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Defending Assault on Peaceful Protesters in DC, William Barr Falsely Claims Pepper Spray 'Not a Chemical Irritant'

"Barr is lying. Pepper balls contain chemical irritants. They are paint balls stuffed with oleoresin capsicum. Pepper spray is also a chemical irritant."

Attorney General William Barr listens as U.S. President Donald Trump speaks in the Oval Office before signing an executive order on May 28, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo: Doug MIlls-Pool/Getty Images)

In an interview on CBS that aired Sunday, Attorney General William Barr defended the police assault on peaceful protesters in the nation's capital on June 1—an attack he personally ordered—by falsely claiming that the chemical irritants deployed by law enforcement against demonstrators were not, in fact, chemical irritants.

"There was no tear gas used," Barr said on Face the Nation, echoing a claim that the U.S. Park Police has since walked back. "The tear gas was used Sunday when they had to clear H Street to allow the fire department to come in to save St. John's Church. That's when tear gas was used."

When CBS host Margaret Brennan pointed out that police used chemical irritants to disperse crowds of demonstrators, Barr—in an apparent effort to downplay the severity of the police assault—responded: "No, there were not chemical irritants. Pepper spray is not a chemical irritant. It's not chemical."

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Critics immediately took Barr to task, with several reporters pointing out that PepperBall—a private company that distributes the projectiles to law enforcement—describes its product in marketing material as "the most effective chemical irritant available."

"Barr is lying," tweeted investigative journalist Lindsay Beyerstein. "Pepper balls contain chemical irritants. They are paint balls stuffed with oleoresin capsicum. Pepper spray is also a chemical irritant."

As The Daily Beast's Justin Baragona noted, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention "classifies pepper spray as a form of tear gas, prompting the spokesperson for the Park Police to admit it was a 'mistake' for them to have claimed officers didn't use tear gas on the scene."

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"The CDC specifically says pepper spray is a chemical compound that can 'temporarily make people unable to function by causing irritation to the eyes, mouth, throat, lungs, and skin'—in other words, a chemical irritant," Baragona wrote.

Science writer Katie Mack noted on Twitter that "pepper spray isn't a single chemical, but actually contains quite a number of chemicals, many of which, including capsaicin, are extremely dangerous."

Barr's comments came as he is facing growing pressure to resign over his role in the law enforcement attack on peaceful demonstrators last Monday, which cleared the way for President Donald Trump's photo-op at St. John's Episcopal Church. The ACLU is suing Trump and Barr over the attack, calling it "shameless, unconstitutional, unprovoked, and frankly criminal."

The nation's top law enforcement official has also faced backlash over his deployment of agents from the FBI, the Bureau of Prisons, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives as part of the Trump administration's effort to quell mass demonstrations over the police killing of George Floyd on May 25.

Many of these agents, as Common Dreams reported, have been patrolling the streets of Washington, D.C. in recent days without wearing badges or any other identifying information.

In an op-ed for USA Today on Friday, Noah Bookbinder and Donald Sherman of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington urged Congress to immediately "start the process of removing Barr before his willingness to use the power of the Department of Justice for President Trump’s dangerous political ends hurts more Americans."

"Attorney General Bill Barr is too dangerous to democracy and to the well-being of Americans to be left in place," Bookbinder and Sherman wrote. "He must be removed from office. Congress should start the process now."

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