Welcome to the “gas chamber”: a first-person account of Mokabe’s on the morning of 11/25/14.

Café or military training exercise? You decide.

Café or military training exercise? You decide.

There is a rite of passage employed by many police forces and by the military. It is known as “the gas chamber,” an exercise used in basic training to ensure that recruits know how to properly fit and use a gas mask, and to graphically illustrate the consequences of failing to fit or use a mask properly.

In the early morning hours of Tuesday, November 25th, 2014, I was trapped inside a coffee shop in St. Louis along with dozens of other civilians. We were tear gassed by the police inside this enclosed space, and were subsequently prevented from exiting it for a period of time. In other words, the St. Louis police effectively subjected a group of civilians to the “gas chamber” ritual, but without our knowledge or consent prior to initiating it.

Below is my account of what happened, originally written out for a journalist who asked me a question about it via email. It’s probably going to seem quite telegraphic compared to many of my other posts. This is because it’s been a long week (not even over yet) here in STL, and I got bronchitis after being gassed. I’ll flesh the details out later.

It’s worth adding, too, that Amnesty International has more or less corroborated my entire account, as have other people who were also present. More supporting evidence from additional witnesses and even mainstream media corroborating my account can viewed here, here, here, here, here, and here.

For a long series of updates on this original post (with the latest update occurring on 12/12/14), please scroll to the very bottom.

Outside Mokabe's, at approximately midnight on Tuesday, 11/25 (evening of Monday, 11/24 into Tuesday, 11/25).

Outside Mokabe’s, at approximately midnight on Tuesday, 11/25 (evening of Monday, 11/24 into Tuesday, 11/25). [Click photo to view full size.]

We were at Mokabe’s on Arsenal, having just spent hours in Ferguson protesting and documenting others protesting in front of the Ferguson P.D. As we went to enter the coffee shop, we noticed a police line of cops in full riot gear, along with a tank and some other vehicles. There were some people protesting on the sidewalk outside the coffeeshop. The coffeeshop was open and—-from what I understand—-had designated itself a “safe space.” There was free hot chocolate and free snacks, and it was clearly open to the public. (I am saying this because in the wake of the gassing some people questioned whether I and others had “invaded” and/or “broken into” the café. No, we did not. It was open and we were welcomed there.)

The protesters in front of the coffeeshop were vocal but peaceful. Up on the second floor, where my friends and I sat down to rest and get something to eat and drink, there were a couple of windows. We could see down onto the sidewalk. I witnessed no acts of violence by protesters, no threats, no attempts to come off the sidewalk—–nothing. The protesters were vocal (chanting and so forth) but otherwise non-threatening and, in my opinion, they were lawfully exercising their rights to free speech and assembly:

At one point the police appeared to retreat and the crowd cheered.

This continued for approximately an hour. The windows on the second floor were open. We could hear the protesters and occasionally would look out and see the police line, just staying still (facing off with protesters). Based on what I witnessed, the situation did not appear to be escalating. If anything, it appeared to be calming down.

Some of the protesters dispersed and came into the coffee shop to rest.

There was now almost no one on the sidewalk outside protesting. Everyone appeared to be taking a break. Inside the coffeeshop, the atmosphere was peaceful and relaxed. People were sitting at tables drinking hot chocolate or water and eating snacks. People were charging their phones. If you didn’t know about all the events that had occurred previously that night and you just beamed down into that coffeeshop from Mars, you’d assume it was a typical night in St. Louis. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. I did notice 2-3 people from Amnesty International wearing yellow t-shirts that proclaimed their affiliation.

All of a sudden, from outside, I heard: POP-POP-POP-POP-POP-POP!!!!! Some people inside the café yelled things like: “WOAH!” or “What the hell??” Everyone ducked down instinctively because it sounded like possible gunfire.

