As Seattle police officers blasted a crowd of demonstrators with pepper spray and tear gas on Capitol Hill on Monday night, the effects were unmistakable.
“[Protesters] were screaming, their eyes were closed … they were spitting,” said Kara Sweidel, a trained street medic who treated people in Cal Anderson Park when the mayhem began. “Someone was brought over to us completely doused. … He couldn’t open his eyes.”
Sweidel got to work, flushing out eyes and trying to calm people who were experiencing the common effects of tear gas and pepper spray. As Sweidel worked, officers advanced toward the park. More gas and flash-bang grenades. “Tear gas keeps coming, you have to keep moving,” Sweidel said.
Concerns about the use of tear gas and pepper spray as the region battles the coronavirus pandemic boiled over this week as civilian watchdog groups criticized the absence of clear police policy on using tear gas for crowd control. Public Health – Seattle & King County, meanwhile, raised concerns about such tactics for health reasons, saying tear gas “and other respiratory irritants” could increase the spread of COVID-19.
Friday afternoon, Mayor Jenny Durkan and Police Chief Carmen Best announced a 30-day ban on most uses of tear gas, but said pepper spray would still be allowed. Public health officials, police accountability groups and others will review all of the department’s crowd-control tactics, they said.
For those on the ground, the fear of the pandemic was front of mind from the first moments of police response. The chaos of trying to get away from pepper spray, tear gas and flash-bang grenades can push demonstrators toward each other, sometimes holding on to one another for help.
“The first thing you’re going to do is talking, yelling ‘help me,’ spitting to try get [pepper spray or tear gas] out, coughing because in your lungs it burns. Your eyes are watering from the reaction; maybe you’re crying because you’re scared,” said Sweidel, who also joined Saturday’s demonstrations, where police used tear gas.
“Spitting and all that in a time of a pandemic is very dangerous,” Sweidel said.
Recent protests are the first time since World Trade Organization protests in 1999 that the Seattle Police Department (SPD) has used tear gas, also known as CS gas, for crowd control, Best said. The department also uses pepper spray, or OC gas, which can have similar effects.
On Saturday, pepper spray and blast balls “simply were not proving effective,” Best said.
“SPD remains committed to the mission of managing demonstrations and managing events where no crowd control tools need to be used, but we also must protect the life and the property of this great city,” Best said.
U.S. military research showing increased risk of respiratory infections after exposure to tear gas has gained new attention with demonstrations across the nation over the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed last week by a white Minneapolis police officer.
“If you’re irritating the respiratory system and there is coronavirus in that system, it could cause someone to cough and that would lead to spread of those droplets,” said Allison Agwu, an associate professor of adult and pediatric infection diseases at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
Agwu and more than 1,000 other health professionals signed on to a letter supporting the protests because of the need to address systemic racism and disparities while offering guidance for preventing coronavirus spread during the demonstrations.
Among the suggestions was to “oppose any use of tear gas, smoke, or other respiratory irritants, which could increase risk for COVID- 19 by making the respiratory tract more susceptible to infection, exacerbating existing inflammation, and inducing coughing.”
“It has been overused,” Agwu said of tear gas during the protests.
Local public health officials have urged people to closely monitor their health and avoid joining protests if they have symptoms that could be COVID-19. They have advised people who have been out protesting to get tested if they have symptoms or contact with someone sick with COVID-19. Free testing will be available at two new sites in Sodo and North Seattle.
Durkan and Best said pepper spray would be part of the broad review of SPD’s crowd-control tools. Durkan cited department policy about how pepper spray can be used, which does not exist for tear gas.
“We’ll review everything we’re utilizing,” Best said.
Reducing the use of the chemical sprays during the pandemic is “just common sense,” said William Lambert, an associate professor of environmental epidemiology at Oregon Health & Science University, who has studied the effects of air pollution and toxic agents on respiratory disease.
Lambert said he understands that police sometimes want to disperse a crowd without other types of force. “But in this moment with an active pandemic, we need to reserve the use of tear gas and pepper spray as much as possible because we cannot control where it goes,” he said.
“I’ve been highly concerned about what I see in certain situations: quick use of tear gas and pepper spray and other agents without restraint,” Lambert said. “Even if they are not perhaps immediately exposed to high amounts, everyone in the crowd is exposed.”