Police in Ferguson will have to warn protesters before firing tear gas, a judge ordered Thursday.
The order — which was issued by U.S. District Judge Carol Jackson — also requires police to give protesters a “reasonable” time to disperse before actually pulling the trigger, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The judge issued the order in a case filed by a group of protesters, a St. Louis University professor, and a legal observer for the National Lawyers Guild.
Brittany Ferrell — a plantiff in the case, as well as a protester and co-founder of Millennial Activists United — praised the order. In a phone interview with BuzzFeed News, she said it should give people who want to express themselves time to get out of the way if they so choose.
“When police use tear gas,” Ferrell said, “they tend to do so without warning. You have people out there who are asthmatic. You have people are are not prepared to be gassed.”
The case names the chiefs of the St. Louis city and county police departments as defendants, along with Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, who commanded the police response to the protests for much of August.
Attorneys representing police could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday evening.
The order is a legal victory for protesters, who have consistently criticized police the use of tear gas as a crowd control tool.
Police in Ferguson fired tear gas during both the initial protests in August, and in November after a grand jury cleared Officer Darren Wilson. Ferrell said the gas “makes your skin feels like it’s burning off.”
“It’s almost like you’re face is on fire,” she said. “When you inhale the tear gas, within a few minutes your stomach begins to turn.”
In November, protester Katherine Hawkerself told BuzzFeed News that after getting tear gassed her lungs burned for days:
Still, it’s unclear what practical effect Thursday’s order will have on the ground. For one thing, the judge rejected a request that tear gas be permitted only as a “last resort,” the Post-Dispatch reported. It also wasn’t immediately clear exactly how long police have to wait before firing the gas.
And in the past, protesters have defied police orders to disperse or face arrest. All of which suggests that warnings may not dramatically alter the dynamic on the street.
It also represents a significant-but-lesser seen side of the protest movement. Though street conflicts and marches consistently make headlines, protesters also are taking their cases to court. They previously scored a victory in October, when a judge said that the so-called 5-second rule — which required protesters to constantly keep moving — was unconstitutional.
Ferrell said she ultimately hopes police obey the order. But she added that even if conditions on the ground don’t drastically change, the order was still a “very, very symbolic gesture.”
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