I got up and went over to one of the second floor windows, along with a few other people. We looked out onto the street below and there was white smoke. Tear gas. You could see it but it wasn’t that thick yet. We felt that on the second floor we’d probably be OK, even with the windows open.

Then, just as quickly, it changed again. We heard more noises (like pops and flare sounds) and then the white cloud of smoke got massive and thick……and headed right towards us.

I started to frantically turn the crank on the window, trying to get it closed. Someone behind me yelled: “SHUT THE WINDOWS!!!! SHUT THE WINDOWS!!!!!” My friend and I cranked one window shut, while some people a few feet away were closing the other second-floor window.

By now we could hear people on the first floor panicking, yelling, coughing, choking. We could see them kind of stampeding inward (like away from the front windows and doors on the first floor), and we could tell they were just trying to get away from the smoke.

I heard a woman call out: “COVER YOUR MOUTHS, Y’ALL!!! COVER YOUR MOUTHS!!!! WRAP SOMETHING AROUND YOUR FACES!!!!!”

I started wrapping my scarf tightly around my face, covering my nose and mouth. I tried to breathe only through my nose. On the second floor, we still thought we might be OK. Maybe we had shut the windows in time. Maybe we would be good.

……and then we smelled it.

That acrid, distinct smell.

Another friend of mine said: “Oh, shit. I’m smelling it…..”

I looked at him and nodded. We knew. We knew we were screwed.

Probably less than 30 seconds later, the gas hit. I will never forget that moment because it felt like someone took a vacuum and sucked all the air out of my chest. Or like I got kicked and had the wind knocked out of me. It was such a potent feeling, I dropped immediately to my knees. I felt my eyes, nose, and mouth burning. The worst part, though, was that feeling in my chest. I thought I was going to suffocate. I wondered if I would die. For some reason, I ripped the scarf off my face even though that possibly made things worse by exposing me to more gas particles. I was not thinking rationally. I remember having only one clear thought in that moment. It was: “Thank God I took Albuterol [a brochodilator people with asthma use to open up the passages in the lungs] around a half hour ago.” That medication possibly prevented me from having a full-on asthma attack.

Now everyone in the coffeeshop—–both floors—–was panicking. We had absolutely nowhere to go. The café was full. Everyone on both floors was feeling the effects of the gas, so it was clear nowhere was safe. People started to run or press against each other, but there was no place to go.

I heard a voice say: “It’s OK! It’s OK, guys! Don’t panic. You can cough. It’s OK to cough. Just don’t panic. This is going to pass; it will stop. Just try not to panic.”

That voice calmed me down. I suspect, in retrospect, that that was one of the Amnesty International workers.

At that point someone discovered a door that led to a basement—–a separate basement, which presumably would have fresh air. “Everyone to the basement! Everyone come down calmly to the basement! There’s fresh air there!”

Everyone filed downstairs and they shut the door. The air in the basement was clean.

Downstairs everyone—–myself included——had tears and snot running out of our eyes and noses. A lot of people were coughing and spitting, trying to get the gas particles out of their lungs and mouths. Everything was burning.

A man came over with a bottle (which I later found out was a mixture of antacid and water used to neutralize the gas) and rinsed our eyes and faces with it. When I took a selfie (on Twitter) labeled “white tear gas residue,” I was mistaken. The white residue was from that bottle—–from having my face and eyes rinsed. A couple of earlier selfies show the snot and tears running from my face.

The burning kept going for what seemed like 10 minutes, and then it finally stopped.

Eventually we all went back upstairs, but we left the windows and doors shut. The police had formed a line directly in front of the coffeeshop, blocking us in. We were trapped inside. There was some confusion about whether we were legally allowed to leave or were effectively being detained:

Riot line outside the front of Mokabe's, approximately 20-30 minutes after gassing us.

Riot line outside the front of Mokabe’s, approximately 20-30 minutes after gassing us.

Some people did get out. I think they gassed us again, because I remember we again had to hide in the basement. Eventually some of us escaped out the back door and ran on foot to a church nearby.

