On the evening of June 1, President Trump and a cadre of administration officials walked from the White House to nearby St. John’s Church in Washington, D.C. for a photo op. Trump stood in front of the church and with his right hand, held a bible aloft and posed for photos for about 50 seconds.
The effect of pepper balls on the senses lasts at least 24 times longer. Peaceful protesters in adjacent Lafayette Square could tell you this firsthand, because the U.S. Parks Police forcibly cleared the group, which it called “violent,” from the park and from Trump’s expected route using the chemical irritants.
Eyewitness accounts and reporting from the scene both indicated that the U.S. Parks Police used tear gas to clear the area. However, other agencies involved in the event, including the Secret Service and D.C. National Guard, declined to say what munitions were used. The Parks Police and the Trump reelection campaign both claim it used smoke canisters and something called “pepper balls,” which are ultimately just a type of tear gas.
What are pepper balls?
Pepper balls are very similar to paintballs, but they are filled with an oily organic resin called oleoresin capsicum (or OC), which is derived from peppers. It’s the same irritant used in pepper spray, and comes in powder or liquid form. There’s also a synthetic version, PAVA.
Though they are made of a different irritant than tear gas, which is made of 2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile (CS), according to the CDC they are both riot control agents—and colloquially, tear gas. I asked Chris Burbank, vice president of law enforcement strategy at the Center for Policing Equity and a former chief of police, if the Trump campaign and U.S. Parks Police were splitting hairs by claiming they did not use tear gas to disperse protesters in Lafayette Square. “Splitting hairs—what they’re telling you is that we used chemical munitions to disperse the crowd. You could get OC or CS,” says Burbank. “So this is like saying ‘we struck this person with a wood baton,’ and then saying, ‘no, no, no, it was a metal baton.'” Either way, it’s going to hurt.
How are pepper balls used?
“The idea is you’d hit someone, the container would break apart, and the powder would get on your body,” says Burbank. Wind won’t spread the powder inside pepper bullets as far as it will tear gas emitting from a canister, which is typically used on large crowds, but it still can be picked up by a breeze and affect the person next to you. Officers are trained to aim for the “low center of mass,” i.e., the middle of the chest or the legs, says John Hodgson, head of the Center for Military Education and Training at Penn State’s Applied Research Laboratory and the interim associate director of its Center for Security Research and Education, to avoid hitting someone directly in the face.
Why are they used?
Pepper balls and other irritants are used to disperse or move a crowd in a case of civil disturbance, and authorities might use pepper balls as compared to tear gas canisters for a few different reasons, says Hodgson. Theoretically, he says, they can more accurately target a specific person in the back of a crowd as compared to a tear gas canister, which would just blanket the whole group. He says it’s also more controllable than a tear gas canister, which can get picked up by the wind or catch something like a building or shrubbery on fire.
Burbank says there has to be vandalism or active and “pretty aggressive resistance” for pepper ball use to be justifiable. He takes issue with the Parks Police’s handling of protesters on Monday. If a protest is peaceful, the fact that they aren’t moving is not a justifiable use of force, according to Burbank. “What I’m seeing is lots of people not necessarily doing the thing that would require that level of force,” he says. “And that’s extremely concerning because a peaceful crowd does not deserve to have chemical munitions against them.” He continued, “If they’re blocking traffic, divert traffic. Police should be protecting free speech.”
How dangerous are they?
The immediate effects of pepper balls are strong, and similar to other chemical irritants: it causes your eyes to tear and nose to run; it induces coughing, and can make it difficult to breathe. The length of time it effects your senses varies from 20 minutes to up to 90 minutes—that is, after you leave the area and remove the substance from your body.
If you are hit directly, it has an impact force similar to a paintball, Hodges and Burbank say. It stings and might leave a red welt, says Burbank. Both agree it’s not a good experience. “I’ve been hit a couple times in training, and it was not fun,” says Hodges.
When I asked Burbank about the relative danger of pepper balls to other nonlethal strategies that have been used against protesters, he put all chemical agents into the same category and places rubber bullets in the next level up of what he called a “use of force continuum.” “Most officers say they’d rather be tased than pepper sprayed,” he says. “Taser is you deal with it, and it’s over. OC [oleoresin capsicum, the organic resin in pepper balls] lasts for a long time.”