Two months ago, London mayor Boris Johnson declared its support to the water cannon as a potential anti-riot weapon for the London police. This comes as an additional step toward the universal militarization of the police (see past article) conveniently combined to a capitalist arm market in which too many have too much to loose not to encourage the conditions that require their use. In an article entitled “White-washing the water cannon: salesmen, scientific experts and human rights abuses” for Open Democracy, Anna Feigenbaum establishes a short history of the use of this weapon in the United Kingdom as well as points out a lack of research on its effects on the bodies affected by it.
It was only last year that the hundreds of thousands occupiers of Gezi/Taksim and other public spaces of Turkey were violently attacked by zealous policemen — so zealous sometimes that they would hide their matriculation — often armed with these water cannons. The latter had the particularity not to be loaded with plain water but with water mixed with chemicals that triggered burns on the bodies targeted (sometimes even inside buildings) by them. Associated to the ubiquitous teargas canisters, the Turkish modified water cannons were paradigmatic of the will to control the atmosphere of the public space by acting on its toxicity as Philippe Theophanidis brilliantly pointed-out in his Funambulist Paper, “Caught in the Cloud: The Biopolitics of Tear Gas Warfare.”
This modification by the Turkish police of the fluid triggered by the cannon is highly illustrative of the point made by Feigenbaum in her article: what defines the label “less lethal” for the marketed militarized police weapons corresponds to a virtual use of it “by the book,” i.e. by following the instructions that do actually match the label. When one sees the amount of severe wounds or deaths that occurred through the use of these “less lethal” weapons like electroshock guns or rubber bullets, we realize that these instructions are not often followed, and that policemen might actually use these weapons even more eagerly that they are being told that they are more harmless. The use of the water cannon is certainly following the same logic.
Another example of its ability to trigger other fluids than plain water is visible through the use of dyed water (see old article) used in South Africa, India, Israel, South Korea, Uganda, Bangladesh and Hungary that ‘tags’ the bodies touched by it. That is another characteristics of the water cannon, it marks the bodies it targets: in normalize use, through the characterization of wet bodies while in the case of dyed water, through the application of a bright color on bodies that unmistakably distinguish them for hours. Similarly with the recent infamous text message sent to the occupiers of the Maidan square in Kiev that read “Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance,” the wet or dyed body is thus marked and characterized as rioter and thus become a privileged target to the suppressive forces. It is also worth mentioning that the fact of being wet or ‘painted’ while fully dressed also represents a certain form of humiliation that makes everything said by this body less seriously taken.
In conclusion, one thing ought to be noted: unlike a certain amount of weapons (that tackle other problems), the water cannon, just like the tear gas canister, is a weapon that appear as absolutely specific to the massive suppression of public gatherings. What this means is that whatever institution that purchase them is anticipating its use against the citizens it is suppose to represent (in the specific context of representative democracy regimes), which appears as contradictory to the terms of the social contract (hence the need of “states of exceptions”). Such interpretation might be perceived as naive and theoretical, but applied to practical situations, it translates into the fact that there does not seem to be any legitimate use of this kind of weapon that targets massively with no distinction between individual bodies since it acts at the scale of the ‘atmosphere’ as mentioned above, rather than at the body’s one. In other words, if a demonstrators throws a molotov cocktail at a cop, or breaks into storefronts (on the contrary of what the press seems always so eager to show us, it is almost always an individualized event), this specific body can be targeted within the legal proportions of its unlawful behavior. The water cannon and the teargas canister, on the other hand, assume the gathering as being fundamentally unlawful and targets every body situated in the public space with no distinction of behaviors. They thus manifest the fundamental paranoia made of despise and fear that the authorities (whether the police or the institution ordering it) have for the bodies gathering in the public.