On June 3, the New Orleans Police Department deployed tear gas at a group of protesters approaching the Crescent City Connection bridge — the first time the department has used tear gas in decades. The demonstration was part of a string of protests in recent weeks in reaction to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Police officer Derek Chauvin, who has now been charged with second degree murder, kneeled on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes despite pleas from Floyd and bystanders.
The City Council called a special meeting on Thursday to question NOPD Superintendent Shaun Ferguson about how and why tear gas and other weapons were deployed. At times, it’s been difficult to get clear information. For example, the NOPD initially said that they had only used tear gas on the crowd, despite claims from protesters that they used projectiles.
Five days later, Ferguson apologized to the public and amended its prior statement, saying that three different projectiles, including rubber balls, were shot at the crowd on the bridge.
The central point of contention between Ferguson and the council members was whether, in retrospect, it would have been safer and wiser to let the protesters cross the bridge and come back as they planned, rather than create a line of police in riot gear blocking the bridge.
“I want to sort of talk about the decision to use [tear gas],” Councilman Jason Williams said on Thursday. “Even if you deem that current law enforcement protocols allow it, is it advisable? I mean, this was a bridge. A very high bridge. Is it advisable to use chemicals like tear gas which are designed to temporarily blind and disorient, in a crowded situation like this when people are on a high bridge?”
The use of tear gas last week sparked condemnation from activists, healthcare professionals and City Council members. Some council members have proposed banning the use of tear gas altogether. On Thursday, Ferguson revealed that the NOPD doesn’t have a written policy for when the NOPD can deploy tear gas or shoot rubber balls.
Meanwhile, a protest outside of City Hall on Thursday was calling on the council to defund the police department, as part of a larger dismantling of what some see as an inherently racist and classist institution.
As The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate reported, police said that a woman was shot nearby as the rally was taking place, though police and protesters told the newspaper that the shooting was unrelated to the protest. According to the newspaper’s report, another woman, identified by police as a witness to the shooting, was detained inside a police vehicle. Protesters surrounded the vehicle, blocking it from leaving the area with the woman inside. Officers eventually released her.
Ferguson maintained during the meeting that although the department was awaiting the final results of an internal use of force investigation on the incident, he remained supportive of the decision to block protesters.
“That is the part of the investigation, how we made the decision, but I support that,” Ferguson said. “I supported the decision not to let them cross the bridge.”
The incident happened on a Wednesday, June 3, the fifth night of major demonstrations in New Orleans in response to the killing of George Floyd. Unlike other cities in the country that had seen violent police tactics and rioting, New Oleans had not seen any violent clashes between protesters and police up to that point. There haven’t been major clashes with police in the days since, either.
On June 3, after marching for roughly three hours, hundreds of protesters made their way onto an onramp to the Pontchartrain Expressway toward the bridge. Protesters had climbed onto Interstate 10 over Claiborne Avenue the night before, though that march ended without incident.
The NOPD was unable to stop the demonstrators from climbing onto the overpass. They circled around to cut off the protesters, Ferguson said. The NOPD made a blockade in advance of the bridge span. There were two lines of riot gear police accompanied by police SUVs and an armored vehicle that, according to Ferguson, contained the tear gas and projectiles that would be used.
The first line was made up of normal patrol officers, Ferguson said. The second line was made up of special operations division, or SWAT team, NOPD officers. Only SWAT officers are authorized to deploy tear gas or the projectiles used on June 3, Ferguson said.
Protesters marched to the police line and for roughly half an hour, the NOPD tried to negotiate with the crowd to turn around and exit the bridge. Eventually a small group of protesters was able to push through the front line. Most raised their hands and continued toward the line of SWAT officers, chanting “hands up, don’t shoot.”
That’s when the first of three rounds of tear gas was fired at the hundreds of protesters, most of whom were unaware of the shoving match occurring at the front. There was a brief panic, with people running and pushing away from the rising gas.
“I can tell you when I first heard my immediate fear was that someone was going to run in the wrong direction because they couldn’t see or get knocked off the bridge,” Williams said on Thursday.
