tear gas

Police move toward a crowd of protesters May 31 after using tear gas to try to disperse them. (Photo/screenshot from Recorder video)

When the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department (IMPD) fired tear gas at protesters on May 29, the smell — and the burn — lingered in the air. 

For the following two days, people walking downtown could still smell — faintly — the chemicals that sent protesters running for cover the night before. While the tear gas has long since dissipated from the air, the effects of the chemical weapon are still being felt. 

That’s why the American Civil Liberties Union (ALCU) of Indiana has filed a lawsuit against IMPD on behalf of Indy10 Black Lives Matter in hopes to ban the department from using tear gas and other chemical weapons on protesters again. 

Ken Falk, executive director of the ACLU of Indiana, said the use of tear gas infringed upon citizen’s rights to protest. 

“The First Amendment is not always quiet,” Falk said. “Our right to protests means we have the right to be loud, especially when we are feeling so strongly about issues. The reaction, then, simply cannot be to indiscriminately use chemical weapons on people practicing their constitutional rights.”

Throughout the three days IMPD used tear gas on protesters, unintentional targets — including a church group worshipping at Monument Circle — were tear gassed. 

While IMPD concedes it is nearly impossible to target tear gas, representatives argue the effects are short-lasting and non-lethal.

“There are few immediate alternatives to the use of CS [tear gas] for riot control,” IMPD said in a statement. “And while our preference would be to work with our community members to prevent large-scale violent events, once riots have begun, law enforcement officers need tools to quickly disperse violent individuals in a way that does not cause long-term harm to the residents they serve.”

IMPD also cited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to say the effects of tear gas are short-lived. 

Jessica Louise, an organizer for Indy10, was tear gassed several times and said IMPD is downplaying the seriousness of tear gas.

“Trying to negate that trauma would be like describing a heart attack as a short-lived event,” Louise said. “[Tear gas] is alarming, it creeps up like a slow fog, and then the air changes and you start getting anxiety. We were seeing a range in responses from people having a light cough and rubbing their eyes because it was a little itchy, and other people were brought to their knees and screaming because of the pain.”

Louise also takes issue with IMPD using tear gas in the midst of a pandemic that affects the respiratory system. Throughout the country, there have been reports of disrupted menstrual cycles among people who have been tear gassed, and 22-year-old Sarah Grossman died of an asthma attack two days after being tear gassed in Columbus, Ohio. 

“I have experienced some disruption to my personal reproductive health and have spoken with medical professionals who have expressed outrage about tear gas being used,” Louise said. “I’m interested in seeing the long-term effect it has on Black and brown people, who it largely affected.” 

On June 22, Mayor Joe Hogsett announced an independent review board, which consists of a three-member Response Review Committee (RRC) to examine IMPD’s response to protests.  

“This review will give our community a clearer understanding of the events that transpired at the start of this month, and will be a guiding document for tailoring law enforcement responses in the future,” Hogsett said in a statement.

The findings from the RRC will be made available by the end of the year, but Falk hopes the lawsuit results in swift action from the city.

“The best case scenario, the city agrees to sit down with the plaintiffs and work out a result to make sure this never happens again,” Falk said. “There is no need to spend the next year or more litigating this case. It’s about more than just promising this isn’t going to happen again, but also creating other methods to deal with protests. …  We want a clear resolution to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.

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