Politicians, activists seek to ban tear gas in Richmond

Protesters and others at the Robert E. Lee statue disperse 30 minutes before curfew on June 1 as Richmond police deploy tear gas. Photo by Jon Mirador

Jackson Rebraca, Contributing Writer

“He was lying on the ground, gasping for breath and coughing so violently. At first, I genuinely thought he was suffocating. I stood with medics for 10 minutes while he fought to breathe.”

This was how Sam Allen, a junior business major at VCU, described a man who was tear-gassed at a Richmond protest against police brutality in May. Allen said it was one of many such instances he’s seen of the harm that tear gas can cause. 

Protests broke out nationwide in May after a video depicted George Floyd, a Black man, dying in Minneapolis police custody with an officer’s knee on his neck. Floyd’s death was one of the most recent rallying cries for police reform and social justice, and clips of police using tear gas, rubber bullets and flashbangs at demonstrations became commonplace on the news and social media. 

Despite efforts by the Virginia General Assembly to regulate the use of chemical agents and munitions, the Richmond City Council on Monday struck a resolution that would have banned the use of tear gas and other crowd control measures in the city.

Tear gas is legal and can be used at will by police officers “in the proper performance of their duties,” according to Virginia law. Several voices in Virginia politics are stepping up to question this code. 

During its special session, the Virginia legislature passed House Bill 5049, which directs the Department of Criminal Justice Services to establish training standards on the use of tear gas and kinetic impact munitions, such as rubber batons and rubber-coated projectiles.

HB 5049, which passed the Senate on Wednesday, also aims to restrict the use of kinetic impact munitions to self-defense, rather than a tool to disperse crowds. Del. Kaye Kory, a Democrat from Fairfax and a patron of the bill, said police’s traditional use of tear gas is “not defensive.”

“It does really set up a more war-like situation between protesters and law enforcement,” Kory said.

Infographic by Andy Caress

Richmond City Council members Michael Jones and Stephanie Lynch brought forth a resolution in last Monday’s council meeting to ban the use of tear gas by police.

The resolution cited an article, “What ‘Less Lethal’ Weapons Actually Do,” which argues the dangers of tear gas are not fully known, can have particularly severe effects on less healthy people and contribute to miscarriages. 

The resolution failed in committee by a 7-2 vote with Lynch and Jones voting in favor. Councilman Chris Hilbert said he is not against limiting the use of tear gas, but voted against the measure because he thought an outright ban would only leave more dangerous means of policing.  

“I would love to have an alternative to this,” Hilbert said. “Unfortunately, I think the second choice is for people to come after individual protesters with individual violence from the police officer, certainly something that we don’t want to happen.” 

Hilbert’s argument echoes police departments across the country. On Sep. 10, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler banned the use of tear gas by local authorities. The Portland Police Bureau responded with a statement, saying, “CS, while effective, is a significantly lower level of force than impact weapons, which would very likely be necessary to disperse riotous groups with its prohibition.”

CS is a term commonly used to refer to tear gas.

Jones said the proposal of an outright ban would force police to change strategies in order to endanger fewer protesters. 

“The police have got to sit down and ask, ‘How can we do this? What’s the best way?’” Jones said.

Jones said weapons such as tear gas prevent the demands raised by the protests from being addressed properly. 

“In 2020, there has to be a better way to accomplish and reach the same goal,” Jones said.

A petition to ban the use of tear gas started by RaceCapitol, a Richmond-based activist organization, had more than 1,300 signatures as of Tuesday. Founder Chelsea Higgs Wise said the petition’s purpose is to protect protesters’ First Amendment right to speech from dangerous crowd-control methods.

“What we’re noticing is that this is a global movement of people having their voices suppressed with these types of weapons, and so we’re going to continue to bring that information forward,” Higgs Wise said.

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