Banning dispersants

by Wade Rathke

Police officers wearing riot gear push back demonstrators shooting tear gas next to St. John’s Episcopal Church outside of the White House, June 1, 2020 in Washington D.C., during a protest over the death of George Floyd. – President Trump visited the church while demonstrators where protesting. With the Trump administration branding instigators of six nights of rioting as domestic terrorists, there were more confrontations between protestors and police and fresh outbreaks of looting. Local US leaders appealed to citizens to give constructive outlet to their rage over the death of an unarmed black man in Minneapolis, while night-time curfews were imposed in cities including Washington, Los Angeles and Houston. (Photo by Jose Luis Magana / AFP)

New Orleans   Bjorn Skogquist was a former mayor of one of the Minneapolis-St. Paul suburbs some fifteen miles away, when he was a young man. He did a couple of terms and went on with his life. That didn’t mean he no longer paid attention. Watching how the police handled protestors after the George Floyd killing went too far for him. He had to do something. The lowest hanging fruit was to set up a Facebook page to Ban Tear Gas and see what might happen. If it was a dud, well at least he had taken a shot. If it worked, then maybe it would make a difference. Either way, he was doing his part as an active citizen of the area.

The Facebook post went up under the name, “Ban Tear Gas.” Simple and straightforward. The description said the site was committed to banning tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets, the holy trinity of violent tech tools used by police in dealing with crowds. He went into his pocket for some Facebook ads to promote the site, doubling down on his idea.

To say it went viral might be an overstatement, but without a doubt it struck a nerve. He reached out to talk and brainstorm about the campaign a month ago. There were already 6000 “likes” on the page. When we talked this week, a month later, it had ballooned to over 22,000. He could see 25,000 soon, and perhaps 50,000 by the end of the year with more effort.

Few could disagree that the police are out of control. Few could argue that in the same way that they are too often trigger happy, they also reach into their dispersants bag way too quickly as well. The poster child for these violent police responses remains the actions taken against peaceful protestors by Park Police to clear Lafayette Square in Washington, DC, for a Trump photo-op in front of a church. Everyone involved has apologized except the president of course.

They weren’t alone. Using dispersants has become standard operating procedure for police throughout the country in dealing with all matter of protests, but especially those that center on police brutality and racial bias. Seemingly, the police have become more adamant in using these tactics, as they are called to account.

It’s not an easy campaign. Pew Research’s “Streetline” did a quick overview of cities and states debating dealing with tear gas and other dispersants and reported that most had walked away from a ban. Some had tried to limit use and require review, but most jurisdictions saw the measures fail for lack of votes and against police and other arguments that they had few other alternatives for when crowd control passed the line into riots or violence.

Talking to Bjorn at some length, it was clear a more local, grassroots city-by-city, town-by-town strategy was likely to be the most effective, but we were all clear that this was going to be a long campaign, not a quick win.

Wade Rathke is founder and chief organizer of ACORN and ACORN International. You can find Wade’s recent past posts here Chief Organizer Reports. And you can link to his website here Chief Organizer ACORN/ACORN International.

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