US Park police say denial of ‘tear gas’ but use of PepperBalls in June 1 protest was confusing

The scene after Lafayette Square was cleared of protesters on June 1. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

On the evening of June 1, as President Donald Trump was speaking from the White House Rose Garden, calling himself both “your president of law and order,” and an “ally of all peaceful protesters,” chaos was breaking out just a block away at the intersection of 16th Street and H Streets NW on the north side of Lafayette Square. Smoke and tear-provoking chemicals some described as “tear gas” filled the air.

The controversy over the action continued all week. And on Friday U.S. Park Police agreed that the difference between tear gas and PepperBalls, which they admit to using, is a confusing one, because their end result is similar. Then once again, the Park Police denied using tear gas on protesters.

As WTOP’s reporters detailed from the scene, and in a longer story published later, a protest that had been peaceful was broken up just minutes before a 7 p.m. curfew in D.C. was to go into effect.

The push against protesters gathered at the intersection near St. John’s Episcopal Church, according to reporting confirmed by CBS News, was initiated by U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr.

Just after Trump’s news conference ended, he walked one block north from the White House to pose in front of the church with a bible.

In the intervening moments, the protesters had been pushed back by a variety of law-enforcement agencies, including the U.S. Park police, which is charged with patrolling federal land, including Lafayette Square, in D.C.

A day later, many questions remained about what exactly happened on Monday evening, including “did police use tear gas to break up the protest?”

Very quickly, agencies who had officers in the area denied using tear gas, including the Park police, who did, however, admit to using PepperBalls, which emit a tear-producing powder made from natural sources.

Tear gas, as it’s colloquially known, is a man-made irritant.

In the latest chapter related to the June 1 protest, a Park police spokesman told Vox that it “was a mistake” to use the term “tear gas” in the agency’s initial statement on June 2.

The spokesman, Sgt. Eduardo Delgado, said that while pepper spray and the emissions from PepperBalls are not technically tear gas, they are irritants that are designed to make people’s eyes water, in the same way tear gas would.

“I’m not saying it’s not a tear gas, but I’m just saying we use a pepper ball that shoots a powder,” Delgado told Vox.

He went on to say that the difference between the two substances, while factual, was also confusing.

That distinction, however, between pepper balls and tear gas continues to allow the Park police and the White House to assert that law enforcement agencies on the scene did not use tear gas.

That conversation between Delgado and Vox, however, prompted another comment from Monahan that was posted to the Park Service website late Friday afternoon.

“United States Park police officers and other assisting law enforcement partners did not use tear gas or OC Skat Shells to close the area at Lafayette Square in response to violent protesters,” is all it said.

Monhan’s statement seems to contradict Delgado’s admission that tear gas and PepperBalls, which are marketed as a “chemical irritant” after all, are not substantively different.

It’s still not clear whether another agency on the scene, such as the Secret Service, which has told WTOP that it “does not comment on protectees, our protective means and methods,” may have used the chemical agent to break up the protest.

Reporters who returned to the scene near St. John’s Church have posted photos and written about finding canisters nearby — both those that contained pepper spray and some marked with the symbol for the chemical irritant known as tear gas.

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Dan Friedell

Dan Friedell is a digital writer for WTOP. He came to the D.C. area in 2007 to work as digital editor for, and since then has worked for a number of local and national news organizations.

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