The 1925 Geneva Protocol — an addition to the Geneva Convention — categorized tear gas as a chemical warfare agent and banned its use shortly after World War I. Under this protocol, the United States can still use tear gas on rioting prisoners of war and in rescue missions to recover isolated personnel. However, the protocol dictates civilian casualties must be avoided.
So why then, many community members are asking, did the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department (IMPD) deploy tear gas on protesters during the weekend of May 29?
For nearly three weeks, local activist Cambria York offered medical assistance at nearly every demonstration in Indianapolis. Usually, York and others known as protest medics usually treat dehydration or rolled ankles. But on May 29 and May 30, they treated protesters and bystanders — one as young as six months old — for exposure to tear gas. Others needed treatment for wounds caused by rubber bullets and pepper balls. To make matters worse, those on the scene say IMPD officers confiscated medical supplies, including inhalers, water bottles and general first aid kits.
In a press conference June 5, however, IMPD Chief Randal Taylor said those supplies ceased to be medical supplies when protesters began using them to counteract the effects of the tear gas.
“Some of my concern initially was things were being projected towards officers,” Taylor said, citing frozen water bottles that were allegedly thrown at IMPD officers May 30. “The hope with tear gas is that it will move people along. … I’m concerned whenever someone has something to try and negate that for fear of it’s going to continue what happened before.”
While tear gas may be an effective way of clearing out a crowd, there is also the possibility of harming bystanders, which is why the chemical compound is banned in war under the Geneva Convention.
When gas was deployed on a crowd at Monument Circle on May 29, IMPD Sgt. Stephen Fippen said later only five people were directly hit, but admitted it is impossible to target tear gas as it lingers in the air.
Beyond the inability to target tear gas, York takes issue with medical supplies saying the supplies are no longer for medical use just because they are being used to treat injuries relating to tear gas.
“To set that kind of precedence is extremely dangerous,” York said. “Then you can say an asthmatic’s inhaler, or water, or milk of magnesia is no longer medicine. Saying that anything that is straight up medical but happens to counteract tear gas is no longer medical is not only unscientific, but a calculated way to delegitimize our role as non-combative support staff.”
While Taylor said IMPD had a reason — such as violence from the crowd or destruction of property — to deploy tear gas, York said the actions of IMPD are “nothing short of a war crime,” citing the Geneva Convention.
“According to the Geneva Convention,” York said, “it is unlawful to use against enemy actors in wartime, and it should be illegal to use against civilians. The fact that they are not only using tear gas as, according to their own verbiage, a less than lethal method of crowd control, the phrase ‘less than lethal’ is far from the truth.”
According to IMPD, however, tear gas is an acceptable and relatively safe method to disperse a crowd in a dangerous setting.
“While our preference would be to work with our community members to prevent large-scale violent events, once riots have begun, law enforcement officers need tools to quickly disperse violent individuals in a way that does not cause harm,” IMPD officials said in a statement. “According to the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], the effects of exposure to a riot control agent are usually short-lived.”
Throughout the country, there have been instances of tear gas resulting in miscarriages and menstrual disruptions, as well as death from asthma attacks or other breathing problems.
York, who is CPR and rescue certified, had enough medical equipment in a backpack to assist people after IMPD seized supplies. However, York and other medics had to use the inhalers they had on their person to reverse asthma attacks after tear gas was used.
Beyond the seizure of supplies, York and Jes Cochran, who trains protest medics to work at demonstrations, said they and other medics had negative interactions with IMPD and state police.
“I personally have no expectation of being treated fairly by the police,” York said. “Not only as an indigenous person, but as a transgender and gay person. … I have been followed by Indiana State Police multiple times. I have definitely been profiled and so have most of the other medics I work with. On Saturday, there were multiple instances of police and National Guard singling out medics and playing it off like they’re trying to coordinate. There’s a lot of not subtle efforts to intimidate.”
Cochran said when a Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Hospital ambulance arrived on May 30 to treat gunshot victims, an armed guard got off the ambulance and began pointing a gun into the crowd.
York described what’s referred to as a tactical medic, who was wearing IMPD-branded gear.
However, Brian Van Bokkelen, public affairs manager for Indianapolis EMS (IEMS), said the person seen in photos from the protests was an EMS– not an officer — and the standard, bulletproof uniform is provided by IMPD.
“There were no cops on our ambulances,” Van Bokkelen said. “And there was not a gun pointed at the crowd, not as far as IEMS is concerned.”
Van Bokkelen also refutes the claim that officers were using ambulances to break through the crowds, differing from information York provided.
“There are multiple eyewitnesses of EMS vehicles being used as Trojan horses to get through crowds of demonstrators,” York said. “It’s Hoosier hospitality — it’s in our nature — to make room for ambulances so they can help those who need it. To have our trust betrayed in that fashion is unforgivable.”
Update: The information provided from IEMS came after publication of this article. Originally, the statement provided from Sidney and Lois Eskanazi Hospital read: “Indianapolis EMS has a tactical EMS program with medics and physicians who are specifically trained to support and care for individuals in high-risk situations. The EMS medics and physicians on this team use special protective gear to support their ability to provide care quickly and safely. This team was in place downtown over the weekend to provide extra safety for protesters and preserve the ability of our caregivers to provide medical aid to those in need.”
Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.
Protest medics say the seizure of medical supplies by IMPD put lives at risk. (Photo/Breanna Cooper)