(This article originally appeared in Lexington DSA’s Newsletter “New Kentucky”)
I’ll never forget the evening of Thursday, May 28th. The Minneapolis Police Precinct 3 was burnt to the ground. Around the same time in Kentucky, the Louisville Police Department deployed tear gas on a small crowd of around 300 peaceful protestors. The following morning I began receiving messages all asking the same question. “You going to Louisville tonight?”
Me and my comrades arrive at Jefferson Square Park just before nightfall. In a very fitting fashion, we meet by the statue of Louis XVI. The previous night the right hand of the statue was broken off by a protestor. It now serves as a hydration station with stacks of water bottles around it.
The crowd is continually marching around the courthouse and we slip right in with the group. There are hundreds of people. It’s an unfathomably large crowd and it occurs to me that I’ve never been to a protest this large. Tensions are high. I’m scared, and I can tell everyone around me is as well.
Suddenly, multi-colored reflections of police lights appear on the walls of the buildings around me. The crowd grinds to a halt. While we were marching, a line of police in riot gear purposefully cut us off, forming a line to prevent our forward motion. They are reinforced from behind by the BearCats. BearCats are armored personnel carriers used by both the U.S. military and police. Like many things in the War on Terror, the tactics and equipment used by America abroad are inevitably turned around and used against its own citizens.
The crowd is palpably anxious, and nobody knows what is about to happen.
I reach into my backpack and retrieve my flask of bourbon. “Alright everyone, solidarity forever!” I shout. I take a swig and pass it to my friends around me. “Solidarity forever!” they all chant, pouring a bit in each of their mouths.
The crowd is growing more and more agitated by the presence of the police, and angry shouts directed at the cops begin. Water bottles are thrown at the police and in response the police begin beating their batons against their hands. The energy is electric and feels like something is about to explode.
Suddenly, we hear a couple bangs from above us. Smoke begins rising from the crowd behind us. It’s my first time at a protest of this magnitude, so I mistake the bangs for smoke grenades. Most of the crowd seems to as well, as for a brief moment, people hold their ground. Then, a chemical smell begins to fill my nose.
My eyes begin to burn. It’s tear gas. I hear screams, and a stampede begins. People run in every direction to escape it. I hold my N95 close to my face and turn to run as well. My comrade grabs my backpack and yanks it to stop me. They’re working as an impromptu street medic tonight. “Hold up! Hold up!” they yell. “We need to go to the medic tent and grab bottles for eye washes! I only have a couple!”
We turn and run for the medic tent we occupied previously. The tent across the street has tear gas pouring out from it. We run through a cloud of the stuff and my eyes, lungs, skin, and nose burn. It’s excruciating. As my comrade starts gathering water bottles in the cloud of gas I collapse on all fours and begin coughing and crying in pain. In my shame, my brain goes into fight or flight mode, and I choose flight. I hobble around the street corner to escape the cloud and leave my comrade to gather the water bottles.
While using tear gas is prohibited in theaters of war, most governments draw a blind eye when it comes to their own citizens. The police have just committed two different war crimes. Not only have they attacked us with chemical weapons, but they’ve also attacked our medical tents.
I escape the cloud of gas and collapse against the brick wall. As I wheeze I push my N95 as close to my face as I can and silently resolve to buy a gas mask before the next protest. My comrade runs around the corner and meets up with me. “What the fuck Alex!” they laugh. “I’m sorry!” I reply. I continue to produce hacking, painful coughs. “I couldn’t take it anymore!” I cough. “Fuck, that burns.”
They dump the pile of water bottles they’ve gathered onto the ground in front of us. “Alright, we got about six here. Three per person?”
“Sure.” I gather a few and put them in my backpack. “Remember how to do an eyewash?” I ask.
“Yep!” They reply.
“Cool! Let’s go find the group.” With that, we set back off…