As I was running I could see, hear, and smell more gas canisters being deployed on the streets. It seemed like they were trying to trap us into smaller and smaller spaces. No one understood then—–or understands now—–why we were targeted inside Mokabe’s.

We do not think this was an accident.

It seems like the police intentionally trapped us in the coffeeshop and then gassed us inside, knowing full well they would create a “gas chamber” from which we’d be temporarily unable to escape.

And they did this while we were vulnerable——relaxed, not protesting, not doing anything other than sitting down and talking as one would on any other day inside a coffeeshop. We were fully unprepared for this. We’d let our guard down.

To me, the most disturbing aspect of this was the entrapment, and the fact that they attacked us without provocation. Amnesty workers salvaged some of the gas cans from the scene, and based on the labeling of the cans what they used was CS gas, which is specifically not supposed to be used in enclosed spaces, since it can cause death.

I saw the police entrap groups of people in other ways earlier that same night in Ferguson (like forming tight circles around them) and then gas them. They are deploying chemical warfare against civilians even when unprovoked. This is a human rights violation.

***

UPDATES TO THIS POST [IN CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER]:

UPDATE #1 [11/30/14, 20:44H CST]: Yet more footage has emerged, shot from outside the café.

UPDATE #2 [12/1/14, 16:45H CST]: Chilling screen captures from St. Louis Cop Talk—a message board comprised of current and former members of law enforcement—reveal that Mokabe’s may have been intentionally targeted last week.

UPDATE #3 [12/3/14, 13:23H CST]: St. Louis Police Chief Dotson has issued a series of responses to the Mokabe’s gassing incident which were published in The Riverfront Times. They can be read here.

UPDATE #4 [12/4/14, 01:17H CST]: Two new eyewitness accounts of the incident at Mokabe’s have emerged. They can be viewed here and here. (More video is potentially forthcoming over the next day or so….)

UPDATE #5 [12/6/14, 08:58H CST]: New footage of both the interior and exterior of the coffeeshop (shot by livestreamer @Rebelutionary_Z and edited/compiled by @Vipondalicious) has emerged and, yet again, it corroborates all other eyewitness accounts. There is now some evidence to suggest that at least one gas canister was either launched, or “accidentally” landed INSIDE Mokabe’s. View the footage here:

UPDATE #6 [12/6/14, 09:20H CST]: This. is. not. over:

MokabesEmployeesUPDATE #7 [12/11/14, 11:06H CST]: Here is the Riverfront Times’ follow-up story on the gassing—-a product of all the new footage and eyewitness accounts that have emerged over the past couple of weeks. Additional related post/video here.

UPDATE #8 [12/12/14, 02:25H CST]: In response to massive public outcry and direct legal action on the part of half a dozen protesters, a Federal Judge has issued a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) banning (in some situations) or setting severe legal limits (in other situations) the use of chemical weapons against unarmed, peaceful protesters. I would like to personally express my deep gratitude to lead co-plaintiffs Alexis, Brittany, and Kira for their testimony and hard work in getting the TRO issued. Nothing but respect and love for you all.

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41 Responses to Welcome to the “gas chamber”: a first-person account of Mokabe’s on the morning of 11/25/14.

  1. rennie says:

    I believe that you believe that what you witnessed is all that actually happened and that you believe the police acted with malicious intent. How ever based on the video accounts taken by your fellow protesters the police were completely within their rights to act as they did. Mokabe’s lost their “safe house” status as soon as they let the protesters and rioters use it as a base of operations, as soon as they allowed protesters to bring weapons on the property. Based on everything that was caught on video it would be completely with in the rights of the other business owners who suffered damages to bring a civil suite against Mokabe’s for inciting the violence. At one point in the video someone is sitting on the Mokabe’s patio with a live hornets nest and says “we should set this of in the crowd and say the police did it”. So while I don’t fully support the police I sure as hell don’t support or feel sorry for you and the others who did their best to destroy my neighborhood.

