Iowa City confirms police did use tear gas on protest marchers on June 3

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An Iowa City Police Department vehicle in downtown Iowa City, May 29, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Iowa City Police Department officers did use tear gas on protesters gathered on Dubuque Street on June 3, an assistant city attorney confirmed on Monday in reply to a citizen’s open records request.

Little Village was provided with a copy of the email from Assistant City Attorney Susan Dulek, sent at 4:04 p.m. on Monday. According to Dulek’s email, ICPD officers used three chemical agents against protesters on Dubuque Street.

The chemicals used by Iowa City officers on June 3, 2020 were: a) OC – Pepper Spray Oleoresin Capsicum; b) CS – Ortho-Chlorobenzalmalononitrite; and c) SAF-SMOKE (purified terephilalic acid). Attached are the Safety Data Sheets (i.e., MSDS). The City of Iowa City does not have records of what chemicals were used by law enforcement officers of other agencies.

The person who filed the open records request with the city on July 6 wishes to remain anonymous.

The city’s reply began to attract attention on social media late Monday evening, when Oliver Weilen, a longtime activist for social justice causes, posted a screenshot of the body of the email, which he had been forwarded. (Weilen, it should be noted, was not the person who provided a copy to Little Village.)

While pepper spray is well-known, the names of the other two chemicals are less familiar to the general public. CS is another name for tear gas, and use of its active chemical compound — o-chlorobenzylidene malononitrile, also known as 2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile — is banned in warfare under the U.N. Chemical Weapons Convention, which the U.S. ratified in 1997. (The use of tear gas in war was banned in general by the Geneva Conventions in 1925, but that prohibition did not include specific information on which chemical compounds are considered tear gas.)

Terephthalic acid smoke grenades produce many of the same effects as tear gas — it is an irritant and makes breathing difficult — but are considered a less toxic alternative to other smoke grenades.

ICPD officers were part of the contingent of law enforcement officers who blockaded Dubuque Street on June 3, along with troopers from the Iowa State Patrol (ISP). All the officers were in riot gear, and an ISP officer was reportedly in command of the entire contingent.

The protest march that night was organized and led by the Iowa Freedom Riders (IFR). Like the other marches that week, demonstrators were protesting racism and police violence, and had been spurred by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. Following a rally at the Pentacrest, a crowd of approximately 1,000 marched across Iowa City. The march began with a brief rally at the Pentacrest at 6 p.m. and had already lasted five hours when the protesters reached Dubuque Street.

They intended to march on to I-80, but stopped short when they came to a line of police officers.

“We realized pretty quickly upon seeing the police that they were ready to engage in a violent way,” Oliver Weilen, who participated in the march, told Little Village. Unlike most of the people in the crowd that night, Weilen has previously been in protests where police used tear gas and other crowd control munitions against protesters.

The front line of marchers locked arms and stood their ground, peacefully facing the police.

Shortly after 11:20 p.m. an officer identifying himself as a member of the Iowa State Patrol used a bullhorn to order the crowd to disperse. Zachary Oren Smith of the Press-Citizen reported the officer “added that failure to do so would result in the deployment of chemical deterrents.”

According to Weilen, it wasn’t clear to the protesters what the officer had said because the bullhorn distorted his voice.

The officers then began to use flash-bang grenades followed by tear gas and smoke grenades.

Video still from KCRG’s live feed during the protest in Iowa City on June 3.

“It was extremely aggressive, extremely quickly,” Weilen said.

Protesters were already retreating as the police fired tear gas, Weilen said, and the gas made things chaotic.

“It’s an extremely panic-inducing experience,” Weilen said. “It feels like drowning in fire. You can’t breathe. Every time you cough or breathe in, it hurts more. You feel as if you’re dying. You can’t see, because your eyes are burning.”

Multiple witnesses describe the police firing several volleys of tear gas. But according to the ISP, their troopers only fired one canister.

The same person who filed an open records request with the city, filed one with the ISP. In an email reply on July 10, Sgt. Alex Dinkla wrote, “On June 3, 2020 at approximately 2323 hrs. the Iowa State Patrol working with other law enforcement agencies on Dubuque Street near Interstate 80 deployed one (1) canister of: Cs gas.”

The ICPD has not yet provided a public explanation of what happened that night. One of the 17 points in the resolution passed by the Iowa City Council to address the demands raised by IFR requires City Manager Geoff Fruin to provide the council with a report on ICPD’s involvement in the use of gas and flash-bangs on protesters.

The report was originally due to be presented no later than Aug. 1, but that deadline has now been extended because Fruin’s first choice to conduct an investigation into what happened on June 3, the Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation, turned down the job.

The city will instead hire a private firm that is experienced in conducting investigations into police conduct to prepare the report.

Little Village reached out to the Iowa Freedom Riders for comment, but has not yet received a response.

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