POLITICS
08/14/2014 06:41 pm ET Updated Aug 14, 2014

This Company Is Profiting From Police Aggression In Ferguson

WASHINGTON -- If there's a winner from the militarized police aggression in Ferguson, Missouri, it would have to be the tear gas industry.

Officers bombarded city streets with tear gas for hours on Wednesday night, bathing Ferguson in a noxious cloud. At times, the police assault appeared to target journalists. Citizens have protested for days over Saturday's fatal shooting of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer, who authorities have refused to name.

It's boom time for the tear gas industry, as law enforcement agencies turn to chemical weapon to combat political unrest abroad and protest movements at home. As Sarah Kliff detailed for Vox, the use of tear gas in international warfare is banned by the Geneva Convention -- but it is increasingly a weapon of choice for governments to deploy against their own people.

A June report from Visiongain, a business intelligence consultant, valued the global market for "non-lethal" weapons at $1.6 billion, which it predicted would increase over the next decade. "Our research indicates that non-lethal anti-personnel weapons are becoming increasingly high in demand particularly from law enforcement agencies," Visiongain said in a press release.

The domestic tear gas industry is dominated by three companies -- Jamestown, Pennsylvania-based Combined Systems Inc., Homer City, Pennsylvania-based NonLethal Technologies Inc., and Defense Technology, a Casper, Wyoming-based brand owned by the Safariland law enforcement supply company.

Safariland's Defense Technology appears to be the brand in Ferguson, based on photographs of canisters found on the scene taken by journalists from The Guardian and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Guardian photographer Jon Swaine has also documented explosives in Ferguson that were manufactured by Combined Systems. Ferguson police were not available to comment.

"In the U.S., most police departments maintain stockpiles of tear gas munitions and launchers for riot control," said Sven-Erik Jordt, a professor in the Duke University School of Medicine anesthesiology department. "Defense Technology cartridges were used by police to clear the Occupy protesters in Oakland, for example."

Safariland tear gas has also been deployed in Bahrain, Egypt, Turkey, Tunisia and other countries, according to the War Resisters League, a nonprofit group that promotes nonviolence. HuffPost's Joshua Hersh reported from Cairo in 2011 that the use of U.S.-manufactured tear gas weapons against protesters in Egypt had fueled anti-American sentiment.

Neither Safariland nor the other tear gas manufacturers would comment for this article. They tout their products as humane alternatives to more violent force, though some experts have attributed deaths to tear gas. Safariland has trademarked the Orwellian phrase "Together, we save lives."

The companies aggressively promote their wares to U.S. police departments. The War Resisters League has levied particular criticism at Urban Shield, an annual weapons expo in California that caters to law enforcement agencies.

"The targets are always communities of color and poor people, especially when they are actively struggling for justice. We feel that community's very ability to build movements is on the line," said Ali Issa, a national field organizer with the War Resisters League. "Tear gas and the police militarization that always comes with it do not appear in Ferguson and nationwide in a vacuum." Issa noted that the Department of Defense has been supplying hundreds of millions of dollars worth of "excess" military equipment to law enforcement agencies in recent years.

There are three general types of tear gas. The most common is 2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile, or CS. Other varieties include phenacyl chloride, or CN gas, which Jordt described as more toxic than CS, and oleoresin capsicum, or OC, derived from hot peppers. All make people feel awful.

See updates on the situation in Ferguson below:

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