Mikal Jakubal is a volunteer EMT and firefighter in Northern California, and a veteran street medic. These are his reporting tips for citizen journalists covering civil unrest situations.
Basic street tactics and chemical weapons awareness for citizen journalists
Know Before You Go: Personal Risk Assessment
Decide how important the story is to you and what you’re willing to risk beforehand. Consider the health, economic, social and legal consequences if you get gassed, beaten, arrested, held in jail for a week and so on. Decide what you can handle, prepare accordingly and set clear personal risk thresholds that you won’t cross or will at least recognize and reevaluate in the moment. Getting arrested in the service of a cause or story is exciting, feels righteous and gives you a new story to tell. Unexpected gassing if you’re asthmatic, unplanned arrest when your dog is locked in your apartment, or getting jailed for a week and losing your job can leave you disempowered and burnt out.
Situational Awareness: What Is Going On Around Here?
For both reporting and safety purposes, you need to maintain good situational awareness at all times. This will allow you to recognize when you’re approaching the personal risk threshold that you’ve set, above.
Situational awareness, in practical terms, means knowing where you are both the geographical and social landscape, where the protesters (and any counter-protesters) are now and where they’re going, where the cops are and where they’re going; knowing the likely course of events based on past history of similar events and stated intent the action at hand; and keeping in mind escape routes (should you want to leave the area) and temporary safe zones where you can fall back while still staying near the action.
Temporary safe zones could be side streets, BART stations (always have a ticket on you), restaurants or businesses, the lobby of an apartment building and so on. If there is a risk of projectile weaponry being used, make a mental note of any nearby cover you can use for protection, including small things like phone poles or fire hydrants. Pay attention to wind direction and stay upwind any time tear gas or pepper spray might be deployed. This is something to make a habit of wherever you are.
Use social media and, ideally, a buddy system to keep informed on what is happening in places you can’t directly see. Set this up in advance by getting on protest text loops, finding the people live-reporting the protest on Twitter, finding out which news helicopters might be overhead and watching their feeds on a smartphone and so on. A buddy can run over to the next block to see what’s happening, as well as watch your back while you shoot photos or video.
Usually the best place for reporting is also the best place for safety and maintaining situational awareness, namely, right near the front lines but slightly off to one side (the upwind side if gas is anticipated). You can see when the cops don gas masks (suggesting they intend to use gas), anticipate likely clashes, see a squad of riot cops peel off and head down a side street on a flanking maneuver, see “kettling” maneuvers early on, see when projectile weapons are being aimed and so on.
First and foremost: tear gas is not a chemical weapon, but a psychological one. It allows authorities to control people primarily through fear. The visual shock of billowing gas clouds and the discomfort the gas causes are temporary. Anyone who has ever smashed a finger in a door, sprained an ankle or had strep throat has experienced more severe and more enduring pain. Be aware that sometimes, authorities will use smoke canisters instead of tear gas. Smoke is much less physically problematic, but often has a similar psychological effect on a crowd as gas.
Tear gas burns your eyes and nose and makes you cough, but it subsides quickly and the countermeasures and treatments are easy. The military makes all recruits take off their masks in a chamber filled with gas in order to get experience under a controlled environment. Once you eliminate the fear, you eliminate the power of the gas over you. After that, it’s a simple matter of dealing with relatively minor physical impacts.
It’s important to understand that tear “gas” is not gas, but a fine powder released when the canisters burn like fireworks. As such, it behaves more like dust than gas. It will blow downwind, settle into low areas and eddy and concentrate in hollows and alcoves. This is why paying attention to wind direction is important.
Gas canisters are either be fired from rifles or thrown by hand into the crowd. Fired canisters range in size from several inches long to large, soup-can-sized canisters fired from long range.
The greatest danger from tear gas is not breathing the gas, but being hit by one of these canisters. A direct hit in a sensitive part of the body can be crippling or fatal. (If you are asthmatic or have some other respiratory system compromise, you are in a different situation and your risk threshold will be much lower with regard to chemical agents.) The canisters are also hot and can cause serious burns if you pick them up with bare hands.
If gas is used, remain calm and assess the situation. Try to remind yourself to stop, think and take a breath or two before acting. Seek cover from canisters before worrying about the gas itself. If you see rifles being aimed toward you, duck behind anything or hit the deck, covering your head. Even hiding behind a light post will protect your head and vital organs, as will a backpack if you’re wearing one.
Do not run! If you must evacuate the immediate area, walk briskly while constantly keeping an eye on what’s going on with the cops. You need to know if they’re aiming guns at you or advancing on the protesters to make arrests. If you run, you won’t be able to see what is going on and risk tripping or trampling someone else. Maintain situational awareness at all times.
Trampling or running injuries are the second biggest danger with tear gas. It is rarely necessary to remove yourself very far. If you pay attention to the way the gas is dispersing, you can often walk a short distance upwind or crosswind to escape the main gas concentrations. Or, if you need to go through a cloud of it, hold your breath, close your eyes and dash to the clear air on the other side. Typically, protesters run blocks away, often downwind the way the gas is blowing. More than likely, a half-block or less will do. Return back to your reporting as soon as the gas begins to disperse. That is often only a couple minutes.
Since the cops usually only use gas when the protesters are downwind, the air may clear closest to the police line first. This is another advantage to staying near the front and off to one side. You often will not even have to move very far.
Keeping in mind that tear gas is a psychological weapon, you don’t want to give in to panic and fear. Everyone who runs feeds others’ impulse to run. As journalists, you’re more prepared and more savvy than the average person who shows up not knowing what they were getting into. Use that position to be the one who acts as a calming force. Help others who are in trouble to find a medic or a safe exit route.
