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The ‘Tear Gas Hoax’ Hoax

Trump apologists deny and distort the tactics used on the Lafayette Square protesters.
June 4, 2020
The ‘Tear Gas Hoax’ Hoax
Police officers wearing riot gear push back demonstrators next to St. John's Episcopal Church just north of Lafayette Square and the White House, June 1, 2020 in Washington D.C. (Jose Luis Magana / AFP / Getty)

By now, everyone reading this is aware that on Monday night President Trump committed a grotesque and unconstitutional abuse of power: To show that he was “reclaiming the territory” around the White House, our channel-surfing faux-strongman had law enforcement officers use gas, rubber pellets, batons, and smoke grenades to violently disrupt a peaceful protest just north of Lafayette Square—before curfew—under orders of Attorney General William Barr.

After the inevitable blowback from this action on “the shows,” the Trump administration and its propagandists—both in the public and private sectors—began test-driving some alternative facts about the events of Monday evening. Maybe the U.S. Park Police acted on its own out of self-defense, they suggested. Maybe its officers didn’t use tear gas, they suggested. Maybe this was all one big coincidence.

In short, they think you are fucking stupid.

But because this is how we live now, we have to take apart this hoax that tries to convince Americans that a real thing, that they saw with their own eyes, was actually something else.

Not that we should be surprised: They’ve tried this before.

Before we get to the debunking of the “debunking,” if you feel at all uncertain about what happened outside the White House on Monday, I implore you to not take my word for it. Stop, click this link, and go to the 24:00 mark. Watch for as long as you can stomach it.

That video is the enraging, sickening, unconscionable, and un-American reality.

Now, let’s go to the Trumpist lies and propaganda.

The first claim that started percolating on Monday night was that ackshually, the protest wasn’t “peaceful.” In this telling, the police were merely responding to violence and the entire coordinated move to clear the area moments before the president walked through it was mere coincidence.

This line was elevated in a statement released Tuesday by the acting head of the Park Police (who is a fellow reportedly with a history of lying). He alleges that a violent attack began in the area at 6:33 p.m and the Park Police began to clear out the protesters only in response to that violence.

This claim is absurd on its face. The president of the United States was going to walk down that street 28 minutes later, at 7:01 p.m., and the Secret Service does not allow the president to wade through throngs of screaming protesters. It is obviously the case that the street clearance was ordered to protect the president’s movement.

The preposterous Park Service story would have you believe that in the moments before the request to clear the area came down from the Secret Service, some rogue protesters launched an attack that required snuffing out. But even that improbable version of events has quite a few problems:

  • For starters, a senior Justice Department official said that it was William Barr who ordered the police action.
  • This statement makes some sense. Look here, Barr is the guy in the Jos. A. Bank suit. He’s standing behind the police at 6:19, shortly before the supposed “violence” broke out. What would he be doing here if he hadn’t ordered the action?
  • Also, in the raw video you can see the addition of the Secret Service civil disturbance unit forming behind the Park Police. The Washington Post reported that Trump’s deputy chief of staff Tony Ornato requested that the Secret Service prepare the area for the president’s stroll.

So we have common sense, video evidence, and an admission by administration officials that law enforcement’s violent actions were directed proactively by the White House in order to create Trump’s photo op. Seems like an open-and-shut case to me.

Even though the discussion regarding whether the protesters instigated the police action is resolved, it’s worth looking at the accusation that they were violent. All the evidence indicates they were peaceful:

  • Several journalists who were on the scene reported that they saw no evidence of violent protest.
  • Radley Balko of the Washington Post scoured videos for evidence of protesters instigating attacks and found none.
  • An Episcopal priest wrote a harrowing first-person account on Facebook of her experience being violently driven off of the patio of St. John’s Church with gas and grenades and riot gear, after peaceably gathering with other clergy and volunteers.

Which means that we have hours of video footage and multiple on-the-record accounts on one side against a vague claim—with no supporting testimony or documentation—from a government bureaucrat with an alleged history of lying.

No reasonable person could look at the timeline, the video and photographic evidence, and the testimony and conclude that law enforcement cleared the area because the protest turned violent.

Anyone trying to further that story is either willfully uninformed or arguing in bad faith.

The next story put out in defense of the president came from White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, who claimed on Wednesday that the police did not actually use tear gas or rubber bullets during the action by Lafayette Square.

McEnany did not come up with this line on her own. She ripped it from the Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway, who, in a Tuesday-night article tweeted out by the president, asserted that “tear gas was never used—instead smoke canisters were deployed.”

Before we deal with this claim on the merits, it is worth pausing to underscore something important:

The attorney general forcibly removing law-abiding, peaceful protesters who are exercising their right to assembly is an affront to our constitutional order no matter which specific means are employed. Whether the government uses batons or tear gas or horse-sized ducks, it’s still wildly out of bounds.

It makes no sense to say, They only violated the Constitution with smoke bombs. We’re good here.

That is not how the Constitution works. Nor is it how America should project its democratic values to the world.

But this “no tear gas” claim isn’t just idiotic. It is also untrue.

Nathan Baca, a WUSA9 reporter on the scene, picked up one of the very canisters that Hemingway claimed was a “smoke canister.” You can see it here.

Right there on the canister it says “OC” gas.

Now I’m not a lachrymator-agent expert so I went to the trusty Google machine and typed in “OC gas canister” to see what would come up. Voila:

(1) The first hit was the Wikipedia entry for tear gas, which states: “Common lachrymators, which were used as tear gas, include pepper spray (OC gas), PAVA spray (nonivamide), CS gas, CR gas, CN gas (phenacyl chloride), bromoacetone, xylyl bromide, and Mace (a branded mixture).”

