Michael Kapski wanted a little fresh air with dinner.
Kapski, 37, is a chef who was laid off from Clyde Common during the COVID-19 pandemic. On June 30, he cooked himself a meal of chicken vindaloo, chana masala and home-baked naan. He then retired to the upstairs bedroom of his home in the Arbor Lodge neighborhood and turned on John Oliver. It was a warm evening, so he decided to let the breeze in.
"I thought, I'll leave the windows open, it'll be lovely. Big mistake," Kapski says. "Suddenly my eyes started burning. My lungs were seizing up.
"I put two and two together: Oh my gosh, I'm getting gassed in my own home."
Four blocks away, on North Lombard Street, Portland police had deployed a chemical agent called CS gas against a crowd of protesters who had marched to the police union's headquarters and barricaded the road with dumpsters. The gas drifted east, into Kapski's house.
Kapski spent much of the next day scrubbing his home clean. He used soap and water to scrub every surface and rented a carpet cleaning machine for his couch and bed.
"It was frightening in the moment," Kapski says, "and now it's just infuriating that I have to do this because the Portland Police Bureau wanted to make a point."
Since nightly protests began in Portland on May 29, the bureau has deployed tear gas at least 10 of the last 40 nights—despite a federal judge granting a restraining order on the chemical agent through July 24 except in life-threatening circumstances, and the Oregon Legislature passing a bill that nominally restricted its use.
Public opinion is bitterly divided over whether police are justified in aggressively scattering crowds of young people who are protesting the racist structures on which the criminal justice system was built but have sometimes damaged property.
But when the cops use gas, it's not just protesters who gasp and choke. It's a weapon that can harm anyone unlucky enough to live nearby.
Kapski is one of at least a dozen Portlanders who say they've been inadvertently tear gassed in their own homes or apartments in the last several weeks. Some have filed legal claims against the Police Bureau, seeking financial compensation for their discontent (Kapski has not). Those who spoke to WW described fear, frustration and helplessness.
In an email to WW, the Portland Police Bureau declined to respond to questions about tear gas leaking into Portlanders' homes. A spokeswoman said residents who think they've experienced tear gas in their homes should contact the city's Independent Police Review board and file a complaint.
"Our use-of-force and crowd management directives provide the framework for these actions," bureau spokeswoman Lt. Kristina Jones said.
Lawyers say the gassing of people in their homes—while inadvertent—may still constitute negligence, battery and a nuisance. And scientists who study the effects of CS gas say the chemical agent can wreak havoc on the respiratory system, and that harm is only exacerbated when gas enters a confined space, like a home, and gets absorbed into porous materials like bedding and carpet.
"It's a chemical that's potent enough to penetrate window glass," says Dr. Anita Randolph, a researcher at Oregon Health & Science University who published a paper last month about the effects of CS gas on the human body, especially amid a pandemic that attacks people's respiratory systems. "It's really rare that I do some type of research that makes me gasp."
Randolph says a single canister of tear gas can spread 400 meters, or a quarter mile.
When the chemical enters a person's home, Randolph says, it's important to clean it up so it doesn't cause illness. But research on how to properly decontaminate an indoor space of tear gas is limited, she says, and how it penetrates household materials like fabric versus wood and the long-term health effects of CS particles imbedded in a living space are also unclear.
"No one is instructing us how to relay to the public how to detox their house after exposure," Randolph says. "It's a huge concern."
Dawn Redlich can relate.
She was watching Designated Survivor on Netflix in her studio in Old Town on May 30 when she heard a commotion outside. She stood up to look out her window, and she saw a crowd of protesters marching down Northwest 3rd Avenue. "All of the sudden, I hear all the bangs," Redlich says.
Shortly thereafter, she noticed what felt like an intense "pepperiness" in the air. Her throat burned and her eyes started to water. Redlich's pets were also affected: Her dog, Prisilla, and her cat, Sachi, sneezed for most of the night, Redlich says.
She also pointed out that many unhoused people sleep in her neighborhood, and they are particularly vulnerable to the gas, which she says police seemed to spray indiscriminately.
"[I'm] irritated," Redlich says. "Irritated that the police have no regard for anybody's well-being. There's a handful of people that need to be crowd-controlled, the few that are trying to cause trouble. It's at the expense of many."
Redlich has taken legal action against the city. Her attorney, civil rights lawyer Michael Fuller, sent a letter to the city attorney threatening to file a tort claim if the city didn't agree to a settlement within 30 days.
Redlich is one of Fuller's five clients threatening legal action specifically for tear gas wafting into their homes.
"It's harming the type of people they're claiming to protect," Fuller says. "I don't see how tear gas is an effective or reasonable way of arresting the people that are allegedly attacking the officers. It seems like overkill. If this was a war zone, it would likely be a violation of the Geneva Convention."
Kapski, the North Portland chef, says he hasn't decided whether he'll take legal action. For now, he remains frustrated at what police did to his neighborhood.
"It's houses and families as far as the eye can see. For them to just use a chemical weapon in a residential neighborhood, there's no excuse for that," Kapski says. "I was less than a bystander. I wasn't even standing by. I was in my home."