Olympic critic Chris Shaw has seen firsthand what police are capable of doing to break up rallies.
In April 2001, the UBC neuroscientist was right on the scene in Quebec City when riot cops let loose on antiglobalization protesters demonstrating during the third Summit of the Americas. As a volunteer medic then, he administered first aid to several people who got pepper-sprayed, doused with tear gas, and shot with plastic bullets.
With demonstrations planned this month against the 2010 Olympics, Shaw is putting together a team of medics to attend to people who may get hurt if violent confrontations with the police happen on the streets of Vancouver.
“The danger for protesters always comes from the police,” Shaw told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview.
He expects to have a temporary clinic up and fully operational at the First United Church on East Hastings Street on February 11.
On February 12, protesters belonging to various groups will assemble on the north lawn of the Vancouver Art Gallery and later march to B.C. Place, where the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Olympics will be held. Other protest actions in following days are being lined up.
With the risk of police deploying tear gas and pepper spray, Shaw offered a few tips to those joining anti-Olympic protests.
A bandanna soaked in apple cider, for example, may prove handy. Wrapped around an individual’s nose and mouth, it can diminish the impact of tear-gas fumes. Goggles that seal tightly around the eyes can keep out gas and pepper spray.
Carrying a water bottle is useful to keep hydrated at outdoor events. Water can also be used to wash eyes after tear-gas and pepper-spray strikes. Wearing contact lenses is not advisable.
An article in the June 26, 2001, issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal noted that chemical agents commonly used in tear gas are o-chlorobenzylidene malononitrile (CS), chloroacetophenone (CN), and dibenzoxazepine (CR).
According to “The Health Impact of Crowd-Control Agents”, “CS, CN, and CR gases irritate the skin, eyes, and upper respiratory tract. They have been described as chemical barbs that cling to moist mucous membranes.”
People with preexisting respiratory conditions like asthma or bronchitis may find it difficult to breathe if they are exposed to tear gas, according to the article.
The active ingredient in pepper spray is capsicum oleoresin, an oily extract of hot peppers that targets pain receptors, according to a CMAJ article that appeared in the publication’s July 10, 2001, issue.
The piece, entitled “On Pepper Spray and Civil Disobedience”, noted that pepper sprays cause inflammation of nerves, pain, redness of the skin, abnormal blinking of the eyelids, tears, and blurred vision.
Shaw said that although many people are worried about tear gas and pepper spray, he’s more concerned about blunt trauma, whether it comes from riot batons or police horses.
“They could generate the kind of injuries that I can’t deal with on the spot,” he said. “And then I have to evacuate somebody. While that’s going to be doable, it’s going to be more complicated.”
A guide released in November last year by the Vancouver law firm McGrady & Company has some suggestions on what protesters can bring. For example, having photo and video cameras may keep police in line, as they generally don’t like to be recorded hurting people. Those taking prescription drugs are advised to bring their medication just in case they get detained.
Clothes should be comfortable for running, according to the guide. “Further, you do not want to be easily grabbed by your clothes or your hair by someone attempting to restrain you,” it also states.
Vancouver Police Department spokesperson Const. Lindsey Houghton told the Straight that the force doesn’t discuss “operational deployment or strategies or equipment”.
Like other police agencies, Houghton added, the VPD has tear gas. Asked about rubber bullets, he said: “We have a number of less lethal options available.”