    • I was drinking hot chocolate and charging my phone, as were my friends. We did absolutely nothing to “destroy [your] neighborhood.” I take serious issue with your characterization of my behavior and that of my friends as such. I am a law-abiding citizen. We were unarmed and not engaging in protest at the time of the incident. We went to Mokabe’s because it was one of the only places open that late at night and we needed a place to rest, recover, get something to eat and drink, etc. We were 100% peaceful and at no time did we do anything to merit the response by police.

      • Nina says:

        People just keep making excuses for the police. THIS IS NOT OKAY. PERIOD. For the past few days these protests have been peaceful. Loud? Yes. But that’s legal. No actions should be taken for that.

      • tom says:

        Sounds like you were hanging out with violent people. Birds of a feather and all….

      • My friends and I are non-violent.

      • Greg says:

        I was out there too that night. I headed back home before the tear gas hit, but what I witnessed wasn’t 100% peaceful. 95% of it was peaceful, but 5% were doing doughnuts in their cars on grand and tearing up the businesses on south grand. Some had weapons and one guy stole a crossbow from the pawn shop on south grand. This doesn’t necessarily make what the police did right, but you should tell the whole story. There were a lot of businesses on Grand that didn’t have to be vandalized that night and the tear gassing happened after that.

      • I can only tell the story from my own perspective, based on what I witnessed and experienced firsthand. That is what I have done here.

      • rennie says:

        Maybe you were peaceful. However not everyone there was. It was caught on video and posted on line. If you were as peaceful as you say why didn’t you go to a real safe house? Nothing in your follow up excuses anything that happened that night. Video shows people breaking windows then running into Mokabe’s, doesn’t sound peaceful or much like a safe space to me.

    • Brian S says:

      “Mokabe’s lost their “safe house” status as soon as they let the protesters and rioters use it as a base of operations” I love all these made up rules. There is no best practice that gasses a large group of people in an enclosed space because you suspect a couple may have been involved in some incident. Police themselves can even quote goofy nonsense like “This assembly ceased to be lawful when someone stepped into the street” as if they are following laws. The reality is they know the law does not apply to them, so they storm around like bullies. Don’t try to justify purely gratuitous, antagonistic, dangerous, and negligent behavior pretending it is about law or order. Just admit that in the midst of all the violence and chaos and ruin the police created, they also chose to make the very public and reckless move of terrorizing a beloved, peaceful business. They did it, they will get away with it, and they will do worse next time. Congratulations, they are less effective in a city already crippled by police cluelessness. Trying to invent schoolyard rules of engagement to justify it is a joke.

    • Regardless of how you feel about property damage, the police tossed a chemical nerve agent that is known to be toxic and deadly into a building full of men, women, and children who were there as the business’ patrons, in addition to some protesters chanting outside or taking a break. The police blocked the exits so that the people inside could only find respite from the gas by sheltering in the basement. They did that twice. So far, the only evidence that you’ve provided that you claim justifies such an extreme and dangerous reaction is the things they were saying, but the government has absolutely no right to restrict or punish speech.

      MoKaBe’s is still private property, they have every right to allow whoever they want to patronize their business, and no one on the premises was behaving illegally or inciting the police to tear-gassing. They don’t “lose their safe house status” because you disagree with what the people there were saying.

      • Mijan says:

        Before you think otherwise, I’m on your side here, and the use of tear gas (also known as CS gas) on entrapped civilians in this manner was atrocious. However, you’ve got to get your information straight. Tear gas is NOT a nerve gas. It is actually not toxic, either. It is an IRRITANT. It can cause breathing problems in susceptible people (including asthma attacks), which can be deadly, but not because it’s toxic. Nerve agent is a completely different thing, and if that had been nerve agent used that night, 1) everyone in the building would be dead now, 2) it would be the only time in history that a chemical weapon other than an irritant has been used by official personnel on American soil, and 3) it would be a massive violation of international law. Trust me, it wasn’t nerve agent.

