Faith Leaders Say Police Used Tear Gas When Clearing DC Park, Contradicting Trump Administration

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. The demonstrators were removed in order for President Donald Trump to walk to St. John’s Church for a photo-op. (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.”

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Source: Religion News Service