Update, Aug. 12: Defense One has published a follow-up article, which can be found here. Through an open records request, they subsequently confirmed that the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, which can play a role in policing civil unrest in Ferguson under special circumstances, had obtained 14 1.4 liter units of Skunk. Defense One also confirmed that Mistral sold Skunk to the police department of Bossier City, Louisiana.
Editor’s Note, May, 1 11:01pm: This article first appeared in Defense One, a sister publication to Quartz. After Quartz republished it, Defense One noted the following correction on its website.
CORRECTION: In the original version of this article, Stephen Rust, general manager of Mistral, a seller of the chemical called Skunk, claimed to have provided the substance to law enforcement agencies in Ferguson, Mo. Ferguson officials, who did not respond to repeated inquiries for comment before publication, contacted Defense One the day after publication and denied they possess Skunk. Subsequently, Mistral ignored repeated requests for clarification by phone and email. At the company’s headquarters in Bethesda, Md., when asked to respond to the Ferguson officials’ statement, Rust said, “No comment.” He went on, “If I have to tell you one more time, I’ll have you arrested and taken off the premises. Leave! Leave!”
Quartz has removed all comments from, and references to, Rust and Mistral from this story. The headline and first paragraph of this story have been edited to reflect this.
As protestors and police officers clash on the streets of divided cities such as Baltimore, Maryland, and other divided cities, it’s unsettling to consider the idea of US police departments stockpiling a highly controversial weapon to control civil unrest.
It’s called Skunk, a type of “malodorant,” or in plainer language, a foul-smelling liquid. Technically nontoxic but incredibly disgusting, it has been described as a cross between “dead animal and human excrement.” Untreated, the smell lingers for weeks.
The Israeli Defense Forces developed Skunk in 2008 as a crowd-control weapon for use against Palestinians.
The Israelis first used it in 2008 to disperse Palestinians protesting in the West Bank. A BBC video shows its first use in action, sprayed by a hose, a system that has come to be known as the “crap cannon.”
In another BBC video, an IDF spokesman describes how any attempt to wash it via regular means only exacerbates its effects. Six weeks after IDF forces used it against Palestinians at a security barrier, it still lingered in the air.
The US military has been experimenting and researching malodorants in various forms for years. A 2008 presentation from defense contractor General Dynamics describes a stink grenade that the company developed with the Army called the XM1063, which can be fired from a 155mm artillery gun. The development of malodorants remains an ongoing research project, according to documents related to Office of Naval Research’s fiscal year 2015 budget.
In some ways, Skunk is less physically dangerous than tear gas or rubber bullets. It doesn’t sting, but rather triggers a flight response in the amygdala. That could make it usable in combat settings where other crowd-control agents like tear gas are forbidden by the Chemical Weapons Convention, or CWC. “If a particular malodorant is disseminated with a concentration that does not activate the trigeminal nerve, it may not require designation as an RCA [riot control agent] under the CWC,” Kelly Hughes, a spokesman for DOD Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Program, told New Scientist in 2012.
But what seems like a viable alternative to bullets in a war zone becomes more disturbing in the hands of domestic police forces, particularly those who have soured relations with the communities they serve.
For police forces, there is obvious appeal for means for controlling a situation from a safe distance without causing permanent physical injury.
To those who have been hit with Skunk, the experience is akin to being doused with “shit.” In the words of one Palestinian protester, “It makes you feel inhuman.”
There’s something nightmarish about the potential for use of a weapon like Skunk in the context of a divided American city. The spraying of feces agents on a crowd of US citizens represents a tangible and absolute reinforcement of social division. There is no more complete way to dehumanize someone than to make that human repulsive to herself.
The poisoning of a place also serves as a ghastly method of desecration, destroying any will to reside, congregate, protest, or even document a location until the owner of the weapon elects to clean it away. It is not only a means of crowd control but also, potentially, a system for maintaining new apartheids.
If it smells like an act of war, it is.