Reporter's Notebook

The sting of pepper spray at St. Louis protest

Protesters use milk to treat a man who was pepper sprayed by police at a St. Louis protest on Friday. (Sydney Hallett/YJI)
ST. LOUIS, Missouri, U.S.A. – I never thought a police officer would spray me in the face with pepper spray while I
stood at a peaceful protest, but that is what happened to me Friday.
In St. Louis, and its suburbs, there’s tension between the police and the community, and many people believe the
police abuse their power. The killing of black teenager Michael Brown three years ago by a white officer in nearby Ferguson ignited a violent response.
After the acquittal Friday of another white police officer who had faced murder charges in the 2011 death of Anthony Lamar Smith, a black man, people gathered at the courthouse to protest.
I went, too, to take part peacefully, and to document what happened.
The verdict came from the judge about 10 a.m. and that’s when people assembled around the courthouse to protest on a sweltering morning. I arrived about 12:30 p.m. and saw protesters, some lined up and others huddled together, on sidewalk and street in front of the building.

Protesters link arms in front of a bus in the street in St. Louis early in a long day of protests Friday. (Sydney Hallett/YJI)


There was no violence, but police were prepared with riot gear.

The first rounds of pepper spray came about 1 p.m. when about 30 officers on bicycles were using their bikes to push people to clear a path for a bus. They used pepper spray, arrested people, and used force.
I saw two plastic water bottles and another reusable water bottle thrown at the police, striking them from different directions. From what I saw, most protesters were peaceful and even yelled at the ones throwing things, telling them to leave.
Many protesters stood in a line, parallel to the officers in riot gear. They chanted, “No justice, no peace,” which was the slogan for the protest. There wasn’t violence the first time people lined up in front of the officers.
After the police moved the protesters from the street toward the courthouse – sort of containing the crowd with squad cars and lines of officers in riot gear – things were different. Police didn’t disturb the protest then.
In the center of a four-way intersection blocked off from traffic for the protest, protesters handed out food, water bottles, and other things people might need. People were chanting and taking care of each other. The people I met came from many different backgrounds and I found them insightful.
About 2:30, protesters began to move peacefully toward downtown. Traffic was stopped for us, but we maneuvered our way through the cars. There was no violence towards any pedestrians or cars. We were not on the highway.

St. Louis police officers protect the entrance to a bus about 1:15 p.m. (Sydney Hallett/YJI)

 At 5 p.m., we gathered by the courthouse again and stayed there. We were lined up in unison, and at that moment, I didn’t see many police officers in riot gear. There were police cars blocking the roads, stopping us from going any further.

One of the protesters approached a police officer and talked to him about everything that was  going on. A crowd gathered around. The man who was protesting and the police officer were both respectful towards each other.
But then we saw the officers in riot gear. They were dividing the crowd, turning what was a peaceful protest into a violent one. The protesters who got stuck on the other side were fleeing, but some weren’t able to make it out.

St. Louis police officers line up about 5 p.m., just before they divided the crowd of protesters. (Sydney Hallett/YJI)

An officer in riot gear tackled a small young woman to the ground. I don’t know why.

Most of the protesters were in the same part of the crowd as me. Like before, we linked arms parallel to the officers.
I thought they might have felt threatened.
I was chanting, “this is a peaceful protest!” Others were chanting “Black Lives Matter” and “Hands up, don’t shoot,” a popular slogan during the Ferguson protests.
When I saw the officer in front of me pull out a can, I didn’t know what to expect. I had a towel on my arm, ready to help anybody who was about to get pepper sprayed. The last thing I expected was getting pepper sprayed myself. As I was chanting, “This was a peaceful protest,” the officer in front of me pepper sprayed the left side of my face.
I turned away from the police, screaming and feeling immediate pain in my face. I closed my eyes, losing sight of what was going on. My breathing hurt, my throat was tight, and I couldn’t
help but cry.
I could feel someone move me away from the crowd, screaming, “We need a medic!”
It was the worst pain I had felt in my life. It affected all of my senses.
I was confused, angry, panicked, and passionate. We were peacefully protesting, and they decided to pepper spray a line of people who were doing absolutely nothing.

Sydney Hallett after getting pepper sprayed. (YJI)

I didn’t understand.

In the past, when I read news stories of riots, I always thought protesters were the ones who started the violence. Now, in the protest that I was in, it was the police who incited the violence.
I was told to turn my head to the side as milk was poured onto my face. It burned more than anything. For 10 minutes, water and milk was poured on my face as someone grabbed an extra shirt from my
bag and dabbed my face.
I’d brought a towel and extra clothes to help other people in need, but I couldn’t. I never knew that this would happen to me.
When I was finally able to settle down, I couldn’t help but go back to the front of the crowd. It seemed like the police hadn’t learned their mistakes in pepper spraying people. Instead, they threatened to chase everyone down. Every 20 minutes or so, the police threatened to chase everyone down, leading to widespread panic among protesters who turned and ran.
The protest was worth every second. The 90-degree weather, the pepper spray, and the solidarity of everyone in the crowd. Things in Missouri need to change if officers keep abusing their power
and shooting people of color. This should not keep happening, but it does.
The protest shows that people care what happens in our government.
As a chant went during the protest: “This is what democracy looks like.”
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