Pepper Water and Protests in Haiti

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Pepper Water and Protests in Haiti

Scott Freeman

Tear gas is not uncommon in Port au Prince. Over the past decade, whether it has been protests over food shortages, controlling political demonstrations, or ‘peacekeeping’ actions by the infamous MINUSTAH UN forces, tear gas and other methods of crowd control have been a reality of the political and social landscape in downtown Port-au-Prince. A veteran reporter in Haiti told me that he had developed all sorts of strategies to deal with tear gas, ranging use of lime under his nose to more preventative measures like always having a paint masks handy.

But as of late, a new method of mass crowd control has been quite literally ‘sweeping the streets’ in the capital of Haiti. A type of pepper spray spiked water is being shot out of water cannons and into crowds of protesters. Dlo grate, or itching water, as it is referred to in Haitian Creole, is a now common term in Port au Prince. While not all have felt its devastatingly powerful effects, knowledge of the new tactic is widespread throughout the city.

The visit of French President François Hollande was the backdrop for the most recent student protest and excessive police response. Student protests are not uncommon in Port-au-Prince, and for the past years these demonstrations have often targeted the government in power. On May 12th, outside of the Faculté d’Ethnologie, the storied home of Haitian anthropology and site of many student demonstrations, 50 or so university students protested the arrival the French President– the first official state visit of any French President to Haiti. Given that Hollande had just rescinded an offer of reparations to Haiti for the damages of slavery and exploitation (officials insisting he was talking about a ‘moral debt’ and not a financial one), such a protest was largely predictable. Other protests in the plaza of Champ de Mars supposedly numbered around 200. During the day of his visit, students and protesters chanted ‘Nou pa esklav anko!’ (We won’t be slaves again), invoking France’s historical role as a slave owning colonial power, and hinting at the continual neocolonial tactics used by France and the broader international community. Some students provocatively dressed as slaves outside the university campus.

During the late morning that Tuesday, I was in the second floor computer of the Faculté d’Ethnologie preparing a seminar that would be cancelled 45 minutes later. I could hear student chants that had been building for an hour or so. But new noises soon entered the air-conditioned room, and students sitting around me got up from their computers to see what caused the loud commotion.

From the second floor balcony, we could see that a black armored national police truck had parked itself outside of the walls of the school. On the top of this tank, visible over the wall, was a large turret fixed with a water cannon. The noise we could hear was the water that was being shot at students, occasionally hitting the metal door of the courtyard. The demonstration was non-violent (a Professor later remarked that he saw one student throw a stone, only to be quickly reprimanded by other demonstrators), yet the tank was parked right outside the courtyard, knocking students to the ground with a surge of water even when they were inside the gates of the university. From its position higher than the university walls, the water cannon was policing actions of even the students inside the gate.

Students closed the large metal barrier to protect themselves, and continued making noise by slamming on metal doors and gates to make themselves heard. Yet the police were not satisfied with mere containment: tear gas was lobbed into the courtyard of the campus. This was not the first time that police had lobbed tear gas into the courtyard of the university. Students dissipated into corners in the courtyard and those watching from the second floor balcony ran and took cover in classrooms. Shortly after, chants began again and the students opened the gate, the water cannon ready to knock them down. The back and forth continued, students being hit by water blasts, getting up and continuing to chant – now “down with Hollande” was the rallying cry.

This changed quickly when the color of the water blasts became a shocking neon blue. Back on the second floor balcony, I turned to one of the 15 or so students who were watching the scene unfold and asked why the water had changed color. “It’s dlo grate” he said, indicating with an itching motion the effects of the water. We watched on, but not two minutes later, the cannon fired a jet of bright blue water into the university courtyard. Though no water reached the area where we stood, within seconds screams erupted from all of us and we ran into the nearest classroom. Vapor alone from the jet of water had spread across the courtyard and entered into our eyes and noses. Our faces burning, we ran for cover. Once inside a classroom, students, teachers, and administrators rubbed their burning eyes, sneezed and coughed. The water had not even touched us. Minutes after the water was fired, the protest was over.

The combination of intense and incapacitating chemicals and the pure force of a fire hose, all mounted on top of what can only be described as an urban tank, is a terrifying and violent turn in urban policing. It is not merely that this arsenal is at the disposal of police forces, but that they are used to contain peaceful protests. The tactics of such crowd control invokes powerful images: the use of fire hoses to control pacific protests echoes the policing strategies used to combat the US civil rights movement of the 1960s. Recent police violence in the US, the killing of Freddie Grey in Baltimore most recently, forces us to contemplate how violent policing of black and brown citizens is an issue that reaches far beyond the United States. Given the aid channels that connect the international community and the Haitian government, who exactly supplies the Haitian National Police with this equipment and chemical agents?

Haiti is not the first country to have such methods used against its populous- similar strategies of water mixed with a pepper spray compound were reported when police attempted to control protests in Turkey in 2013. The use of massive water cannons against small student protests in Port au Prince parallels not only a rise in militarized policing globally, but also indicates how the Haitian government uses tactics of containment just months before national elections. To the chagrin of the US State Department that championed his candidacy in 2010/2011, Haitian President Michel Martelly now rules by decree. After postponing elections for years, there is now no functioning legislative body, and local government has seen no sign of democratic election since Martelly’s rise to power. In the rural area where I do research, the communal administrative representative has been in power for nearly 9 years, and according to residents, has almost nothing to show. Legislative elections are scheduled for August, with Presidential and local elections scheduled in October. What elections will hold is still unknown But freedom of the press and an independent judiciary has since disintegrated: Haitian lawyers and journalists who have spoken out against the government have been threatened and fled. In this context, containment of peaceful student protests takes on a concerning significance.

Violent responses to protests are certainly not new to Haiti. But the control of pacific student protests with a fiendish set of chemicals should draw our attention not only to the ongoing trends of global police violence, but also to the specifics of Haiti, where a government attempts to silence and contain. This is particularly significant given the history of student protests in Haiti. The over-use of force during student protests in 1985-86 against Duvalier, specifically the shooting of three students, sparked further protests throughout Haiti and played a significant role in marking the end of the Duvalier regime[1]. In December of 2003, attacks on student movements (though not at the hands of the government) provoked a massive backlash and marked the end of Aristide’s second term[2]. While as of right now these levels of violence against students have yet to occur, we should keep this historic context in mind as we watch for the continued use of chemicals and force to control peaceful expression.

As elections approach later this year, burning eyes may be the least of concerns.

[1] Powers, Roger S., William B. Vogele, Christopher Kruegler, and Ronald M. McCarthy. 1997. Protest, Power, and Change: An Encyclopedia of Nonviolent Action from ACT-UP to Women’s Suffrage, vol 1625. Taylor & Francis.

[2] Dupuy, Alex. 2006. The Prophet and Power: Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the International Community, and Haiti. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

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