Faith leaders: Police used gas that caused tears, coughing when clearing DC park

‘I saw people with tears pouring out of their eyes, their eyes red and swollen,’ said the Rev. Gini Gerbasi, who was at St. John's when police expelled them from the scene.

Tear gas floats in the air June 1, 2020, as police move demonstrators away from St. John’s Church, across Lafayette Park from the White House in Washington, as they protest the death of George Floyd. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

WASHINGTON (RNS) — On Tuesday evening (June 2), President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign asserted that media outlets had falsely reported that law enforcement used tear gas to disperse protesters and faith leaders outside the White House. 

The police had broken up a protest on Monday shortly before the president crossed the street and posed with a Bible in front of St. John’s, an Episcopal church that had been damaged by fire earlier in the week.

The campaign referenced a statement from U.S. Park Service that insisted “no tear gas was used by (United States Park Police) officers or other assisting law enforcement partners to close the area at Lafayette Park.” The statement added that the Park Service’s actions were allegedly in response to escalation by demonstrators.

Trump also tweeted an article about the subject, calling it “a must read!”

His campaign insisted that news organizations correct their stories. 

However, according to faith leaders who were at the park that day and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, law enforcement used chemicals that are regularly described as tear gas while breaking up the protest. 

The Park Service statement claimed law enforcement used chemical agents such as “smoke canisters and pepper balls,” which the CDC says are also referred to as tear gas, as first reported by The Washington Post.

“Riot control agents (sometimes referred to as ‘tear gas’) are chemical compounds that temporarily make people unable to function by causing irritation to the eyes, mouth, throat, lungs, and skin,” reads a CDC fact sheet. The CDC document later mentions the use of “pepper spray.”

Journalists at WUSA9, a local CBS station in Washington, have also since reported discovering canisters labeled with the compound 2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile — another form of tear gas commonly called “CS” gas — that were collected the day of the incident.

Several faith leaders who were at the demonstration on Monday told Religion News Service that not only were the protests peaceful, they also witnessed or were affected by gas used by law enforcement that caused coughing and tears.

The Rev. Gini Gerbasi, who serves as rector of a different St. John’s Episcopal Church, in Georgetown, but who previously worked at St. John’s in Lafayette Square, told RNS this week that she and a seminarian encountered the gas as law enforcement officials “turned holy ground into a battle ground” by forcibly expelling them from the church patio.

“I’m not a chemist, but what I saw with my own eyes were clouds of smoke,” she said. “I saw people with tears pouring out of their eyes, their eyes red and swollen.”

Gerbasi said that her glasses helped protect her from exposure to the gas but that she was still coughing and tending to a sore throat for hours.

Julia Dominick, a student at Virginia Theological Seminary and former trauma nurse who was with Gerbasi, was less fortunate. Dominick said she was helping a demonstrator clear substance from their eyes when police began to advance.

“There was the yellow-gray smoke in the air,” said the seminarian. “As we were all trying to move down the street back towards the St. John’s patio, your eyes are burning. You’re coughing. I had a mask on, and it was going through the mask.”

She said the gas became a “cloud that enveloped the crowd,” in which “everybody was having burning eyes, coughing, burning nose, burning throat.”

Dominick later described the substance as tear gas in a Facebook post, and she told RNS, “I stand by what I called it.”

The Rev. Will Ed Green, a United Methodist minister who was at the park for the duration of the protest before being expelled by security forces, tried to help peaceful protesters who struggled to see after coming in contact with the gas.

“Starting at about 6:20 p.m., you could smell and taste the chemical agents in the air,” he said. “People began to cough and cry, and increasingly so for the next 15-20 minutes after. At one point people ran from the flank of 16th Street, and that was the point at which I was helping people off the ground because they literally could not keep their eyes open to run.”

He added: “In the years that I have been attending protests at the White House and around the country, I have never seen what I would call state-sanctioned violence being used against people who were protesting state-sanctioned violence.”

The Rev. Glenna J. Huber, the rector of the Church of the Epiphany who was at St. John’s but left as the National Guard arrived, said she also witnessed the use of gas throughout the day. She and other clergy were positioned at the church near an emergency medical station set up by Black Lives Matter organizers, where she saw many demonstrators seek treatment after encountering the gas.

“I witnessed the spraying of an agent that caused protestors to run away and some sought medical attention from BLM nearby,” she said in an email. “Those who were closest were rubbing their eyes and coughing. … A reasonable person would assume that they were tear-gassed.”

All of the faith leaders RNS spoke with expressed frustration as to why the president, his administration and conservative writers would focus on the chemical agent instead of on the treatment of what they said were peaceful protesters.

“What the agent was was not relevant, except for how could we help rinse it out of people’s eyes, and how could we help them stop coughing — that’s the only relevant lens for me in any of this,” Gerbasi said. “I’m bewildered as to why that addresses the moral human issue. … Why would you shoot anything at innocent protesters?”

She was echoed by Dominick, who argued that the debate distracts from the point the demonstrators were trying to make.

“We need to get back to the focus of justice and systemic change for persons of color,” she said. “I think we need to get back to Black Lives Matter. I think we need to get back to witnessing what has happened in our past and working toward change.”

Despite the chaos of Monday’s expulsion, Dominick returned to the White House again Tuesday afternoon to demonstrate. She said she intends to do so Wednesday evening as well.

“The focus needs to be on the fact that we have a 400-year history of oppressing people of color — they deserve change.”

This report has been updated to reflect the reported discovery of CS gas canisters in the park that were collected the day of the incident.

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