The chaos of tear gas

Okay, folks.

This is 2:42 seconds of a critical time in last night’s protests, taken around 11:30pm Pacific time on the night of July 21st in front of the Hatfield courthouse. My BFF and I are in the front rank, the only people in front of us are a couple of press people who walk briefly in front of us. You won’t see it, but about halfway through someone with a shield comes up and kneels in front of me to protect me (though I didn’t want it or ask for it). I didn’t tell the shield carrier to buzz off and find someone who actually wanted protection, but if this is ever you, please ask permission before you actually touch someone’s body. My shield carrier actually grabbed my arthritic knees in what they thought was a reassuring gesture just before the tear gas was fired. Don’t be that person, okay? Okay.

Now the video:

Elsewhere on the internet, at least one person posted a video (now retweeted multiple times) of the same feds advancing on the Wall of Moms at the exact same time as some of the later scenes in this video. That wall of smoke you can’t see through off to the left in that video? That’s where myself & my BFF are standing, hacking up our lungs until I vomited (only a little, thankfully) into my mask and lost my glasses in the street. I tried to pick them up, but it was hopeless.

For those who aren’t familiar with tear gas, there are “better” and “worse” varieties. I’m told this was a less harmful variety, possibly pepper spray gasified. It’s also true that I’m a lot less healthy and a lot less in shape than a lot of people, but this was terrifying for me. It prevents you from getting sufficient oxygen, and that sets off some primal reactions. Although I’ve never been water boarded, I’m told that despite the fact that you never completely run out of air (since they only pour water on you for so long) your body doesn’t know when it’s going to get its next breath and you panic. That deeply biological panic is supposed to be the source of the torture that causes people to agree to do whatever their torturer asks.

I felt that panic.

Because of my bad joints and my crutches, I could not clear the area faster than they were advancing the line of tear gas grenades. I was one of the very last people, if not the very last person, to clear the block. I was opening my eyes for a brief moment to try to plan a way forward, then crutching forward literally blind for ten to twenty feet, stumbling, catching myself but straining my damaged joints, begging the universe for oxygen. Other people did not seem as badly affected, and perhaps that’s not being in good aerobic shape, or perhaps it’s because it took me so long to clear the area, I’m not sure. It was bad for everyone, but horrifying and terrifying for me.

To reiterate: I had done nothing illegal beyond jaywalk – and that was earlier in the night, not in front of these federal officers. There could not have been anything I had done that would justify inflicting panic was so bad that I didn’t notice my vomit inside my mask until many minutes later. I’ve only ever been very distantly affected by tear gas at protests when I was in a back rank, and that was a couple decades ago.

It was my intent to simply remain calm and remain still and let myself be affected by the gas. i knew it would suck, but I also knew that this gas is hardly ever fatal, and I don’t have asthma or any known breathing difficulties (besides just being out of shape) that would constitute real risk factors for that. And I have been calm in dangerous situations. I once fell asleep with a candle going beside my bed only to wake up and find my comforter fully engulfed in flames, with me still under it. I was calm then, did exactly what I needed to do to put out the fire and take care of myself. I hadn’t panicked, I was very detached – almost dissociated – and coolly competent. I thought I could be just as calm and just as dispassionate in the tear gas.

I was wrong. This shit will fuck you up. It will make you gasp. It will l make you wretch. It will make you vomit. In the midst of your violent coughing fits, it will make you pee yourself. That coughing can be so bad it will make you shit yourself. You will not be calm, you will not be detached. You will be blind and panicked and desperate for a breath that you cannot find, with only instinct to guide you away from the chemical inflicting this torture.

I’m enough of a middle-class white lady to tut tut with my BFF about the fireworks people set off, and about banging on the doors of the courthouse, since it was clearly intended to make the cops inside feel uncomfortable. Maybe you’re at home and you’re thinking, sure the feds overreacted, but it’s not like they had no reason at all to fire that gas.

Let me make it clear: there can be no reason to fire that gas. If they had people they wanted to arrest, they could easily have done that. Save for the one person at the video’s beginning that’s being held down by 3 and sometimes 4 agents, they didn’t even try. In fact, they already had that one person in full control and custody before the tear gas was used. There’s simply no way that any of you would condone mass waterboarding. I want to make sure that you don’t think for a second that this use of tear gas is any different.

Whatever law enforcement job they have to do, this tear gassing of protestors is just wrong.


  1. says

    Going into a roomful of CS gas is a part of US army basic training. So you say: your lunch comes violently out your nose and you are suddenly blind.

    The International Red Cross tried to restrict tear gas use for social control but the US, Israel, and UK said “nope.” I believe the Chinese just use live ammo…

    These are crimes against humanity in Portland Streets. USA!

  2. Marja Erwin says

    It makes sense if you’re trying to inflict casualties, torture to spread fear, or with pepper spray, induce seizures.

