Students celebrating Ohio State’s National Championship victory streamed out into the cold night air in a sea of scarlet and gray, only to be obscured minutes later by white clouds of tear gas.
“We were all on the sidewalk. No one was really in the street, and we were all just cheering,” said Jacob Knock, a second-year in finance.
Shortly after the College Football Playoff National Championship ended Monday night, students crowded campus — including Mirror Lake and High Street, particularly in front of the Ohio Union — to celebrate OSU’s 42-20 victory over Oregon. Officers from the Columbus Division of Police and a SWAT team wore gas masks and stood by to keep order as students and fans rushed through the street. Tear gas was deployed during the post-game celebration.
“It didn’t seem like it was very out of hand. I mean it was no different than a celebration if my high school had won a championship game,” Knock said.
But the high school-like atmosphere soon changed. Knock, who said he had watched the game at an apartment on 12th Avenue and went to High Street afterward when he saw a lot of people heading that way, recalled seeing two or three cop cars drive up and felt the tear gas maybe a minute later.
“I personally was standing in the middle of crowd and suddenly I just couldn’t breathe — like out of nowhere,” he said. “I didn’t see smoke or anything, but all of a sudden I couldn’t breathe, and some random person in the middle of the crowd just screamed, ‘Tear gas!’ and then I looked over toward where the police were, and you could see the smoke start to build up.”
He was standing on the sidewalk, near the bar Midway on High, when this happened, he said.
Columbus Police stood by its decision to use pepper spray and tear gas at a press conference Tuesday afternoon, but Chief Kim Jacobs ordered an internal investigation, which was cited in an email about two hours after the press conference.
Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate at the Student Press Law Center, which is a legal assistance agency that works with student journalists located in Washington D.C., said he watched videos of the tear gas incident online and said what he saw was “kind of astonishing.”
He cited Columbus Police Division Directive 3.25, which can be found online, for various areas of concern.
This directive ranks levels of force from 0 to 8.
“Chemical agent dispersion is supposed to be Level 2, at which point they are supposed to have tried verbal warnings and visual warnings and then (they are) to use physical force like with their hands,” Goldstein said.
Dispersion orders were given over a loudspeaker to the crowd. However, it’s unknown how many warnings there were and at which areas they occurred, as the Columbus Police did not respond to The Lantern’s requests about those topics — calls to the media relations office and public information officers were not returned.
On Wednesday evening, Columbus Police Officer Joseph Hern said although he could not speak to the internal investigation or specifics of the night, such as how many verbal warnings took place, overall, “the department was pretty happy with the way the students did celebrate … the vast majority of the students celebrated in a very good way.”
But he said there were a few people who caused the situation and noted that some were throwing chairs at officers.
“We just can’t sit there and let that happen. We do have to respond to that and make sure people cannot and never get to that point in partying or it will be broken up,” Hern said.
But he noted everyone handled it well, and after the tear gas, “people continued to have a good time and the night went on without issue,” Hern said.
Knock said he didn’t hear any warning before the tear gas. He noted that it is possible there was one, but because of the loud crowd, it could have easily not reached him.
However, Goldstein argued that even if students had heard warnings, it might not have helped.
“The people being sprayed weren’t even ones that could have ignored an order because they had nowhere to disperse to,” Goldstein said. “If you’re in the middle of the crowd, and the officer’s yelling at you to go somewhere, and there’s 600 people between you and the next cross street, what do they want you to do?”
Directive 3.25 also has instructions for law enforcement action after chemical agents are dispersed.
“First they have to render medical aid,” Goldstein said.
Whether medical aid was provided is unknown, but students on the scene did not seem to have a good way to alleviate the effects of the tear gas.
“People were trying to find water bottles if they could and dump it in their eyes,” Knock said.
Reed Walter, a third-year in microbiology, said, “I didn’t get hit (by the tear gas) that bad, but … (when) I went back to my house, we had somebody come in and they were just crying and they couldn’t see. They were running into walls, so we had to dunk their head under water for 15 minutes.”
According to Directive 3.25, after providing any medical aid, the police have to complete a use-of-force report, Goldstein said.
“If a person wasn’t arrested, they have to on the back of the form explain the circumstances,” he said. “Nothing suggests to me, by anything I’ve seen in those videos, that any of those officers could identify any of the people they sprayed.”
Goldstein said he thought the use of tear gas on a crowd of students celebrating a championship win was perhaps too far, given “it’s illegal to use these things in warfare.”
For Knock, he wasn’t the only one affected by what happened to him.
“I was actually FaceTiming my mom, my dad, and my sister right after the game,” he said.
Knock said he ran to High Street with his family still on the phone to show them what it was like, and they were still on FaceTime when the tear gas happened.
“They freaked out, and then my phone died, so then they were really freaking out,” he said. “I couldn’t call them back for 45 minutes.”