Ferguson protests: Tear gas is meant to disperse. It worked on me... eventually

David Usborne thought that all a self-respecting journalist really needed was a biro and a dog-eared note book... until he was caught up in the protests in Ferguson, Missouri

Share

I confess to quietly scoffing to myself at the few reporters who had showed up on West Florissant Avenue on Monday night wearing gas masks. I just had my Bic biro and a dog-eared note book. That’s all a self-respecting journalist really needs, I reasoned to myself. These boys were wearing gas masks to take selfies of themselves.

Then the shelling began. It wasn’t mortars flying through the air like fireworks towards us from the police line close to the Quik Trip forecourt where a particularly belligerent knot of men had gathered, refusing to heed instructions to disperse. Rather these were small metal canisters landing at my feet, popping on impact and releasing white clouds that at first I took just to be smoke. Some of the men were even picking them up and throwing them back again.

But the purpose of the assault was not to befuddle or distract but to disperse. And that is what tear gas is meant for. Yet, at first I was slow to respond. A bridge with a narrow pedestrian pathway separated me from an escape route south. It was jammed with fleeing people, but I took my time. Twitter demanded my attention, so did the photo function on my phone. I’ll get out of harm’s way soon enough.

This was foolish. It had been gunshots nearby that had prompted the police action and I wasn’t wearing a bullet-proof vest either. No one was firing at me, but soon the gas was all around.  It was time to move because I was starting to feel its effects. Mine has already been a long career, but this was my first tear gas encounter.

 

Certainly, I could tell it was unpleasant. Past the bridge, I tacked right and back into a deep car park away from the avenue. By now my eyes were stinging severely and the gas was getting into my nose. The need for fresh air was becoming urgent. Once clear, I took deep breaths, blinked madly, wiped my suddenly running nose and quite quickly reasoned the worse was over and turned back towards the avenue and the fleeing protestors.

That was foolish too. The gas had become thinner, or at least less visible, but that is when it hit me with all its force. My eyes and nose were now running furiously, blurring my vision and scrambling my senses. Much worse, it was reaching deep down into my lungs. It sent me literally staggering. The pain in my chest was intense, a violent stinging and a tightening vice. The instinct is to gasp and at the same time not to, for fear than any breathing at all will bring more gas and pain into the lungs. For a moment I felt serious panic, as if on the brink of some kind of seizure.

I went back into the car park, almost in shock at how debilitated I had become. That’s when I heard a woman’s voice, urgently beckoning me to her car. “Let me help you, let me help you,” she cried, handing me a damp cloth and lifting my head to spray water into my eyes and face.  Whoever you were, thank you. Soon I can breathe again. A colleague is texting me to see if I am alright and I return to the main media staging area. Yes, I am all fine.

I may not have a gas mask with me tonight. But I will have damp scarf on me. And if canisters fly I am out of there.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 6 Teacher (interventions)

£120 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: We have an exciting opportunity...

PMLD Teacher

Competitive: Randstad Education Manchester: SEN Teacher urgently required for ...

Real Estate Solicitor 2+PQE - City

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: CITY - HIGH VALUE REAL ESTATE / RESID...

General Cover Teacher

£120 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Luton: Are you looking for part time/ ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A couple calculates their costs with the help of some paperwork  

It’s the dream of escape that makes couples keep their finances secret from each other

John Walsh
Theresa May  

It's not hard to imagine Prime Minister Theresa May standing on the steps of Downing Street

Jane Merrick
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?