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.
—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:
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:
UPDATE #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.