Last night, police in Ferguson used tear gas on peaceful protesters, and in on particularly dramatic display, turned tear gas on a TV camera crew from Al-Jazeera America.
But what is it like to get tear gassed?
In my experience, tear gas doesn’t hit you immediately, but when it does, the feeling is absolutely overwhelming.
I got my taste of tear gas in late October 2011 when I covered the Occupy Oakland protests in California for the New York Observer.
I wasn’t supposed to be in Oakland that night. For about a year-and-a-half, I had been living in Los Angeles covering Hollywood. Since I’m barely interested in pop culture, when I got an offer to cover local New York City politics for the Observer, I jumped at the chance and broke the lease on my apartment in LA. My route back to the Big Apple ended up including two weeks in San Francisco staying at a friend’s apartment. Because of this, I was nearby when reports began coming out that police were using flashbang grenades and tear gas on the occupiers in Oakland. I jumped in my car and headed to the protests.
The clashes between the cops and occupiers in Oakland were taking place at a barricade just outside of the park where the protesters had made an encampment. Earlier that day, they were evicted from the camp in a pre-dawn raid. The standoff began after protesters attempted to march back into the park and were blocked by the police. Behind the barricade, there were over 100 police officers clad in riot gear. Many of them carried assault rifles and other ominous weaponry designed for launching gas canisters, rubber bullets, and bean bags.
By the time I arrived, the police had already used gas and non-lethal projectiles to try to disperse the occupiers. A marine veteran had been seriously injured when he was shot by a bean bag fired by one of the officers. After about a half an hour, it became clear the crowd was in for another round of gas when police announced over a loudspeaker that the protests were an “unlawful assembly.” They began firing.
I tried to stay on the front line of the protests and film as the cloud of gas pushed the protesters back from the barricade. All of the occupiers ran as the gas cloud rolled towards us. The few of us on the front line weren’t in the thick of the cloud, but we were surrounded by a fog of greenish gas.
In my report for the Observer, I wrote that it was “eerily quiet except for the sound of the gas canisters hitting the pavement and the occasional flashbang grenade.” I could see the flashbang grenades as they erupted in bright, white blasts, but the thick cloud meant I couldn’t see the officers and had no idea whether they were shooting rubber bullets or other projectiles at us. The possibility the gas was hiding a more dangerous assault was terrifying.
I described the gas “acidic” and smelling like vinegar. Today, nearly three years later, I can’t say I remember how the tear gas smelled, but I clearly recall the pain after it hit me. It’s not something you forget easily.
The pain didn’t seem to come immediately. Perhaps it was because I was so caught up in running from the cloud and trying to film it as it hit, but I initially didn’t notice any major effects. However, as I lingered on the edge of the smoke after the officers stopped launching gas, I was suddenly gripped by a pain so intense I nearly fell to my knees.
I’m sure my eyes burned, but that’s not what I remember. The most overwhelming aspect of the pain was an intense tightness in my chest. It felt like my heart might burst or collapse into itself and it was so bad I thought I might be having a serious medical issue. As I doubled over, I actually wondered for a moment whether I might die.
The intense pain soon subsided and I was able to get back to work. There was some burning in my eyes and throat, but it was hardly debilitating.
I stayed at the protests for a few more hours. There was another round of gas and grenades, but I missed it. A local news station that saw me tweeting from the protests asked me to call in to their nightly broadcast and explain what was happening, so I had retreated to my car to phone in. While doing the interview, I could hear the sound of the flashbangs exploding.
The next morning there was a lingering pain in the back of my throat. It was like a gas hangover.
Watch a video I shot of the tear gas that night below.
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