You don’t need a gas mask. They are expensive, cumbersome and mark you as a target. Many cities have outlawed gas masks, but only enforce the law during times of large protests.
To protect your eyes, swim goggles or ski goggles are usually sufficient. With ski goggles, be sure to tape over the vent holes on the sides. The open foam they come with will let gas in. To protect your mouth, nose and lungs, a damp bandana is sufficient for all but the worst gas attacks unless you’re a medic who needs to remain in the thick of things, or a videographer who needs continuous footage. If you want more protection than a bandana, a cheap paint respirator or a HEPA-filter disposable mask works fine. If you decide you need a gas mask, the military knock-offs are the best. (Look up what the most current model is.)
WARNING! Some cheap gas masks, like the Israeli ones that many people used back in the ’90s (and which are probably still available) do NOT have shatter-proof lenses. They are made for sitting in bunkers, not combat, and can shatter glass into your eyes if hit by a projectile or billy club. Do not use these. You’re better off with a dust mask and ski goggles.
Don’t wear makeup, lipstick or sunscreen if you can avoid it, because tear gas powder and pepper spray stick to it. If it’s a sunny day, use non-oily sunscreen and try to wipe waxy lip sunscreen off immediately if you suspect chemical agents will be used.
Soaking a bandana in water will help filter gas. Better for wetting bandanas is “L.A.W.”—Liquid Antacid and Water in a 50/50 mix. LAW is harmless and can be used as an eyewash and mouthwash and snorted to sooth nostrils. LAW is what most street medics carry for tear gas and pepperspray relief. Fill a small squirt bottle half with water, half with liquid antacid and keep it handy on your belt. Use the unflavored kind. It is available in most supermarkets or drug stores. Maalox is a common brand, but generic brands are much cheaper.
DO NOT use vinegar, lemon juice or anything else and be sure to ask what is in any mix before letting someone else rinse your eyes. Water, medical saline solution, liquid antacid (or milk of magnesia) and some herbal and homeopathic mixtures are the only things you want put in your eyes.
Wear glasses and not contacts if chemical agents are anticipated. If you’re wearing contacts and are gassed, remove the contacts and flush your eyes with water or LAW. The gas particles will get under the contacts and cause increased irritation.
Pepper spray is used at close range or shot at protesters in paint-ball-like projectiles called “pepper balls”. Unlike tear gas, it is a liquid that sticks to skin. It requires active remedial measures to reduce the effects.
If you’re paying attention, you’ll usually be able to see riot cops pull out their pepper spray canisters, giving you time to step out of the way. They look like miniature fire extinguishers. Stay upwind if possible and to the side of where they are likely to spray. Being a short-range crowd-control weapon, you don’t need to be too far away to avoid getting sprayed.
Don’t feed panic or powerlessness by running. Move as calmly as you can out of the way.
If sprayed, close your eyes tightly, hold your breath and protect your face till the spraying stops. Dab the liquid off with a bandana and avoid the temptation to rub your eyes. It will make it much worse. Watch for drippings off your head running into your eyes or nose. Remove contacts. Rinse your eyes, nose and mouth with LAW or water and dab off. It will hurt more than tear gas and hurt for a while, but it is still nothing worse than most of us have experienced and will experience many times again.
If you’re sprayed and can’t see, be mindful of the risk of tripping or falling as you leave the area. Even if it hurts, your attitude and mental state is still something you can exercise control over. If you’re able to see and walk safely, consider helping guide someone who has been sprayed to a safe area.
Chemical agent exposure aftercare
If possible, remove all contaminated clothing outside before going into your house or car. Launder it thoroughly. Shower as soon as possible.
Most healthy people will not have long-term reactions to pepper spray or tear gas, though after severe and extended exposures to gas in Seattle in 1999 and Quebec City in 2002, many people developed chronic health conditions they attributed to those exposures. There was an anecdotal consensus among protesters that more debilitating formulations of gas were used after the first day’s protest in Seattle. I’m unsure if any real studies were ever done or anything proven.
These are projectiles other than bullets fired from rifles. They include wooden dowels, pepperballs, steel-shot bags and rubber-coated steel bullets. Hand-thrown “flash-bang” grenades are also often used on protesters as well.
Their purpose is, like tear gas, to disorient people and induce fear and panic in a crowd. All these types of rounds leave painful bruising and swelling if they hit arms or legs. If hit, you will probably want to quit the protest for the day due to the pain, but the majority of the crowd will disperse based on fear of being hit, not the pain of actually being hit. Flash-bangs are harmless unless they blow up right near your head and face. They are like huge firecrackers. Like tear gas, all of these are primarily psychological weapons.
While the authorities refer to these as “less-than-lethal” weapons, protesters usually refer to them by the more truthful label “less-often-lethal” or “less-lethal” weapons, since they can easily be lethal or crippling if they hit you in the face, head or neck.
The counter-measures involve being aware of cops with rifles and where they are being pointed and taking cover if necessary.
If less-lethal rounds are being used, stay low and keep the shooters in sight so you know if you have to hit the deck or seek cover. Don’t feed the panic by running. Move laterally if possible, not down the line of fire. Look for anything to hide behind. Even a narrow light pole can protect your face and head, even if protruding shoulders or hips were hit.
If hit, seek medical attention, even if the injury is not life-threatening. You’ll want professional medical documentation for future civil suits. Take your own pictures as well and document the incident in detail as soon as you can.
And write a story about it.