The crowd was able to calm down and avoid a potential stampede. Children were lifted up and out of the crowd, while the crowd made lanes for injured people to get out quicker. The NOPD then started shooting three types of projectiles into the crowd, including rubber balls.
Ferguson has maintained that the NOPD “did not use tear gas on a peaceful protest,” arguing that they were only targeting certain “individuals that chose to use force.” But as Williams pointed out, tear gas isn’t generally used to target individuals within large crowds.
“Everything I’ve looked at in regard to tear gas is that it can’t be targeted, it is for large groups and cannot be controlled,” he said.
Ferguson said the decision to stop the protesters came down to safety. Still, council members questioned how it was safer to create a blockade on a narrow, raised expressway and shoot tear gas into the crowd rather than let them walk over and back as the protest organizers said they would do.
“I do want to talk a bit more about the decision making not to cross the bridge,” said councilwoman Kristin Palmer. “I’m having a hard time understanding why that was dangerous.”
Ferguson went through a list of justifications, none of which seemed to sway some of the skeptical council members. First, he argued that the protesters shouldn’t have been there in the first place.
“The first thing I’ll say is that I don’t think it’s advisable for anyone to go on the Pontchartrain Expressway where cars are traveling 50, 60, 70 miles an hour. And second, the question on ‘Should we use tear gas?,’ I think it’s best practice across the country. It’s less lethal than us using batons or tasers or stunning someone and having them fall over.”
Nonetheless, protesters did make it on to the expressway. And councilmembers pushed Ferguson on whether the blockade was a good idea, given that people we’re already on the bridge.
“I don’t think it was appropriate to escort them over the bridge. We did not give permission to go up on the bridge,” Ferguson said. “Us bringing them over the bridge puts us in a compromising position. We’re now responsible for this large massive crowd going to the west bank. And then we have to get that large massive crowd bad. Not to mention, what are we saying to our west bank new orleanians who need resources like EMS, Fire or police to get to them.”
Palmer took issue, however, with the idea that the protest would have blocked first responders from crossing the bridge, given that there the Crescent City Connection is made up of two bridges, one of which was not blocked by the protests.
Ferguson then said that he was concerned that the protesters would cross into Jefferson Parish, implying that people wanted to protest the shooting of Modesto Reyes by the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office.
“There was chatter about entering Jefferson Parish. People are still upset with what occurred in Jefferson Parish.”
Palmer argued that the protesters would still be in Orleans Parish when they got to the other side of the bridge, and would have to walk a good distance to get all the way to Jefferson Parish. Ferguson said that he had received no pressure from law enforcement in Jefferson Parish to stop the protest.
Palmer again questioned why a police line needed to be set up.
“Our number one priority at that time was keeping everyone safe and trying to get everyone off the bridge,” Ferguson said.
But council members pushed back again, arguing that if it was dangerous to be there, why stop them from crossing and potentially keep them on the expressway for longer?
“That’s what I still don’t understand,” Williams said. “If the bridge is deemed a dangerous situation, and protesters went on the onramp and went to the next line on the peak of the bridge, what is the difference in the danger?”
“It’s all elevated, but we’re now over a body of water,” Ferguson responded. “We’re not trying to take them over a body of water.”
Palmer argued that water or concrete made little difference to someone falling off the bridge.
“It’ll kill you either way,” she said.
Ferguson then landed on what would be his final argument to justify the use of tear gas.
“Bottom line we didn’t want to let them cross the bridge because we did not know their intent once they crossed the bridge, given what we’re hearing about Jefferson Parish.”
But Palmer took issue with the vague threat of violence from protesters.
“I want to push back a little because by your account and everyone else’s account, these were all peaceful protests leading up to it and even afterward they were peaceful. So to me, there’s something that happened where all of a sudden the NOPD stopped believing they were peaceful protesters.”
Palmer and Ferguson didn’t appear to come closer to an understanding.
“I don’t know what you want me to say to that,” Ferguson said. “They just put everyone in a bad situation by going up there, period. I don’t know what answers you all are looking for with that.”
This story was updated with additional information about a shooting that occurred near the site of a protest at Duncan Plaza.