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By Hannah Critchfield
On Halloween Day, Melanie Mitchell brought her two daughters and her 61-year-old mother to what she believed would be a family-friendly event — a march to the polls in her hometown of Graham, North Carolina.
“I don’t take my kids to protests, but this was only for voting. That was our whole purpose of being there — because people are scared to come to Graham, especially people of color,” she said. “Everybody said bring your parents, bring your grandparents, bring your kids.”
At one point, marchers stopped in front of the Confederate monument that stands in front of the county courthouse for a moment of silence for George Floyd, a Black man killed by Minneapolis police earlier this year. After it concluded, local law enforcement ordered people to clear the road.
Then, the Alamance County sheriff’s deputies and Graham police pepper sprayed members of the mostly Black voting rights march encouraging people to get to the polls, including children as young as 5 years old, like Mitchells’ daughter Bailey.
Members of a voting rights rally, including children, are pepper-sprayed by Graham police and Alamance Sheriff’s deputies on Oct. 31. Video courtesy: Melanie Mitchell
“Both of my kids were throwing up,” she said. “My youngest’s eyes were still puffy and red underneath that night, but that could have been from crying. They were coughing pretty much all night long. My 11-year-old asked me if she was going to die.”
“My 5-year-old keeps asking me, ‘Why would they do this, why would a cop do this, Mom?’” said Mitchell. “‘We’re just kids.’”
A Black woman in a motorized wheelchair was also hit by the chemical agent.
A spokesperson from the Graham police department said they chose to use pepper spray because of its “ability to disperse crowds with minimal force.”
He added that they have no knowledge of their officers deploying pepper spray “near any children at the rally,” but cannot speak for deputies from the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office.
The Sheriff’s Office has not responded to requests for comment.
“The spray was directed toward the ground by our officers and only affected those in the immediate vicinity,” said Daniel Sisk, Graham Police Department spokesperson, who noted they are investigating the incident. “The application requires little to no decontamination and has little to no lasting effect.”
But researchers said the health impacts may be more dangerous than police let on, particularly for children and medically vulnerable protesters.
Physical and mental damage
Pepper spray, like tear gas, is a chemical irritant that acts on the inflammatory system. People who are exposed to it experience difficulty breathing, coughing and eye irritation. While often intended to break up riots, in the last few months, law enforcement across the country have also deployed pepper spray during peaceful demonstrations.
NC Health News spoke to physicians who said its use can have lasting negative health effects on children.
“Any chemicals in your eyes, nose or lungs isn’t good, but it’s especially worrisome for kids because their organs are still developing,” said Purvi S. Parikh, an immunologist who specializes in pediatric health at New York University Langone Health. “It has the potential of causing long-term effects.”
A child may develop neurological effects, such as nerve or brain damage, she said.
They may develop lung problems from the exposure such as asthma, according to Parikh, or allergies if the chemical enters their upper respiratory tract.
“There might be other effects that we don’t even know about, because it hasn’t been studied that much,” she added. “It’s not a common situation where people would spray kids.”
Immediate physical effects are only a piece of the puzzle, according to Rohini Harr, an emergency physician who specializes in health and human rights and a professor at the University of California Berkeley.
The mental health effects of being pepper-sprayed as a child “cannot be overstated,” she said.
“Children who are exposed to violence, especially violence on behalf of law enforcement, that has an incredibly chilling effect on that relationship,” said Harr. “It has an incredibly traumatizing effect on children in general to experience violence at young ages.”
Mitchell said this is her biggest concern.
“They’re okay physically, but they’re traumatized. They’re never going to forget that day. You’re supposed to be able to want to call the cops to protect you. And my kids are gonna be scared of the cops now cause of this.”
There’s another potential health impact of deploying pepper spray, particularly during a pandemic that causes a respiratory infection.
“Pepper spray, tear gas, they force compliance by making you feel like you can’t breathe and that you’re suffocating,” said Harr.
“So when you’re wearing a mask and it’s saturated with pepper spray, the first instinct people are going to have is to decontaminate – to take it off,” she added. “Which can of course exacerbate the spread of coronavirus.”
Exposure to the chemical also makes an individual more likely to get sick, according to Parikh.
“Having any type of chemical irritation unfortunately predisposes you to getting sick, because it affects your immune system,” she said. “If your lungs and nose are inflamed, you’re more likely to catch an infection. And that’s not great during a pandemic.
“Chemicals are especially bad for children, again, because their immune systems are still developing,” she added. “Particularly if they’re very young children.”
Alamance is one of several key counties Democrats are trying to flip in the state legislature during this year’s election. It sits within a state that holds 15 electoral votes, a battleground in determining the next president of the United States.
Gwen Frisbie-Fulton, communicators director at Down Home NC, a community organization that advocates for working people in rural North Carolina, was also at the march with her child. She said many people didn’t make it to the polls that day because of the incident.
“We have not received any calls from voters who did not have a chance to vote because of Saturday’s incidents in Alamance County,” said Patrick Gannon, spokesperson for the North Carolina Board of Elections. “It is our understanding that early voting was not disrupted Saturday.”
But Mitchell echoed Frisbie-Fulton’s sentiment.
“A lot of people didn’t get to vote because they were either pepper sprayed, arrested or scared and went home,” she said. “I feel like it was voter intimidation.”
Mitchell said her family is dealing with the aftermath of law enforcement’s use of force on her children.
She’ll return to march in solidarity with Graham voters today — but this time, she’ll go alone.
“I never would have brought them if I would have thought anything like this would have happened,” said Mitchell. “I’ll be going, but I’m not letting my kids go. Not that they would — my 11-year-old is afraid to go downtown.
“I have some people on social media saying ‘you’re such a terrible parent,’” she added. “But it wasn’t even a protest, it was a rally for voting. It was supposed to be a family-friendly event.”