Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

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)

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."

Jake Johnson

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."


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."

"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."

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

Despite Housing Crisis, Mississippi May Return Up to Millions in Federal Rent Aid to DC

"For them to suggest people like me aren't working? It's a slap in the face," said one woman affected by the end of the pandemic assistance program. "It's very insulting and degrading."

Brett Wilkins ·

80% of US Voters Across Party Lines Support Expanding Social Security

"With Republicans threatening to cut benefits—and worse, eliminate the program entirely—Dems need to make clear they're fighting to protect and expand benefits."

Jessica Corbett ·

Rich Nations Again Accused of Vaccine Hoarding as UK OKs Moderna Omicron Booster

"While countries like the U.K. buy updated vaccines for their fourth doses, people in low- and middle-income countries are fighting today's variants with yesterday's vaccines."

Brett Wilkins ·

With Trumpian Claims of Cheating, Starbucks Demands Halt to Union Elections

"Unfortunately, it's now in vogue for the losers of some elections nationwide to attempt to reverse elections by any means they think are necessary," said Starbucks Workers United.

Jake Johnson ·

Richest Country on Earth to One of Its Poorest: We're Keeping the Money We Stole From You

A foreign affairs columnist called the move by the Biden administration a "shortsighted, morally unconscionable, and potentially calamitous decision for a country on the cusp of universal poverty."

Julia Conley ·

Common Dreams Logo