Sunday, April 3, 2011

How I Got Tear-Gassed.

Last night was probably the most traumatic night of my life. I don't mean to be overly dramatic, but it was. I didn't know what to do to make sense of the night, so I did what I always do: wrote about it.

Read about it after the jump.

            Let me get one thing straight right off the bat: I’m not opposed to the use of tear-gas. If people are setting things on fire, throwing beer bottles, and hurling trash cans through windows, by all means: do what you have to in order to stop them. What I am opposed to is using tear-gas without appropriately assessing the situation. Bearing this in mind, here is my story.
            VCU lost. It was a great run, but it came to an end. Feeling bummed about it, I thought I’d head toward campus for some food and, God willing, a glass of sweet tea (it was around 8:30, and I hadn’t eaten dinner yet). Heading out from my apartment on Broad Street, I was surprised by the number of police present. Vast numbers of cops in riot gear lined the street, but the group of people pouring out of the Siegel Center seemed to be in good spirits, and I did not feel threatened. I kept moving. Soon, though, I could no longer move forward due to the massive crowd that blocked the road and sidewalk.  I hung back from the crowd, watching as they chanted and set off small fireworks.
            When I noticed someone had lit a t-shirt on fire, I knew it was time to give up on getting where I wanted to go, and turned to head home. This plan was quickly complicated when I realized the police, riot shields in place, had formed a line across the street and sidewalk, and were not allowing anyone to pass in the direction of my apartment. I turned to the opposite direction, but it was blocked in the same way. The only path not blocked by police was blocked by the mob of people, who had now set a newspaper box on fire. Needless to say, that direction was also out of the question.
            At this point, I began to get extremely anxious. In the past I have struggled with severe panic attacks, so I tried to concentrate on remaining calm. I stood against a building with a small group of about 15 other people; everyone seemed to be asking the same question: how do we get out of here? The moving line of shielded police drove us closer and closer to the identical row of cops behind us. Eventually we had nowhere else to go. Regardless, the police continued to shout at us from behind, “KEEP MOVING.” Several in our small group turned to answer that there was nowhere to go. Still, the policemen insisted that we “JUST KEEP MOVING” and “ GO THAT WAY” despite shouts in reply of “We can’t!” and “It’s blocked!”  I struggled to maintain normal breathing, knowing that steady breathing was my only chance of avoiding a serious panic attack.
            Suddenly, trapped on all sides by heavily armed men, my eyes began to burn and instinctively clamped themselves shut. My throat felt as though I had swallowed a strange liquid fire that filled my lungs. I forced my eyes open just long enough to see the police behind the smoky cloud of tear-gas that nearly obscured them. At that point, any chance I stood of controlling my breathing was lost. I heard screaming and swearing all around me. The pain only worsened as I was exposed to more of the tear-gas, since there was still nowhere to go to escape it. Chancing another glance at my surroundings, I saw a petite blonde girl, face smeared with mascara, stumbling forward with arms outstretched. Her voice trembled as she pleaded with anyone who would listen to help her.
            Finally the police realized they had cornered us, and allowed us to move. I staggered a few feet in the direction of my apartment, still in the grip of a panic attack. I knew that if I didn’t control my breathing, I would pass out…but breathing was agonizing. Every gasp of oxygen brought with it the sensation of fire ants stinging the walls of my lungs. I leaned against the nearest building and slid to the ground. Between heaving breaths, I managed to get out a few key words: Panic, attacks, can’t, breathe, hurts. A few of the police looked at me, but only one acknowledged that I had spoken, by saying “It’s alright, you’ll be fine,” apparently thinking what I was asking for was patronizing reassurance rather than medical assistance. “You’re away from all that now, you’re protected…” he continued. I almost laughed at the absurdity of such a statement: it was the actions of the police themselves, not the riot I had been “saved” from (despite never having been near it to begin with), that was causing my panic.
            Still hyperventilating, realizing no one would help me, I scrambled to my feet. I had to get home, had to wash the incredible pain off of my face. I desperately wanted to take my contacts out, thinking it may ease the pain, but knew I would never make it home without them (with my eyesight, it would essentially be an equal feat to getting home blindfolded).  Before I made it even one block, I encountered more police, who told me I would have to take another street home: West Broad was still off-limits. Logically, I knew I could get there, but the norepinephrine that had been flooding my brain since the start of my panic attack convinced me that every person or shadow I encountered on the dark, quiet street I was directed to meant certain death or, at the very least, more pain.
            When I finally made it home I held my breath to stop the gasps and shaking long enough to remove my contact lenses. Immediately I realized my theory that it would ease the pain had been wrong. The second I touched each eye, I relived the initial pain of the gas. I blindly tore off my clothes and threw myself into the shower. After sitting in the shower for ten minutes, face up-turned toward the cold water that mercifully washed away the chemicals, I wrapped myself in a towel and collapsed onto the floor, finally giving in to the need to cry.
            Once I had cried myself out, I lay there drowning in questions: Why would the police do that? Was it poor planning? Poor communication? Did they just not care? Was it a case of “guilty by association,” that is, if we were outside, we surely deserved to be attacked? Whatever the reason, I know that what happened was wrong. No innocent person should be put through such a horrible experience. That is not to say that tear-gas was wholly unnecessary that night; it was used to successfully disperse a crowd of people who were becoming dangerous, lighting fires, throwing things, and provoking the police. But when law-abiding people are cornered and attacked by the very men they trust to protect them, something has gone terribly wrong. 

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