On the night of June 24th, protesters outside the Phoenix state Capitol found themselves fleeing from a cloud of caustic tear gas dispersed by Department of Public Safety (DPS) officers.
“My eyes started burning, my throat started burning, I had difficulty breathing, my skin was burning, and people just started running,” said Liz Perracchio, who attended the protest. Liz’s friend, who has compromised health, had her pacemaker start going off during the incident.
For context, the 1925 Geneva Protocol categorized tear gas as a chemical warfare agent, banning its use in war shortly after World War I, and in 1997, the United States signed the United Nations’ Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) that prohibited the use of riot control agents in warfare. A database by the International Committee of the Red Cross notes, however, that American law enforcement still permits its use.
Arizona DPS spokesperson Bart Graves told CNN that the crowd moved across the street to the Wesley Bolin Plaza before DPS troopers deployed more gas, further justifying their actions by claiming a monument was vandalized.
Meanwhile in the Capitol building, Republican Senate President Karen Fann was presiding over a voting session. During which SWAT teams and DPS officers stationed on the second floor of the building fired tear gas at about 8:30 PM. The incident forced Senate lawmakers to evacuate to the basement for about 20 minutes, according to Democratic Senator Martin Quezada.
“While working inside we were interrupted by the sound of bangs and smell of tear gas,” Democratic State Rep. Sarah Liguori tweeted from inside the building. The smell of tear gas lingered through the building afterward, so proceedings were moved to a hearing room instead of the Senate chamber.
State police reported that the event “began as a peaceful protest” that “evolved into anarchical and criminal actions by masses of splinter groups.” Police say they made the decision to deploy tear gas “after protesters attempted to break the glass” and breach the Capitol. No broken glass was found after the crowd dispersed.
DPS says protesters were warned of the tear gas, but eyewitness testimony contradicts police reports. Perracchio and the Arizona’s Family crew at the scene heard no such warning. Arizona’s Family asked DPS for an on-camera interview about the incident, but DPS declined.
Though video and images circulating online show protesters banging on the glass, including one man kicking the door, they represent a small fraction of those present at the event. Out of the 7,000 to 8,000 people at whom police fired tear gas, only about 100 protesters were near the glass wall at the front of the building. In videos recorded from the Senate lobby by Republican Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, hundreds of protesters can be seen milling about in the plaza between the House and Senate buildings.
State Senate Democrats issued a statement on June 25th saying that the majority of protesters were peacefully protesting, condemning the use of violence against citizens, and chastising “right-wing media and lawmakers” who called the protest an “insurrection attempt,” calling out those “weaponizing this moment to deflect from the actions of January 6th.”
Democratic state Rep. Athena Salman of Tempe had more to say in a June 25th interview, noting that Arizona police have a long history of using unnecessary force against people exercising their First Amendment rights, pointing to the examples of the Black Lives Matter and immigrant justice protests. “Anything related to human rights they’re ultimately going to gas the crowd and then come up with cover stories justifying this excessive use of force,” Salman said.
“A bunch of House and Senate Democrats voted to give these cops a huge pay raise,” tweeted Salman. “Some even called it historic. Remember that every time the cops gas peaceful protesters.”