PERRY: Yes, Aurora police did use tear gas during Elijah McClain protest, and cried foul about that reality

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It’s time to put a fast end to a dangerous line of bull from the Aurora Police Department right now. They most certainly did use tear gas against Elijah McClain death protesters on Saturday, and it was a cruel and ghastly mistake.

Just how bad this really was may become more apparent Tuesday night. Mayor Mike Coffman has called an emergency meeting of the city council to have police officials answer questions about what happened at the protest. The growing controversy is complicated by reports that three Aurora police officers have been placed on paid leave pending an internal investigation. The probe is focusing on allegations the officers took some kind of inappropriate photos at the site McClain was accosted by police.

If you missed the marathon protest against Aurora police that started mid-day on Saturday and went nearly to midnight, you were off the planet.

After months, and months, the national media last week discovered what everyone in metro Aurora already knew: Elijah McClain, a young black man, was wrongfully arrested, attacked, drugged and killed last August by police and Aurora Fire Department medics.

The story was well-reported, and frequently:

  • after it happened
  • after the repugnant story was partially revealed
  • after the protests
  • after the shocking body cam video was released
  • after the dubious coroner’s report was released as “inconclusive”
  • after the police said an internal affairs probe revealed that the three arresting officers did nothing to warrant discipline
  • after the city’s “Independent Review Board” — composed of members appointed by the chief of police, and whom report to the chief — found no punitive issues
  • after District Attorney Dave Young determined the botched encounter warranted no prosecutable charges
  • after public appeals for independent investigations to Gov. Jared Polis on this and other similar deaths went nowhere
  • after the Colorado Legislature used McClain’s death to press forward with statewide police reforms

Aurora, and much of Colorado, is very familiar with how Aurora police officers, protocols and accountability completely failed McClain, and all of us, from the moment police rolled up on him last year.

Aurora Police failed the community yesterday when they used chemical warfare against protesters who were behaving criminally — and potentially hundreds more who were not.

And Aurora Police failed the community again Sunday when they said in a tweet that media reports about Aurora police on Saturday deploying tear gas were “FALSE.” Not only did they issue this definitive and erroneous edict via tweet, they disabled the public’s ability to reply to it.  

Here’s the reality:

Aurora’s government complex includes cops, courts, city offices and the main library all on the same campus. It’s huge. That’s where protesters chose to hold their event. The day before the protest, city officials boarded up dozens of windows. Police used barricades and fencing to keep protesters away from police headquarters.

A few thousand boisterous demonstrators filed in over several hours. For the most part, they were loud and relatively well behaved. Police said there were troublemakers in the crowd. They were right. Astonishingly accommodating, police shut down Interstate 225 so protesters could take a long and dramatic march down the highway.

Later, cops bristled when a couple of protesters started pushing barriers back toward the police building, but they let it go.

Interim Police Chief Vanessa Wilson said that a few protesters threw bottles and rocks. From what we saw of an unruly few protesters at the barricade, there’s no reason not to believe her. So a couple dozen cops, in full riot gear, came forward with clubs, pushing the protesters back.

Protester video footage clearly shows one cop rolling a smoking canister at protesters. It’s unclear whether is was smoke or something else. Police on Sunday said at least one officer fired four rounds of rubber pellets either at someone or into the crowd.

More than one cop fired “pepper spray” at protesters — tear gas. That’s exactly what it is. Over-the-counter versions are components of hot peppers weaponized with other chemicals. Pro-strength versions, similar to Mace, a brand name, are 100% man-made chemicals turned into similar weapons. Both of these toxins immediately disable people.

They’re incredibly effective at making protesters forget about everything but their eyes, which they can’t open. Anyone struck with this form of viscous, aerosolized tear gas can’t breathe right, or at all. 

These chemical agents, in canisters or convenient spray cans, have long been banned internationally as weapons of war because they are inhumane. Legal exceptions for their use are — wrongly — made only for civilian police.

The question as to whether pepper balls and pepper sprays are considered “tear gas” was settled again just days ago when the Trump administration tried to make the same false argument. Washington DC park police used tear gas on peaceful protesters there to make way for Trump to make a bizarre and now notorious walk and photo op to nearby St. Johns Church. 

Scientists make it clear that some chemicals may vary in these weapons, but the effect is exactly the same. Police in D.C., recently in Denver, and Saturday in Aurora, sprayed this poison onto protesters to force compliance. Every aspect of federal, state and local governments label these dispersants as toxic chemicals. The EPA, not FDA, regulates them as toxic insecticides. They are all pain-inducing nerve gas. The ACLU recently reported there are about 1 death for every 600 times they’re used, but there have been a recent spate of deaths associated recently with the use. A 22-year-old woman died earlier in June in Ohio after being exposed to pepper spray and canister dispersants.

Police here and across the country try to make it seem that so-called pepper sprays are somehow tolerable as a method of policing and somehow safer or less dangerous than other dispersants used in canisters. 

It’s propaganda, and it’s not true. 

Spraying these dangerous chemicals immediately creates an airborne, gaseous danger to everyone around and and especially nearby the target. That’s why police use gas masks when they deploy “pepper spray.”

While there were a handful of rogue protesters creating a real danger to themselves and others by trying to rush the police building, Aurora police endangered hundreds, if not thousands, of peaceful protesters by deploying tear gas in a convenient, hand-held aerosol container.

That’s why a federal judge just a few weeks ago came down on the Denver Police Department like a ton of bricks when they used the same, war-like and inhumane tactics to control seriously unruly mobs in downtown Denver. On June 5, the U.S. District Court in Colorado forbade Denver police from using anything they consider tear gas, pepper balls, pepper spray and other non-lethal devices to disperse protesters.

Did police lob canisters of tear gas at the crowd? They say, “no.”  Did police spray tear gas at protesters, endangering everyone there? Absolutely.

Hopefully, the Colorado ACLU will take up the case for Saturday’s victims, and any future victims, and appeal to the same federal court for help. The courts need to intervene in Aurora, just like they did in Denver, for citizen protection from police using tear gas and then trying to sidestep the facts.

This is another example of what Colorado and the nation have learned from police reform efforts ignited by the death of George Floyd, and Elijah McClain. Police cannot police themselves. Only civilian citizens can effectively do that. And police cannot continue to rationalize their behavior by fooling the public, and themselves, into thinking that they should be allowed to dictate the narrative of law enforcement. That’s our job, and we’re on it now. 

Follow @EditorDavePerry on Twitter and Facebook or reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected]