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Recent Police Use Of Tear Gas Widespread In US, Including San Diego

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Not since the late 1960s have American police agencies used so much tear gas against American protesters.

Speaker 1: 00:00 The use of tear gas has been banned in warfare by the chemical weapons convention yet has long been used against demonstrators worldwide though rarely in the United States in the past half century. But that changed amid protests over the police killing of George Floyd on Memorial day in Minneapolis, the New York times this week published an analysis of tear gas use against protestors in 98 American cities, including San Diego. And Lamesa joining me to discuss the findings as Rebecca ly, one of the New York times reporters who worked on that story. Welcome to the program.

Speaker 2: 00:34 Hi, thank you for having me.

Speaker 1: 00:37 So tell us about the use of tear gas by police against demonstrators over the last few weeks, where was it used and what were the reasons given?

Speaker 2: 00:45 Right. Um, so we found that tear gas was used in a lot of cities across the United States, and it's not just in large cities like Atlanta st. Louis or Miami, but it's also in smaller towns as well. Um, the, the photos we and videos that we reviewed about the police use of tear gas, um, shows that it has not been very safe in all instances. Um, there has been some very serious injuries recorded, including a student in Fort Wayne, Indiana who lost an eye after being hit by a tear gas canister. Um, and there are other instances like in Charlotte and Philadelphia, where protestors were trapped in a place where two guests was deployed, um, leading to extended exposure, which is not what's supposed to happen. Um, and then in many other cities, tear gas was fired without warning at peaceful protesters, many community leaders and city officials have spoken out against that.

Speaker 2: 01:45 For example, in Louisville, Kentucky, um, and also in Portland, Oregon, a judge placed a temporary restriction on the police. Department's use of tear gas saying that it was used to disperse peaceful protesters. At the same time, the police have defended their use of tear gas. Um, many police departments that we spoke to said that it was a last resort after announcing that crowds should disperse, that it was an unlawful assembly. Um, they, in many instances, they cited that their officers were faced with violent crowds, um, bottles, rocks, bricks, or thrown at them. And there were other criminal activities that were going on in the area. Several police departments reported injuries among their officers, and that's sort of their defense against the use of tear gas.

Speaker 1: 02:34 Now, what does tear gas do to people? How harmful can it be?

Speaker 2: 02:37 Tear gas is an umbrella term. There are chemical compounds. Mostly most of the time it refers to CS gas that causes irritation to the eyes, mouth, throat, lungs, and skin. Um, it causes irritation, but for the most part, it doesn't cause serious longterm injuries, but there has been cases where law, the law enforcement's use of tear gas has caused deliberating injuries, including, you know, direct impact from the tear gas, canisters themselves to other types of longterm health problems where health experts have said that prolonged exposure or high doses can lead to permanent vision damage asthma and other sort of longterm health problems as well.

Speaker 1: 03:20 And how unusual is this widespread use of tear gas now?

Speaker 2: 03:25 Yeah. So one of the, one of a sociology professor at John Hopkins university who studies race and policing said that this brief period has seen the most widespread domestic use of tear gas against demonstrators since the long years of unrest in the late sixties and early seventies. Um, and many experts that we spoke to said, this is sort of an unprecedented use of tear gas in the U S

Speaker 1: 03:50 and your story says, neither Los Angeles, nor New York city police use tear gas, what did they do instead?

Speaker 2: 03:56 So they, they use other types of, um, police tactics, like Bhutan's, they use pepper spray. Um, but they, they both have both the police departments there have responded to us saying that they do not use tear gas to disperse crowds,

Speaker 1: 04:12 and there's no real legal definition of, of tear gas. So what are we talking about specifically here?

Speaker 2: 04:18 Right. Um, so there is no clear definition of tear gas, which is why there has been this argument. Um, you know, when CS gas is sort of the most common understanding of what tear gas is, but a few of the tear gas experts we spoke to basically explained to us there is no significant difference between the chemical compound or the makeup. It just generally refers to chemical compounds that causes irritation to the eyes and to the skin and to the respiratory system and to, you know, draw this distinction between, Oh, we didn't use tear gas. We use chemical irritants or some other term is to them, to these tear gas experts. It's sort of a play on words in order to sort of deflect the responsibility of having used tear gas on protestors.

Speaker 1: 05:12 Right. It seems like a, a difference without a distinction attorney general William Barr stridently denied the use of tear gas on national TV to clear those peaceful protesters out of Lafayette park in Washington. And the idea was to declare them out. And then Donald Trump, of course, so walked across and had a photo op outside of church. Uh, why would a leader like bar be so upset that tear gas was, was the phrase being used and he thinks pepper gas somehow I guess, is, is not as a destructive politically, it would seem.

Speaker 2: 05:43 Yeah, I think, I think there is a conception of tear gas being a very bad term. Um, it is tear gas is banned and warfare by the chemical weapons convention. And I think one of the worst things about tear gas is it's indiscriminate nature, meaning that anybody in the proximity standing around, if you're even if you're a bystander can be affected as well. You know, the few tear gas expert we spoke to emphasize that the chemical compound or the makeup doesn't matter, as long as it's causing the same kind of irritation and effect on people, it doesn't matter if it's CS or OSI. If it causes the same kind of, you know, damage on people, it should be considered as tear gas.

Speaker 1: 06:29 Now, has there been any political fallout caused by the widespread use of tear gas on peaceful demonstrators, any move to ban the substance prohibited use by police? I think you mentioned one example of that.

Speaker 2: 06:42 Yeah. There, there has been a lot of pushbacks actually, you know, many community leaders and city officials have come out, condemning the police for resorting to tear gas, but, and so some lawmakers are actually calling a band for its use in Massachusetts and in new Orleans and other cities, including Denver, Seattle, Portland, and Dallas, they have actually all temporarily blunt banned police from using tear gas.

Speaker 1: 07:08 I've been speaking with New York times reporter Rebecca Lee. Thanks very much.

Speaker 2: 07:13 Thank you for having me.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.