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NOPD Says It Used Tear Gas On People Who 'Chose To Use Force,' Organizer Says It Was Excessive

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Travis Lux
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WWNO
Protesters approach a police line on the Crescent City Connection during a march against police brutality in New Orleans on June 3, 2020.

New Orleans Police Superintendent Shaun Ferguson said police made every effort to avoid conflict with protestors who were attempting to cross the Crescent City Connection on Wednesday night. At a Thursday press conference, he showed reporters two videos that he said prove that officers deployed tear gas as a last resort.

“We did not deploy gas on a peaceful protest,” Ferguson said. “We did deploy gas on people who chose to use force.”

Protesters and advocates dispute this characterization of the events. In a live video posted Thursday afternoon, organizer Brianna Elaine, who is shown addressing protesters in a video police are using to justify tear gas use, said, "The police are trying to use a few minutes of a two and a half-hour long live feed of us peacefully protesting … as a way to say that we were never being peaceful in the first place."

They’ve also pointed out that tear gas affects peaceful marchers as much as it does the few “agitators” police have repeatedly blamed for the escalation of their response.

The ACLU Of Louisiana condemned NOPD’s use of tear gas in a statement and demanded an independent investigation be conducted.

“We are dismayed and horrified by the violent and unlawful deployment of tear gas against demonstrators after a week of peaceful protest in New Orleans,” Alanah Odoms Hebert, ACLU of Louisiana executive director said. “This excessive use of force against protesters exacerbates the pain and anguish of Black communities, imperils public health, and infringes on people’s fundamental right to make their voices heard.”

Wednesday night marked the first escalation between police and protesters in New Orleans marching in response to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Ferguson described the encounter as unfortunate and said the department has been working “hand in hand” with the community since last Friday to ensure a safe environment that allows everyone to exercise their right to free speech.

He said police identified informal leaders of the protest and explained to them that it would be dangerous for them to advance onto the Crescent City Connection.

“We’re talking to them, engaging with them, encouraging a peaceful protest,” Ferguson said. “But we’re letting them know this is as far as we can allow you to go.”

According to Ferguson, police then asked leaders to turn protesters around and allowed them to use NOPD mics to better communicate with the crowd. A video clip shared by NOPD shows a protestor addressing the crowd.

“There are people telling me to tell you to turn around. I’m not doing it,” the protestor said. “I’m OK with that, but I’m not going to let you all walk into the bullshit without telling you what they say.”

But people at the scene, including The Lens editor Charles Maldonado, have said these messages and commands were inaudible beyond the front line over the crowd noise.

At that point, Ferguson said, some protestors prepared to “proceed through [police] lines with force.” In another video clip shared by NOPD, protestors can be heard saying “men to the front, women to the back” and instructing women to remove their jewelry.

He said the decision was made to deploy tear gas when “individuals forced themselves upon our officers” and attempted to cross the police line.

According to Ferguson, police did not use rubber bullets or any other deterrents, just “tear gas and tear gas only.” One canister was rolled on the ground and another was launched. Both were thrown back at the police.

There have been reports from people on the scene that a woman was hit in the head with a tear gas canister. Asked directly about it at Thursday’s press conference, Ferguson said he hadn’t heard about it and invited the woman to report what happened to the NOPD’s force investigation team.

He also confirmed that five protestors were arrested on misdemeanor charges for crossing a police line. Three of them are New Orleans residents, one is from Belgium and the other is from Massachusetts.

Ferguson said the “main agitators” were not arrested and that many of the people there were “just trying to have a peaceful walk.”

“Our relationship could and should be better. But I stand here before you troubled at the actions we had here last night,” Ferguson said. “Some of our citizens took the bait. We will not tolerate, we will not condone, violent protest in the city of New Orleans.”

Elaine addressed Ferguson’s comments and said protesters didn’t take any “bait,” instead they were making informed decisions.

“What would it look like ... if we just turned around and went home because you told us to?” Elaine said. “When clearly you guys are our oppressors right now. We were trying to send a message and nothing more.”

She said organizers told the police they wanted to lead protestors over the Crescent City Connection and then walk home. According to her, police refused to let them cross into Jefferson Parish, which they described as “dangerous territory.”

“They have shown us now that this is all a performative alliance,” Elaine said. “The police kneeling with us the night before, telling them they’re with us and then the very next day deploying tear gas into the crowd, when all we asked of them was to safely lead us over that bridge and get us back so that we can go home is ridiculous.”

Elaine said that the point of pushing forward was to prove that the police “aren’t on our side.”

“We didn’t do anything that was not peaceful last night,” Elaine said. “The most non-peaceful thing we did was push past the police officers to keep walking. We knew what was going to happen.”

Ferguson said there have been some reports of protesters going to the hospital for tear gas, but that no one was seriously injured. NOPD’s Force Investigation Team is also looking into the incident.

Aubri Juhasz is the education reporter for New Orleans Public Radio. Before coming to New Orleans, she was a producer for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. She helped lead the show's technology and book coverage and reported her own feature stories, including the surge in cycling deaths in New York City and the decision by some states to offer competitive video gaming to high school students as an extracurricular activity.

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