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

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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.

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