My partner and I were present for much of the police violence in Oakland late last Tuesday. It's been a lot to handle emotionally, so I did the only thing I know how to and wrote an essay. It's addressed to those concerned with my/our general well-being and who want to know how I/we are handling it.
[Trigger Warning: The following is a first-hand account, written in second person, of police actions in Oakland, CA on Tuesday 10/25/11 from 9-11 pm. It involves use of “less lethal” weapons and touches on PTSD.]
It smells like gunpowder. There is a warm quality -- like fireworks in a childhood friend's backyard or a rifle you hunted with growing up. That scent may lull you into its familiar arms, assuring you that tear gas is really not so bad: a benign toy that police are using to disperse the crowd, not actually hurt anyone. As the cloud of gas approaches, however, your mouth is filled with a taste of ash. Just a little though, like you'd started a campfire and it's roaring now, but you're keeping your distance because you know it would be hard to breathe if you got in too close. This taste seems like a warning.
And as the gas disperses -- taking up to half an hour -- the protesters gather once more at the police line.
It only smells like gunpowder from a distance. You find this out during the second volley of tear gas, as it’s larger than the first. As the cloud's dense center moves toward you, as you pass through the outer, sweet aroma, the smell becomes overwhelming. Rapidly. You did not run fast enough. Or you shouldn't have slowed to share your water with a fellow protester. However, the gunpowder smell reaches a peak of intensity only to vanish. You cease to smell the tear gas, though it may simply be that your body recognizes that smelling it is no longer useful.
You are already breathing deeply. You’ve been sprinting, holding the hand of the person you trust with your life, and terrified of the ominous cloud – five or six stories tall – that trails you through city blocks you’ve walked for years. You’ve been holding the handkerchief to your mouth with your free hand, but the gas slipped through and wormed its way into the hollows of your mouth, every alveolar sac in your lungs, and abraded your nose and throat.
The taste of ash subsides from your mouth, and it begins to burn identically to a spicy meal. You remember how it feels to breathe at the peak of the spicy heat. That is every breath. Then, you remember the thin, black pepper you were once dared to eat. You played along, and it wasn’t so bad until it became painful. Like a knife was cutting your tongue where the pepper had touched it. Except now, the pepper is a fluid that has touched every corner of your mouth. You have never been so aware of your inner cheeks as you are in this moment.
Phlegm begins to gather in the back of your throat and your eyes force themselves shut. The stinging gas has found them too. You resist closing your eyes, as you are still sprinting and it seems like a bad idea to be blind for this. But it is the least you can do to soothe them, until, as you reach the end of the second or third city block, the air becomes clear. Each breath like a long gulp of fresh water. Briefly you glance to be sure no police are attempting to surround you and then allow yourself to double over and cough out the mucus. You have never appreciated clean air, its healing properties as much as you do now.
The power of tear gas lies in its ability to confuse your body. It inflicts pain without threatening your life (except in the case where the police fire the canister at your head, as they did with Scott Olsen, who is recovering but not yet able to speak as of Day 5 in the hospital). [Note: Firing canisters at the bodies of protesters is a common tactic, especially with the aim of knocking the wind out of them.] You feel the tightness in your chest, your lungs trying to expel the gas and then mucus. It hurts and it is scary, but all the while, you are breathing in all the oxygen you need. [Note: It would also be irresponsible of me to not mention that there is a rare allergy to tear gas and that if you have it, exposure is life threatening.]
It takes longer now –- the protesters have been pushed further away -– but sure enough, you find yourself at the police line once more.
You are one of the first to return, and you see what has been left on the ground. You find two or three shotgun shells, which would have been used to fire off the beanbags and rubber bullets that the police will later officially deny having used. Others find the rubber pellets themselves, but the situation is too scattered to collect the items and confront the commanding officer.
The crowd is skittish. Each time the police affix their gas masks your adrenaline shoots upward. You could hear a pin drop. A few times, a protester will walk too quickly away from the police lead causing others to sprint for fear that another canister has been dropped. The whole crowd lurches away, only to realize their safety and sprint back to the police. You are only able to laugh at these false alarms because there is no other emotion permissable.
