State Police Used Tear Gas on Ferguson Protestors, Tried to Deny It

In an attempt to enforce last night's Governor Nixon-imposed curfew, the Missouri Highway Patrol fired tear gas into a crowd of protestors last night, then told reporters that they had only fired smoke bombs, backtracked, admitted that it was tear gas, and ultimately arrested seven protestors. Also, a guy was shot.

Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson told CBS News that the shooting victim is in critical condition at a nearby hospital, the culprit is unknown, and the investigation is being pursued by the St. Louis County Police. Details are murky, but the incident highlights a tense and combative Saturday night in Ferguson—that may have escalated, according to state police, due to a tip claiming that armed individuals, or a single armed person, was lying in wait on the roof of a local barbecue joint, Red's, with plans to fire on police as they approached the protestors.

(It's maybe worth noting here that police were approaching protestors with five armored tactical vehicles.)

Initially, Highway Patrol Spokesman Lt. John Hotz had told the press that only smoke bombs had been used to dispel protestors, a statement that became less credible as legal observers on the scene, like the fluorescent green-capped members of the National Lawyers Guild, began collecting and documenting the spent canisters. CNN reporter Shimon Prokupecz described Hotz and the patrol's initial denials as "emphatic" late last night:

Named after the two American scientists who invented it, Ben Corson and Roger Stoughton, CS gas is a riot control smoke comprised of o-chlorobenzylidene malononitrile that has been aerosolized, due to its normally being a solid at room temperature. It is not a pepper spray—which is actually derived from capsaicin, the compound that makes hot peppers hot—though it's known for its own pepper-like odor.

Exposure symptoms can include, intense eye effects, dyspnoea (or difficulty breathing), coughing, rhinorrhoea (or a congested, runny nose), severe headaches, dizziness, contact burns, and contact dermatitis (which is not radical chic).

But let's talk unintended side effects: CS gas is dangerous for people with asthma, so much so that when it's been used in British military training maneuvers to simulate chemical weapons attacks, otherwise physically fit asthmatics are exempted—which raises the question of why law enforcement chooses to deploy CS gas on crowds whose medical demographics are largely unknown to them, instead of restricting its use to extreme riot scenarios. In 1998, the medical journal The Lancet called for a moratorium on police use of CS gas. Part of the impetus for this appears to be research suggesting that the tear gas might potentially be genotoxic (i.e. damaging to DNA) as o-chlorobenzylidene malononitrile has the capacity to alkylate sulfhydryl groups. A 2009 study on CS gas toxicity by the EPA concluded that there was the potential for liver damage and that "genetic toxicology results were mixed." In vitro testing showed "chromosomal aberrations" in Chinese hamster ovary cells and similarly positive results ("resistance to trifluorothymidine," for you molecular biology nerds) in mouse lymphoma cells. Some of the EPA's other tests on the tear gas went fine though.

Plus, an article at Police Link, "the Nation's Law Enforcement Community," says that CS tear gas compound has gained widespread adoption due to "its stronger irritant effects and its lower toxicity." So, chins up, Ferguson!

Fortunately, many protestors had gone home before it all came to this.

It was raining out.

Lost in a long night of constant updates and revisions, is a version of the AP's story that pointed out that members of the New Black Panthers were constantly urging people to go home in accordance with the curfew. The final story, media-wide, is shaping up to be yet another clash between a gung-ho police force, playing army, and a group composed of the most seriously aggrieved protesters and other violent die-hards:

As the curfew deadline arrived Sunday, remaining protesters—chanting "No justice! No curfew!"—refused to leave the area. And as five armored tactical vehicles approached the crowd, officers spoke through a loudspeaker: "You are in violation of a state-imposed curfew. You must disperse immediately. Failure to comply, may result in arrest."

As officers put on gas masks, a chant from the distant crowd emerged: "We have the right to assemble peacefully."

A moment later, police began firing canisters into the crowd of protesters.

Jayson Ross, who was leading the protesters toward police before the canisters were fired, said: "They got guns. We got guns. We are ready."

Speaking of gun owners: The highway patrol's version of the story also includes a mysterious man with a gun seen in the crowd, who has yet to be caught or identified. Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson told Reuters that someone had fired a shot at a passing police vehicle, but this gunman has not yet been apprehended either.

Then, of course, there were also people like this:

Given all this violence and aggression, Captain Ron later emphasized to reporters that he thought the use of the tear gas by his team was "proper" in this instance.

While it is, of course, vital and necessary to issue the perfunctory admonition of violence here, and the generic hope for a just and peaceful resolution to this conflict, perhaps too a plea should be made for an earnest attempt to better understanding Ferguson's more violent protestors and even its looters.

Plenty of White America lives in a dreamy, heavily mediated, post-racial virtual reality, with a large portion of their African American interactions amounting to nothing more than digital contact with the token blacks of their favorite TV shows and commercials. It's hard in that state to fully grasp the ways this violence might be an equal and opposite reaction to the steady pressure of only slightly less outrageous police brutality, or the ways in which things like vicious, 1900-percent-interest payday loans might be perceived as no less violent, and no less looting, than the shattering of an electronics store window and the hauling off of all the best stuff.

Maybe in times like these, like that fella in the New York Times said, violence may be an attempt to communicate, or to be who you really are.

[photo via @ShimonPro]

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