks use charcoal – I’m not clear whether this would help.. I can’t even find details like the pH of the pepper spray.

    3. zac
      December 12, 2011 at 1:06 am

      I think the legal rationale for chemical agents is one of compliance, not punishment. cops are taught to move up or down a kind of tiered system of force escalation in response to threat, or to ensure compliance. the idea is that spraying or gassing someone is preferable to hitting them with clubs, which they also do, under the aegis of compliance with lawful commands from the police. so if you are being lawfully ordered to disperse, and the alternative is to hit you with clubs, or punch and kick you ( which I have seen )as prelude to arrest, then chemical agents like pepper spray are regarded as de-escalation compared to physical engagement, which is why they get used so often. a lot of protester tactics get construed (often post-facto) as ‘resisting arrest’ or ‘obstruction’ or ‘breach of the peace’ so this is pretext for a certain level of force as well.

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