The third round of tear gas begins, and it is thankfully smaller than the previous ones. You run straight back from the police line, but the small cloud never has a chance to keep up with you. In the absence of gunpowder and ash triggering your defense mechanisms, you now hear clearly each small explosion that is the firing of a gun. The timpani burst rumbles in your chest, and all you can do is wonder whether the police -- who must, at this point, be shooting blind -- are aimed at you.
You see others who were not so fortunate and were caught in the middle of the gas this round. They are doubled over a few blocks down, where medics instruct them to open their eyes in order to spray a mixture of Maalox and water into them, as well as through nose and throat. A combination of this along with the mucus and perhaps blood spurts from the protesters’ mouth and nose, long threads hanging down. You offer water because that is all you can do. You resolve to be trained as a street medic.
And then you return to the police line.
With each subsequent volley, you are more aware, less disoriented by the experience. You cannot speak to the first few, but you witness the bottles thrown by protesters hidden in the rear of the crowd, which set off the fourth, fifth, and sixth rounds of tear gas. You come to understand the actions and motivations of the police. They might easily pin-point the handful of individuals who are throwing the bottles and confront them specifically, just as easily as we would later pinpoint, on film, the specific officer who threw the officially-denied flash grenade into the small crowd that gathered to lift an unconscious ex-marine, named Scott Olsen. (Of course, we are not able to hold that officer accountable after the fact, since all had removed their badges before the confrontation.) But the police do not seem to be interested in those who break the law or physically assault them, they are perfectly happy to drop tear gas directly into the group of non-violent mediators immediately in front of them.
When you arrive home afterward, you strip your clothes before entering. Continued exposure to tear gas can have long-term health effects, and though you didn’t get it so bad, it’s better to be safe than sorry. You leave them outside to collect and wash the next day, wiping off your shoes with a dry rag. Since you didn’t get that much gas, you take a shower rather than use the dry rag on your skin as well, since you are not worried about reactivating any gas that may have dried and clung to you.
You cannot sleep that night until very late. It is difficult to convince your body that you are no longer in danger. You call out sick from work the next day because the gas has left you nauseous. You don’t want to eat, but you do any way and it helps. You collect the clothes you’d left outdoors and you smell the gunpowder again.
Daily routines carry you through the first few days. They, along with your job, feel foreign in their relative safety. For the next 48 hours, you find yourself catching the scent of tear gas every now and then, in your kitchen, in the classroom. You lose your train of thought while evaluating the danger of the situation, until you remember that police are not firing canisters at you, you are teaching geometry to high schoolers. You remember slowly what it feels like to not fear bodily harm and allow those parts of your brain to calm down.
At work, you interact with co-workers who know that you have been involved in these protests, but are not aware of what happened with the police that night. Many sympathize or say nothing at all, but a few who know nothing of your involvement belittle the protesters to you and tell you that they deserved their treatment at the hands of the police. You reach out to those who love you and the one you trusted your life with, who held your hand as you ran through the gas. Sharing your experiences and emotions from that night is all you know how to do.
The rest of the week, it is difficult to sleep. Not only did that protest night ruin your circadian rhythm, but you simply don’t feel rested each morning. Your body aches days afterward and you feel as though you may be coming down with a cold. Eventually, your body readjusts: you feel no longer feel ill, you are exercising, your sleep is deeper. But you know that you cannot do this forever.
One night of conflict with the police will not resolve the grievances that brought you to the street in the first place. You wonder how long you will have to protest. You wonder how long you will be physically able to protest, to face police lines and tear gas and rubber bullets. Ten years? Five years? One? How long will it be until the stress is too much? You console yourself in the hope that as long as there is injustice, someone will fight it, even when you are no longer able. But it is on the fourth night after the tear gas that you realize its lasting effect on you.
There is a march on that fourth night protesting the decades-long pattern of police brutality that led to the night you were tear-gassed. You will march with a thousand kindred spirits, many of whom were gassed too. And after a minor confrontation with police at this follow-up march, the cops will attempt create a barricade across the protester’s path using their cars, planning to surround and arrest the marchers or worse. When you see this, you will step in front of one of the cruisers. The cop will threaten to run you down and instead of moving aside, you will look him in the eye and then call for someone to bring a camera. Having this on film could be important.
As the engine revs, you lose your confidence for only a moment, until you see your fellow protesters blocking the cruisers and SUVs with their bodies as well. You realize that the worst the police were ever able to do was break your body and, when you no longer fear that, you are free from their power. The night you were tear-gassed liberated you.