What has tear gas done to Portland?

(Portland facing a wall of federal teargas. Photo credit: Austen Lethbridge-Scarl)

Last Friday, OPB published an article asking what many of us have been wondering: What’s all this tear gas going to do to the environment?

If you’ve been to Chapman or Lownsdale Square during the day lately, you’ve probably noticed the lingering smell of tear gas. It’s in the ground. As of this writing, we’ve had three consecutive nights without tear gas, but people’s footsteps kick it up, bringing back its effects.

Despite the name, most tear gas isn’t actually a gas. It’s particulates, specks of irritating powder that float in the air before settling…somewhere. If you’ve hand washed anything that’s been exposed to it, you’ve probably felt your hands tingle. It doesn’t disappear.

And we have no idea what it actually does! Tear gas sends menstrual cycles into overdrive and is a known abortifacient. That’s scary, but what’s even worse that we don’t know why. If messes with the reproductive system, what else is it doing to us? And what’s it doing to literally everything else?

This is, unfortunately, how things go for tools of war. The long-term effects are an afterthought.

By far the most notorious case of this is Agent Orange, used during the Vietnam War to kill foliage and later shown to have truly horrific side effects that still plague the people of Vietnam and the American veterans who deployed it. And it’s not like we’ve learned. Depleted uranium is still used by the US military, despite the harm its radiation has done to the environment, the Iraqi people and, again, the American veterans who deployed it.

If governments don’t care about the effects of their weapons on humans, they definitely don’t care about the effects on anything else. It’s unfortunate that one of those governments has been the City of Portland. Foucault’s Boomerang is coming home, and it’s hitting Portland first.

Portland is now the most tear gassed city in US history and we’re waiting for the consequences. Our current drought means it hasn’t left our sewer system yet, giving us an opportunity to try to filter it out before it ends up in the Willamette (thanks, climate change), but how are we going to get it out of Lownsdale Square? Once we get some rain, it’s going to mix into the soil and it’ll be too late. We’re going to be seeing its effects for years to come.

Never forget that before the federal agents showed up, it was the Portland Police who were flooding the city with tear gas, and if it wasn’t for their sustained brutality, we would have never been the testing ground for federal abuse. Portland is supposed to be a green city, but so much of this was inflicted by our own government.

Mayor Ted Wheeler is the police commissioner and still refuses to fully ban tear gas (any ban that contains an “unless” isn’t a ban). This makes me seriously question his commitment to Portland’s ecology and puts the shortcomings of the Climate Emergency Declaration in a different light. If nothing else, it should put him into serious conflict with the parks commissioner…who is also Ted Wheeler.

Nobody knows what the effects of tear-gas-as-pollution are going to be. It’s tragic and shameful that Portland has volunteered to find out.

About Austen Lethbridge-Scarl

Austen Lethbridge-Scarl (he/him) is the editor of the XRPDX newsletter. Besides climate issues, he focuses on racial justice, police abolition and antifascism.


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