Charleston Police Department has confirmed officers used tear gas and plastic balls filled with the active ingredient in pepper spray while attempting to disperse protesters assembled peacefully in Marion Square on Sunday.
A day after large protests on May 30 that preceded destructive riots on King Street, law enforcement agencies dispatched common nonlethal measures against protesters assembled near Marion Square downtown.
Hundreds of people crowded the streets of downtown on Saturday to join in nationwide protests over continued police violence that has led to the deaths of black Americans. In the most recent high-profile case, a Minneapolis officer held his knee on the neck of George Floyd, killing him.
On Sunday, protesters gathered in areas across the peninsula, eventually pushing them into Marion Square toward the end of the afternoon as a countywide curfew approached. After declaring the assembly unlawful and telling them to disperse as they protested in front of police in full riot gear flanked by armored vehicles, some were taken down and arrested by officers. The remaining crowd eventually moved to Meeting Street, where more arrests were made.
A Charleston police spokesman confirmed Thursday that “pepper balls and CS gas” were used during protests on Sunday. Between May 30 and June 1, 42 people were charged with disobeying a lawful order, police say. Jail records show at least 35 of those arrests came on Sunday afternoon. Several area law enforcement agencies were on hand to assist in the response Sunday, including county sheriffs and the State Law Enforcement Division.
Pepper balls are similar to paintballs, but are filled with a substance that has the same active ingredient as pepper spray. CS gas, a type of tear gas, is banned for use by the military under chemical weapons agreements, but is allowed for use by law enforcement to control riots.
The aggressive tactics used by police, including deploying chemical agents and projectiles against peaceful protesters, is drawing criticism from civil liberties and criminal justice reform advocates.
Allie Menegakis, a former public defender who founded criminal justice reform group SC4CJR, has been working with arrested protesters this week to get a clear picture of the scenes that played out on Sunday.
“After speaking with many protestors who were present at Marion Square and after reviewing multiple videos and photos of the police response to the gathering, we believe that the police response was excessive and reckless,” said Menegakis.
Pepper balls do not have to be fired at a person to be effective, according to video demos online for similar products. But images and eyewitness accounts show it’s very likely that the projectiles did strike protesters. Several images posted by SC4CJR on Facebook show bruises and abrasions, including some on protesters’ faces and heads.
“The use of weapons or physical force by law enforcement in response to non-threatening actions of citizens should never be permitted without just cause,” said Menegakis.
Frank Knaack, the leader of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina, was in Marion Square on Sunday and says the methods used can cause harm, despite being billed as nonlethal.
“Despite this fact, our law enforcement thought it was appropriate to use indiscriminately. These are weapons of last resort, not first,” said Knaack.
In a statement responding to inquiries by the ACLU about the use of force on Sunday, Charleston County Sheriff’s Office said: “Deputies will use the reasonable amount of force necessary to safeguard the lives and property of all citizens. That force is used on individuals who act unlawfully or choose to cause harm or damage to law abiding citizens.”
Compounding any normal risk from the nonlethal methods, the spread of COVID-19 adds another variable. Tear gas and pepper spray both activate the body’s pain-sensing nerves, including in mucus membranes of the eyes, nose and mouth.
“Law enforcement’s decision to use these weapons would have been unjustifiable even under the best of times, but we are also living in the midst of a respiratory pandemic, and experts have already warned that the use of tear gases threatens to worsen COVID-19,” Knaack said.
The sheriff’s office said the county jail that housed arrested protesters had “no active COVID-19 cases” and that safety protocols are being followed, according to their statement Wednesday.
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