A chemical agent that disrupted Pride Parade festivities last weekend continues to cause confusion and raise suspicion among many in the Baltimore LGBTQIA+ community, who question the police account of what happened.

The Baltimore Police Department said Tuesday that they had determined the released substance was Mace, but did not say how they came to that conclusion. A BPD spokesperson said that the chemical was released after two groups of people got into an altercation. Three people were treated and released from a nearby hospital because of injuries from the spray.

One of many videos circulating on social media shows an altercation at Pride where a brown substance was squirted through the air. Some also wonder if a chemical agent was released in more than one location.

Many in the crowd who attended don’t believe it was Mace because they say the chemical spread too far and resulted in extreme physical symptoms, such as vomiting, respiratory attacks and unconsciousness.

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“If the police want people to think that it was just somebody who breached the festival and purposefully released mace, that is not a plausible story,” said attendee Elisabet Eppes, who was about 100 feet away from the release of the chemical agent.

Nobody The Banner spoke with said they saw police release a chemical and no video has surfaced showing this either.

Designed to disappear

As people are dancing and cheering, the video also shows a quick movement towards the left of the frame and a brown smoky substance filling the crowd, followed by people running..

Several attendees told The Banner they saw yellow and white smoke, not brown. They added they experienced the effects of the chemical — nausea, vomiting, burning eyes — in the opposite direction of where the video was filmed, with hundreds of people between them.

“This suggests multiple attacks,” attendee Joanne Sherrod believes.

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Anna Feigenbaum, a tear gas expert and professor at Bournemouth University, said opposing accounts and confusion like this happens after almost every chemical agent event she’s studied.

“These weapons were designed to intentionally just disappear, to not leave traces, so that you wouldn’t be able to hold people accountable or know exactly why someone was hurt and someone else wasn’t,” Feigenbaum said.

Without a deeper investigation and more visual evidence, she added, it will be difficult to get definitive answers. Unless police recover the canister used, it’s hard to even deduce the type of substance deployed. Baltimore Police did not say if the canister had been recovered.

A high enough potency of tear gas, pepper spray, and bear spray could all elicit the physical symptoms attendees witnessed, Feigenbaum said. Similarly, certain weather conditions — humidity, wind, precipitation — can cause the substance to expand its reach and hit people even a hundred feet away.

Likewise, high potency chemical agents are not just restricted to law enforcement. Civilians can also purchase them, legally and illegally, online or from other states.

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“Most likely the intention of the person, whether it was a civilian or the police, was achieved, right?” Feigenbaum said. “They caused chaos to traumatize people.”

A lack of coordination

Soon after the chemical agent was released, a BPD helicopter flew overhead.

“You are safe. The situation is under control,” numerous attendees recalled coming from the loudspeaker. Police did not address questions about why the helicopter was deployed.

On the ground, dozens of people were vomiting. Some were having respiratory attacks, and others had lost consciousness, attendees said.

Running in the alleyway behind The Crown bar on North Charles Street, Sam Child, a nurse, came upon a young black woman having an asthma attack. Child stopped to help and instructed their friends to get the EMTs they could see 100 feet away.

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After administering an inhaler, according to Child and four other witnesses, the woman began to have a seizure that lasted for four minutes. Again, the group approached the EMTs asking for help. Sherrod, who was with them at the time, recalled the first responders asking them to bring the woman to them mid-seizure, which Child advised against.

After 15 minutes, the EMTs came with a gurney and picked the woman up “like a rag doll,” and took her to the ambulance, said Sherrod. Child said they didn’t do any assessments, take any vitals, or inspect her body before lifting her. As a trained medical professional, Child was appalled.

“When you’re in communities with people of color or undocumented people or queer or trans people, you see that they don’t get the same standard of care,” Child said.

This map shows the location of attendees interviewed by The Banner when a brown chemical agent was released at Baltimore Pride. (Brenna Smith)

Other partygoers interviewed by The Banner also said the city failed to initially address medical emergencies after the substance was released.

Baltimore City Fire Department Deputy Chief Khalilah Yancey said the first responders followed departmental protocols for chemical deterrents, which are to assess the scene before administering care.

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Once it is deemed safe, Yancey said, BCFD medics can evaluate and treat patients both at the point of contact or also in an ambulance.

“There were no refusals of treatment or care by any of our providers,” she added.

Emergency physician and human rights advocate Dr. Rohini Haar said that while the Fire Department’s approach is considered a best practice, she doesn’t understand why first responders would follow that protocol if the police were publicly declaring the scene safe.

“It’s so confusing,” Haar said. “I would say it at least shows some lack of coordination [between first responders]”

Neither the fire or police department would say if the two agencies coordinate their response or assess safety separately.

Pride Center of Maryland Executive Director Cleo Manago, who organized much of this past weekend’s events, said while the chemical agent was unfortunate, he didn’t hear of any other security issues throughout the weekend.

“We are currently investigating the alleged teargas incident and can’t comment until we get more information,” Manago texted.

“Overall, both days were positive and powerful for our very diverse community,” he added.

For some, the incident has made them hesitant of attending future events.

Mount Vernon resident Derek Chavis is inclined to skip next year’s Baltimore Pride and World Pride in Washington, D.C.

“It’s so interesting that we’re having world pride in America because in these times, I think America is fighting for last place,” he said.

The origins of Pride and general distrust of police by marginalized groups could explain why attendees questioned police narratives about the chemical agent. Pride was created as a reaction to police brutality at the Stonewall Inn, a gay club in New York City, and some people some people don’t think law enforcement should be present at Pride at all.

In Baltimore, Pride attendees recalled when police used tear gas at the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 and the Freddie Gray unrest in 2015.

“The fact that community members question if an agency is there to protect them or might potentially cause them harm at a public gathering is deeply troubling,” said Derek Lindsey, interim board chair at Blaq Equity Baltimore. His organization is closely monitoring any developments to better inform how his organization will plan their Black Pride Events in October.