(2) Next was advertising a “Tear Gas Grenade” that is a CS/OC gas mixture.

(3) And then a website that offers a comparison between OC Pepper Gas Spray and CS Tear Gas Spray. Let’s take a look at how that page, published by a company that specializes in “trauma cleaning and biohazard removal,” explains the effects of each:

[OC Pepper Gas Spray] Physical Effects: Uncontrollable watering of the eyes, extreme burning of the eyes and nose, temporary blindness, nasal and sinus discharge, burning of the skin, increase in blood pressure. In most cases, the symptoms of pepper spray last no longer than 45-60 minutes. . . .

[CS Tear Gas Spray] Physical effects: Extreme burning of the nose, eyes, and throat, involuntary closing of the eyes, coughing, rise in blood pressure, mucus secretion, nausea, and vomiting. In most cases, the symptoms of tear gas spray subside within 30 minutes.

As far as the semantic debate over whether OC pepper spray is concerned, “tear gas” is not a brand name. It does not refer to a specific chemical compound. It is a generic category for any number of airborne substances that achieve a set of physical effects on people.

So in the real-world sense, it is untrue to say that no tear-gas was used against the protesters gathered near Lafayette Square.

But it’s also untrue in even the most hypertechnical sense. Trump’s Baghdad Betties could have been a little more precise and said, “the police didn’t use CS gas or CR gas” and tried to play a shell game. Instead they flatly claim that “tear gas” was not used.

UPDATE: After this article was published, a new report indicated that the claim that law enforcement didn’t use tear gas was not just untrue in the technical or colloquial senses, but in the most literal possible interpretation as well. WUSA9 reporter Nathan Baca, who first reported finding the OC canister pictured above, on Thursday morning tweeted pictures of another canister found at the scene on Monday night, this one labeled “CS”—the very type of tear gas that the Trump administration and its apologists have repeatedly claimed was not used in the Lafayette Square incident:

And this claim is just not true in the technical sense or in the way that protesters experienced the gassing.

Because here are the facts:

  • There is physical evidence in the form of a used OC canister.
  • There is testimony from multiple people who experienced the effects of tear gas.
  • There is an extremely disturbing video of individuals suffering the effects of tear gas.

Again: The very definition of “tear gas” is an airborne chemical agent that acts as a lachrymator. Which is exactly what was used against the protesters.

There is no alternative explanation.

The story is almost identical on the question of the use of “rubber bullets.” Though in this case, Trump’s obfuscators have at least a veil of pedantry to hide behind.

Witnesses on the scene claimed to have been shot by the police with rubber bullets. One woman showed a reporter massive welts that she believed came from a rubber bullet. Another found what she believed were rubber bullets on the ground.

But the next morning a passerby found an unexploded flash-bang grenade on the ground. Have a look:

Note the word on the ordnance: “Rubber.”

It turns out that the device in the picture, the Stinger Grenade, is a “maximum effect device that delivers three stimuli for psychological and physiological effects: rubber pellets, light, and sound.”

Rubber pellets.

Here’s how the Stinger operates:

The Stinger Rubber Ball Grenade has an initial 1.5 second delay that initiates fuze assembly separation, followed by another .5 second delay before the blast which is sufficient to project the rubber balls in a 50 foot radius.

We can finally score one for the Always Trumpers. The peaceful protesters gathered north of Lafayette Square were not hit by rubber bullets shot from guns by police officers targeting violent actors.

No. Absolutely not. That’s just what the media wants you to think.

The real story is that peaceful protesters were hit by rubber shrapnel exploding from grenades tossed indiscriminately into their midst.

So, you know, take that?

A few years ago David Frum wrote about how gun-rights activists defend their turf whenever there’s a mass shooting. Rather than discussing the broad fact pattern, they beat the reformers to death with minutiae. “It wasn’t an automatic weapon, you ignorant slut. It was a semi-auto on burst-mode with a clip extender!” And then the two sides go round and round on what Armalite is until you turn into a corn cob and another school gets shot up. Rinse and repeat.

But whatever you think about the gun crowd, at least they know the technical details they’re talking about. The MAGA Pravda Gaslighters don’t even bother going that far. Like their leader, they’ve come to understand that the Big Lie doesn’t even have to be plausible.

Its power comes just from the act of speaking it out loud. It shows that the liar has the power and the listener does not. It gives the uneducated foot soldiers the only talking point they need to feel like they “won” the battle in the comments section on their niece’s Facebook post.

This isn’t an attempt to cover the government’s tracks. It’s just another assertion of dominance.

But facts do matter. And here they are:

A large group of Americans assembled on Monday to exercise their constitutional rights of free speech and free assembly. There is no evidence that they broke any laws. There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that they were peaceful.

The government decided to forcibly remove these citizens and practice physical violence against them at the order of the attorney general, so that the president could have a photo op.

These citizens were struck with batons and shields. They were punched. They were subjected to tear gas. And they were hit with rubber bullets. No, sorry: rubber pellet shrapnel. They were hit with rubber pellet shrapnel which was ejected over a 50-foot radius by each Def-Tec Stinger grenade the police threw at them.

It is so important to get the facts right.

Last night General James Mattis, the former secretary of defense, ended his silence about this administration and spoke out on this horrific scene in particular saying: “Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens—much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside.”

What Mattis offers is clarity about the moral and civic meaning of what transpired.

What Trump and McEnany and Hemingway (and Hume and Grenell and on and on) are demanding is that you not believe your lyin’ eyes.

So watch this deeply un-American scene one more time. Share it with your friends.

It should be enough to make you shed a tear.


NOTE (June 4, 2020, 12:06 p.m. EDT): This article has been updated to reflect a new report indicating that a used CS gas canister was found by journalists on Monday at the scene of the Lafayette Square incident.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.