  3. sonofrojblake says

    Going into a room full of CS gas is part of British Army basic training. Most people react violently as described… the first time. This is why you train. Preparation for the effects mitigates them – the panic is lessened considerably the second time, and by the tenth time the physical effects are unpleasant but not hellish because you’ve trained your body to understand that it’s not about to die. Also: my training corporal informed me that they had one or two like me in every training platoon – the bloke who takes off the mask, recites name, rank, serial number and date of birth, reddens slightly in the cheeks and… goes about his day. In my case, having to pick my buddy next to me up off the floor and carry him out of the room over my shoulder because he was unable to stand, much less walk. A small unpredictable minority of the population aren’t affected by CS much at all. I’ve only been gassed “in anger” once, in a nightclub in my old home town where there was a feud going on between rival gangs of door security. Everyone else left the bar in a coughing hurry, I sat sipping my drink and wondering what the hell was going on. The firefighter in the BA coming into the club was surprised to meet me staggering out (the staggering was due to the alcohol – I only even realised I’d been gassed when someone else outside told me). I’ve often thought that a properly organised protest, staffed on the frontline by people with my peculiar lack of sensitivity, would give those doling out the gas a nasty shock. Consider: those doling out the gas are of necessity wearing gas masks that considerably limit their ability to function. A line of motivated trained individuals who aren’t reacting to the gas would be a horrible surprise.

  4. sonofrojblake says

    I just had an ironic idea: there’s money to be made training protesters. You (any civilian) can pay money to be taught how to storm a building by folks who learned how in special forces. How about learning how to deal with riot police from former riot police? Acclimate to CS, find out your susceptibility, practice street movement tactics… If this course doesn’t exist already, someone should start one. Come November when the election result is disputed and martial law is declared, it might come in handy. I can see the flyers now : “Learn to smash capitalism – $500 weekend course, concessions for students, pensioners, disabled and former law enforcement. Journalists pay double”

  5. says

    Thanks for your ideas, sonofrojblacke!

    It was hard to tell if my reaction to the gas was because I’m particularly sensitive to it, or just because I spent longer in it from being at the front and moving slowly while leaving it. But my BFF who was near me the whole time seemed to get it less bad than I did, so I assume that either she’s a bit resistant or I’m a bit vulnerable. Everyone was having a bad time of it, but clearly some worse than others.

    I do hope that the next time I get a lungful that it’s a little less bad, a little less panicky, and if there were a training course that could have helped me with all this, I would definitely have taken it.

  6. says

    I favor the French method: build a wall around them. I don’t think they realize that they are surrounded by an entire city. And there’s, what, 50 of them? I wonder how they’d react if some people approached them under a white flag and asked them to surrender peacefully.

    They are not military; they are goons. Anyone who had been in Afghanistan or Iraq would know better than to cluster up like they do, or to hide in the front of a building, which is basically a deathtrap. Any non-goon would immediately see that they are in a terrible tactical situation.

  7. says

    I see Trump just announced a “surge” of federal goons to Chicago. I am disappoint that the press did not ask hjm “surge? You mean like we do when we are losing an insurgency?” For fuck’s sake, can’t they call it a “fail”?

  8. lochaber says

    Also prior enlisted here, and I sorta looked forward to the annual mask-testing that involved tear gas. I found it really great for clearing out my sinuses.

    But, I have no idea how what we went through compares to a tear gas grenade – we were all clustered shoulder-to-shoulder in a little cinderblock hut, and the person running the test was emptying little pill-sized capsules onto a tiny little campstove/bunsenburner type thing. If anything, I wouldn’t be surprised if they kept the dosage towards the bare minimum, just to keep the Staff Non-Commisioned-Officers and Officers in there with us from getting angry and causing their command some grief…

    Another thing, is I think there is a lot of confusion around tear gas and pepper spray – not just by journalists and bystanders, but also by the reports of the people using it. And, although I’ve been lucky enough to never experience it, some of what you wrote sounds a lot more like what I’ve read about people experiencing pepperspray/OC(oleoresin capsicum, I think?)

    I might fall into that segment that sonofrojblake describes, I would often take off my gas mask once they opened the door to release us (and sometimes closed it again when they saw me or others remove our masks…), and it bothered my eyes, but I didn’t really have much trouble breathing it, let alone anything like what you experienced. I really doubt what I encountered in training was what you encountered in the streets, whether it was just much more concentrated, a “worse” formulation, laced with OC, or just straight up OC, or something else, it sounds like it was pretty bad. And, uncalled for, and a completely unjust response to a valid 1st amendment gathering and airing of greivances and such.

    Try to stay safe out there, and thanks for blogging what you are seeing and experiencing.

  9. says

    some of what you wrote sounds a lot more like what I’ve read about people experiencing pepperspray/OC(oleoresin capsicum, I think?)

    Yeah. When Trump cleared the park by the White House and claimed no tear gas was used, there was a bunch of back & forth about whether that was true. It turns out that they were using OC grenades.

    But it ALSO turns out that the CDC classifies aerosolized OC as one form of “tear gas” which they take to be a colloquial expression and not identifying only a single chemical. So I’m following the government classification system, but I am aware that it’s not necessarily CS gas and could be OC.

    And maybe I am more sensitive, I really don’t know. It’s possible. It’s also just possible that I spent more time in the cloud than anyone else and was right in the middle of the initial volley so got a large dose (a possibility you mentioned).

    So, yeah. Who knows? I may not be giving the best information about the exact chemical, but I’ll keep calling random aerosolized agents that limit breathing and irritate the eyes and through “tear gas” as long as the CDC does.

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