This series of posts is my best, brief recollection of the first 24 hours of St. John’s as a sanctuary church after the Michael Brown grand jury decision. It is a bit jumbled and definitely incomplete, but you will understand why once you read them.
We were met at the front door by Deacon Harry Leip, who was hustling people into the hall. It was filling up fast with refugees from the streets. We identified tear gas victims and got them to the kitchen sinks to wash off the chemicals, and we got drinks to rehydrate other people or warm them up with coffee, always scanning the crowd for people who looked like they were experiencing trauma that needed to be addressed a.s.a.p. – and there were plenty of them, too.
Deacon Deb Goldfeder, our other RN, had her hands full at the med station, treating badly skinned elbows and knees, hyperventilation, tear gas panic, bumps on the head. Deacon Harry, Geoffrey, Kathleen, and Annie did the best they could to manage traffic in the hall under near-panic conditions, with people coming in both the front and the back doors.
We heard that John Stratton+ was hit by a tear gas canister, but then he appeared in the hall and said he was okay. It turned out later on that not only were the police using regular tear gas canisters, but shooting something like a paint ball pellet; instead of filled with paint though, the pellets were filled with some sort of powdered tear gas. It would strike its target with the velocity of a paint ball, but explode into a small cloud of tear gas powder, not paint. We found remnants of them all over the sidewalk the next morning.
Somehow, we heard from Deacon Susan that MoKaBe’s was full of tear gas and overwhelmed with people – we must get people from MoKaBe’s to St. John’s. Mokabe’s began to send teams of 5 or more demonstrators out their back door and down the alley to our back door, where I let them in. I was reminded of the old movie, “The Great Escape”, where the POW’s ran from one prison barracks to another, avoiding the guards. Soon, our dining hall, with a capacity of 75, had over 100 people crammed together, all disheveled, exhausted, and traumatized.
Someone said that Deacon Susan was asking for more tear gas med kits; she had run out of her supply at MoKaBe’s. A couple of demonstrators volunteered to go back, so we loaded them up with additional med kits and they pelted back up the alley to MoKaBe’s.
There was a commotion at the front door, for a few young people charged in shouting, “The cops are coming!” This was real concern, as St. Mark’s was supposedly raided earlier in the evening. I remembered the previous week when Teresa+ invited the chief of police to St. John’s to discuss our role as a sanctuary church, and he brought the mayor with him. She explained our ideas about the peaceful concepts of sanctuary, and the chief was supportive to the point of giving Teresa+ his cell phone number in the event she needed to contact him. I now wondered if they would honor our status as a sanctuary church and not raid us. Were they going to keep their word?
I and /Harry, Geoffrey, and Kathleen stood at the front door of the hall, letting in stragglers and waiting to see if, indeed, the police were coming. My intent was to follow our guidelines: no permission to enter our premises without a search warrant. Period. So we all formed up to present a united front in the foyer behind the glass entrance.
A slow parade of police cars, lights flashing, cruised by the front steps of the hall, followed by the giant vehicle I saw earlier in the night. It was fogging Arsenal with tear gas like the street department used to fog the streets for mosquitoes. The parade stopped at the steps of the hall and I expected to see police in riot gear pour out of their cars, but they did not; instead, the giant vehicle began to pump cloud after cloud of tear gas along the frontage of St. John’s dining hall door. They were tear-gassing St. John’s.
We shut the door as tightly as we could, but the building is 107 years old and it is not air tight. Between all the tear gas clinging to the clothing of our guests, and the gas seeping into the building from all the windows and doors, everyone’s eyes began to water and our mouths and throats sting. /Deb tried to convince the guests to strip off their coats and hoodies and pile them in the foyer to centralize the source, but no one wanted to part with their garments. I suddenly remembered the kitchen hood over the range, a 4’ by 10’ monster of an exhaust fan, and turned it on. It actually sucked much of the gas out of the hall, and the place became breathable again.
I stepped out of the kitchen to find Deacon Susan standing the hall, stained from head to foot with water and milk of magnesia, a concoction that we used to flush people’s face of tear gas spray and neutralized the chemicals.
“Are you okay?” I asked. She smiled that mischievous smile of hers and said, “If anybody asks me about MoKaBe’s, all I can say is, ‘It was a gas!’”