SALEM, Ore. – On June 2, Justin LaFrancois attended a protest against police violence and racism in downtown Charlotte, North Carolina, where he planned to livestream the event for his alternative newspaper’s website.
Shortly into the march, police, who reported that water bottles and rocks were being thrown at them, unleashed a volley of tear gas on the entire crowd, including those who were marching peacefully. The protesters tried to run. But hemmed in by tall buildings and desperate for an escape route, they tugged at the closed gate of a parking garage, pulling it up just high enough so they could slip inside to escape the pepper balls and exploding flashbangs.
“Oh, my God,” LaFrancois said in a video that captured him wheezing hard and coughing from exposure to the gas. “My face is on fire. My eyes are on fire.”
The Charlotte protest was one of the dozens around the country during the past few months where police unleashed tear gas on peaceful protesters. Tear gas has commonly been used as a defensive tool by law enforcement to make rioters disperse.
But during the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, federal, state and local law enforcement agencies have sometimes been using it offensively, including against peaceful protesters, children, and pregnant women, without providing an escape route or piling on excessive amounts of gas, witnesses and human rights advocates say.
Law enforcement officials say tear gas, if used properly, is an effective tool for crowd control.
Without it, "the only thing left to do is physical force — shields and batons,” said Deputy Police Chief Jeff Estes of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department. Estes said he’s been exposed to tear gas and pepper spray many times.
“So, I know the effects. I would rather have that than see what we’ve seen in other places where people who are violently assaulting other people have to get hit with sticks and shields,” Estes said.