First, there is a moment of confusion as your body decides what just happened and how to respond. It fails to come to a decision and falls back on the most instinctive of responses: Pain.
The skin of your face burns, your pulse rises, your fight or flight instinct engages fully as your body thinks it is on fire.
When it hits your eyes, you are blinded. The first instinct is to close your eyes tightly and keep them closed, but even if you can keep them open, the fire is hard to focus through. You have to depend on your hands and ears to maneuver, and your most recent memory of what was going on around you.
If you have had training, you vaguely remember that you are supposed to blink. Blink as much as you can so that your body can make tears to wash it away. After all, the fire isn’t real. There aren’t any burns. That knowledge might help a bit. Remember that.
You are vulnerable. You are scared. You have to pull yourself under control.
Your eyes burn and itch. That is the worst part. The skin sucks, but the eyes hurt the most and short circuit everything else.
And the grittiness. Odds are no one ever warned you about that. It’s the reason, though, that you DON’T wear contacts to a protest. It will scratch your eyes, and burn like hell, and haunt you for a week, but unless you are wearing contacts it’s not likely to do permanent damage. Remember that.
At this point, it is important to regain focus. Every bit of knowledge and training that you remember is an anchor to pull yourself out of the mess.
Fresh water, milk, baby shampoo, and a number of other “wives remedies” will get your eyes and skin clean. If you don’t have something on you, one of the more experienced protesters may. Do whatever you can to clear your eyes on site. The police are most likely already kettling, and you probably aren’t going to get proper medical treatment before the next day.
Remember your mission, your purpose. Remember why you are there. Push through as best you can until you can focus enough to function again. Keep moving if you can. The people who sprayed you didn’t do so for your own good.
So, I wanted to talk a bit today about pepper spray. A lot of the same concepts apply to tear gas as well.
If you are going to get involved in direct action, this is part of why we mask up. A mask dampened mask will help keep gas away from your lungs, at least a bit. A proper mask works even better and is actually available these days on Amazon.
Eye protection, if it is available, can be good as well, but again NO CONTACTS. I don’t care if you don’t expect police involvement, never wear contacts to a protest/demonstration/direct action event.
If you decide to get active with your local IWW, Socialist, Anarchist, Social Democrat groups, get used to the idea of wearing your regular glasses (if you need them) to meetings and not contact lenses. Yes, meetings are probably safe, but building proper habits are important, and if you wear contact lenses you already have a really bad one to combat.
What I described above is not an exaggeration or an educated guess. It’s from first-hand experience. The first time you get hit, there very may well be a moment when your brain just throws off a bright flash of light while it processes what the fuck just happened. After that, you need to depend on instinct and training to keep yourself focused.
Gas can be worse though. It’s less painful, but on top of getting in your eyes, it will basically push your sinuses out through your face. Ok, THAT is an exaggeration, but that’s what it feels like when your nose starts running along with your eyes.
If anyone reading this has been exposed recently to tear gas, feel free to do a writeup on it, and I will add it as well. Last time I went through it in any real sort of way was over a decade ago, so it is not near as fresh as the most recent pepper spray incident.
Again, if you DO expect police involvement, stay close to the more experienced guys. This means communicating with your group. Find the military/ex-military guys and the experienced protesters that have been in jail a few times. They will be the ones to stay close to if you have to get the hell out of dodge with your eyes on fire.