The Forgotten History Of Mace

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Oakland police use Mace during Oakland’s “Stop the Draft Week” October 16, 1967, the largest anti-Vietnam war protest in the San Francisco bay area to that date, in downtown Oakland. (© William James Warren/Science Faction/Corbis)

In May 1968, in front of photographers and television cameras, Sheriff Joseph Woods wiped a tear from his eye. As an unyielding ex-Marine who hadn’t hesitated using force against protestors in Chicago and its suburbs, Woods wasn’t really the crying type. He was tearing up because he had just been shot by mace—which, he argued, “is a very humane weapon.” The television cameras were broadcasting his attempt to try and prove his point.

Mace was only four years old at this point, and hadn’t even reached the consumer market yet—but in its short lifespan, it had already been transformed from a tool of private protection to a front-line weapon of riot control. Strangely enough, it began as the household invention of a young Pittsburgh couple who kept an alligator in the basement. Over time, from Los Angeles to D.C. to Ferguson, it became a ubiquitous and potent symbol of both justice and injustice.
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