        Other than that, I agree with you.

        (Also, I know this because I’m ex-Army, Chemical Corps and Engineer Corps, and a certified firefighter with extensive HAZMAT training.)

      • Thank you. To be clear: I myself never said it was a nerve agent. I do appreciate the clarification for readers though. Thank you again.

    • There is no justification for the use of chemical warfare against civilians. Period.

    • I would also like to add that I’m continuing to take issue with your not-so-subtle insinuations that I was somehow behaving unlawfully or that I otherwise did something to “deserve” this act of police brutality. I did nothing but exercise my First Amendment Right to to free speech (and not even at Mokabe’s—-my friends and I were peacefully protesting elsewhere and only came to the coffeeshop to rest). We were told it was a “safe space.” I was open late. We were unaware of other “real safe houses” (except churches….one of which we ran to after escaping Mokabe’s).

  2. David says:

    Here is my firsthand footage of the events of this night.

  3. John Holt says:

    It’s a RITE of passage, not a “right.” One of my favorite MLK quotes is something about the problem with white moderates being that they are highly biased to seek order before justice. The comments I’ve just read (some of them, that is) seem to bear this out.

  4. davidwraith says:

    This was basically my experience in Mokabe’s that night, as well. What I still don’t understand is, why were all the cops at Grand and Arsenal with the peaceful protesters, while a handful of guys, out in the open, were breaking windows down South Grand with no police opposition? How is it possible that with all those cops that so many stores were vandalized? The largest concentration of cops was in the one place were crimes were not being committed, and then they teargassed us, twice. It makes no sense.

    • All extremely excellent questions.

    • I also want to add that I am deeply disturbed by two facts:

      1.) The mainstream media has mostly failed to cover this incident and other similar incidents all over STL.

      2.) The P.D. has remained silent and issued no official statement regarding its repeated use of excessive force, including chemical agents, against peaceful protesters in STL.

      • Vicki Johnson says:

        I live outside the area, in St. Charles, and was glued to local news coverage until well into the night. Something that struck me was that their reporting focused almost exclusively on cars and buildings on fire, but when the camera pulled back or panned around, the streets were empty. Where were the people who supposedly started these fires? Where were ANY protesters in those areas? It just doesn’t make sense.

  5. kidnoble says:

    I was also there that night and can corroborate your story because your experience was the same as mine. My biggest surprise was that they basically prevented us from leaving the coffee shop by gassing this whenever we try to leave and threatening arrest. After they gassed us the first time, me and some friends tried to leave out of the back door and were gassed when we got to the end of the alley at Grand Ave, and had to run back in.

  6. Beth says:

    People I know who were in MoKaBe’s that night said that tear gas was not thrown inside the building, that it came in when the door was opened. It stays on clothes and out gasses, so people in proximity would feel the effects. Were gas canisters INSIDE MoKaBe’s?

    • No idea where Amnesty International retrieved the canisters from (inside or outside), but I can assure you that the coffeeshop itself filled with gas, and we were all gassed. The video footage speaks for itself.

  7. Fred R says:

    So . . . 5 percent were behaving badly . . . an THAT is enough to justify gassing the other 95 percent. WOW. Do you and all the others who are more worried about your little corners of the world have misplaced priorities. Regular human rights violations . . . regular homicides by police, regular thuggery by police, who are not much more than criminals with badges. Wait till they come for YOU, whether or not you have done anything wrong. To whom will you whine then? American police are out of control and I am only glad that I don’t live my day to day life there anymore. Still, no American should be practically forced to leave his country to afford to live and to find peace and tranquility. You people who, by your complaints here and your general silence in the face of injustice , are protesting against the protestors who are fighting for you, undeserving as you are.

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