As police used teargas and flashbangs on protesters outside the Brooklyn Center police department, young children listened, terrified, from their homes directly across the street.
Among them were two eleven-year-old girls with autism, which makes them intensely sensitive to loud noises, their older sister, Jamiya Crayton, said.
“It was so bad I had to go out there and ask [law enforcement] if they could stop doing that, because my kids were crying hysterically,” Crayton said. An officer told her to go back inside her apartment, she said.
Crayton, her sisters, and her three-year-old daughter were left coughing from the teargas that seeped inside their apartment over multiple nights, even with the windows closed, as national guard troops and police responded with force to protesters demonstrating against the 11 April killing of Daunte Wright by a Brooklyn Center police officer.
“It was like a war in front of our yard,” Crayton, 24, said in a phone interview.
Children can be especially vulnerable to teargas, because they have smaller lungs, tend to breathe more rapidly and are closer to the ground, where the irritating particles in teargas eventually settle, medical experts said.
“Teargas should absolutely not be used anywhere near children for any reason,” said Irwin Redlener, the director of Columbia University’s Pandemic Resource and Response Initiative, and a longtime children’s health advocate. “It’s completely inappropriate.”
A wide range of doctors have condemned the US’s use of teargas on children and families, including at the US-Mexico border in 2018. New research from Portland found that hundreds of people people reported serious, lasting health effects from being teargassed, including disruptions to their menstrual cycles, from intense cramps to abnormal bleeding. Because teargas was initially tested on young men in military settings, experts said, the full effects of the chemicals on a more diverse population are unknown. There is also little research on the long-term effects of teargas on children, Redlener said.
Several international treaties have banned the use of teargas during war.
The Minnesota governor, Tim Walz, a Democrat, initially defended the use of teargas in Brooklyn Center, saying it was important to prevent property damage, and that he trusted police to use it appropriately.
Residents of the Sterling Square Apartments, a complex across from the police department, said the reaction of law enforcement and national guard troops to the protests after Wright’s death had traumatized their children and left kids and adults coughing and feeling sick from the exposure to teargas.
Ebonie McMillan, 36, who lives with her eight-year-old daughter and two-year old twins in an apartment directly facing the Brooklyn Center police station, said she had seen rubber bullets bouncing off her balcony.
To protect her children, she said, “I don’t even want them to look outside. I keep them on the floor.”
The military vehicles parked around the police station were kept on all night, making it difficult for the children to sleep, she said. The “hums and the booms” kept them awake.
“I just feel so bad for the babies,” McMillan said. When she was a child, “I didn’t ever see this kind of violence from the people supposed to protect us”.
McMillan’s older daughter, Janae Burchette, 19, said the teargas exposure left her with a sore throat, headaches, and a cough for days.
On the first night that teargas started drifting into their apartment, Tasha Nethercutt, 31, did what she could: she put the covers over her three children’s heads and gave them phones to try to distract them from what was happening outside.
“Teargas, the bombs, the loud noises – my daughter was freaking out,” she said.
The national guard troops all around the neighborhood made it difficult to leave at some points, Nethercutt said, and it was frightening to see the troops standing around the apartment building, their guns pointed in the direction of the residents.
“We told them: we are on private property, y’all cannot point your guns at us,” Nethercutt said. “I have kids in here. My kids were devastated.”
Afterwards, her 10-year-old daughter had a sore throat for three days and was sent home from school, she said.
“Now she can’t go to school because they think she has Covid, when really she swallowed some of the teargas,” Nethercutt said.
Her younger sons attend a daycare center in the neighborhood, but Nethercutt said she was worried that it might now be contaminated.
“The cops were over there macing and teargassing stuff. How do I know if they wiped those down?” she asked. Her son is at the age when he picks up anything on the ground and puts it in his mouth.
Because African Americans have higher rates of asthma, it is particularly concerning when teargas is used in a city like Brooklyn Center, where nearly a third of residents are African American, said Sven-Eric Jordt, a professor of anesthesiology at Duke University. People with asthma are more vulnerable to serious and long-term health consequences of exposure to teargas.
“For teargas, there’s no federal oversight,” Jordt added. “There’s no government agency that is evaluating and regulating the safety of these munitions.”
The chemical particles in teargas collect on clothing and surfaces and can cause further irritation to the skin and eyes, especially for young children crawling around on the floor. “Once it’s indoors, it can be quite persistent,” he said.
Redlener, the Columbia public health expert, said he was particularly concerned to hear that two children with autism were among the kids living on the front lines in Brooklyn Center.
“Children with autism are particularly sound-sensitive and sensitive to this kind of chaos,” he said. “They have the worst possible susceptibility to being affected by this.”
It was also important to be aware of the potential psychological impacts of exposure to a frightening, violent experience, including children developing post-traumatic stress disorder, he said.
“If there’s days and days of protest, and kids feel under duress for a prolonged period of time, it’s almost like a battlefield experience for a child,” he said.
“Was it absolutely necessary for the police to use these kinds of methods for crowd control in a vicinity where there is a housing complex, or a school, where it’s obviously going to be traumatic for children?” he asked.
In the wake of the teargas and military response around her home, Crayton, whose young sisters have autism, said she had only heard from one local official, Brooklyn Center’s mayor, about getting assistance for her family, including potentially moving them to a different apartment. She is raising money to help with the effort.
Other government officials had not responded in any way, she said, to the experiences the Sterling Square Apartment families had already described in multiple media accounts, including in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.
Asked who she believed was responsible for the trauma her sisters and daughter had experienced, Crayton pointed to Walz, the governor, who signed the order deploying the national guard to Minneapolis.
“I don’t think he cares too much about our people,” Crayton said of the governor. “I don’t think they really know [what families experienced]. It’s not their main focus.”
Nearly two weeks after the most intense nights of crackdowns on protesters, Crayton said, the children were still “jumpy” and on edge.
“Any time someone parks in front of the building, they get scared,” she said. The girls kept asking questions like: “Are they going to come hurt us? Are they going to come back?”