By David Uberti, the-protest.com
Crimson blood shimmers in the early afternoon sun as it flows down the back of the protester’s pale, shaved head. A man with red crosses taped to his clothes holds a bandage against the wound, keeping calm in the center of the largest protest of Chicago’s NATO summit.
The 5-foot-2-inch Monica Trinidad – her backpack and fanny pack also sporting red tape – darts through the increasingly belligerent crowd packed into the Cermak and Michigan intersection. She locks arms with a number of similarly marked activists, forming what she calls a “privacy circle” around the bleeding man and his caretaker.
But that’s when the chanting starts, and that’s when I realize there’s nowhere to run. Hundreds of riot police line three sides of the intersection. Gripping worn-looking nightsticks, their dark body armor and masked helmets make them resemble black stormtroopers.
The red crosses on Trinidad’s bags look like targets as police begin advancing from all sides, yelling, “Move back!” with each step. The black phalanx approaches methodically – seemingly in slow motion - while the diverse mob of protesters braces for impact. Caught in the middle is Trinidad’s privacy circle.
Each syllable from the police feels like another tick of the clock – a foreboding countdown until the red crosses are swept away. “They just kept coming even though they saw us in the middle of treating a patient,” Trinidad, 25, says later. The black wall of armored officers doesn’t break stride as it scatters her small group and pushes it back into the crowd. But before the dark-complexioned Trinidad, wearing a green shirt, black jeans and red glasses, can evade the advancing police, she suffers a baton blow to the elbow.
Her small frame recoils. And she darts back into the mob– still several hundred strong – as it’s pushed west. “Walk!” Trinidad screams repeatedly, her voice barely audible. After struggling against demonstrators streaming from the intersection, she finally makes it to the sidewalk. Trinidad quickly checks her arm and then continues to weave through the protest, sharing water and doling out earplugs.
The police drive a wedge between the two streets, separating Trinidad and me from the most stubborn remaining demonstrators. We watch the phalanx advance west on Cermak. And the authorities eventually lead a trickle of protesters – several bloodied – out of the fray in our direction.
Chicago police arrested 45 activists that day, an effort that was widely lauded by city officials who had prepared for the worst. But for those wearing red crosses on their clothes – such as Trinidad – success isn’t so easily quantifiable.
Trinidad doesn’t hold signs, chant slogans or challenge cops. Her brand of activism is of an entirely different sort – one, she says, focused on empowering protesters rather than leading them. The University Illinois at Chicago graduate is a street medic, an informally trained emergency responder who treats injuries on protests’ front lines.
And she’s not alone. Today’s era of activism – spearheaded by the Occupy movement - led to a coast-to-coast boom in loosely organized street medic collectives. Medics frequently coordinate with Occupiers, who have protested in at least 116 cities nationwide, according to St. Pete For Peace, an anti-war group that tracks Occupy arrests. More than 30 medics – many from Chicago Action Medical like Trinidad - converged on the Windy City for May’s NATO summit, teaching first aid, nursing injured protesters and creating a new definition for progress.
Street medic groups now span the country, from the Seattle Street Medic Collective to Atlanta Resistance Medics to the North Star Health Collective in St. Paul, Minn., to name a few. Collectives’ numbers fluctuate widely with the level of need. But they don’t stop at the United States border. Fledgling international groups, such as Street Medics for Tahrir in the Middle East and the Melbourne First Aid Care Team in Australia, have begun sprouting up around the world. Most recently, medics provided support at this year’s party conventions in Charlotte, N.C., and Tampa, Fla.
For Trinidad, the draw is simple. Street medics are part of a wide-ranging support system for today’s activists. Giving first aid to injured protesters such as those at NATO, Trinidad says, makes a tangible difference – even if it means taking a baton to the elbow.
“EMTs sometimes can’t get to those people right away because officials deem those situations too dangerous for them to go into,” she says. “I’m willing to put my life on the line to help somebody as immediately as possible … and then hope that I don’t get smashed.”
“Military Medics Without the Military to Protect Them”
The West Town building appears long forgotten. Its beige lobby, barely illuminated by dim, yellow lights, is flanked by mirrors running the length of the narrow room. I see myself every direction I turn, making the corridor feel like the first scene from a bad dream. A piece of ripped cardboard rests atop the empty receptionist’s desk, reading “Medic Training. 4th Floor.” The elevator is cramped and its lights flicker as it groans its way up the building. After stepping out, I find myself in an entirely different world: basic training.
“Street medics are military medics without a military to protect them,” says Grace Keller, a 28-year-old veteran medic. “The patient is on the pedestal, the patient is the hero. Getting hurt at a protest is a life-changing event.”
A dreary rain that could only have fallen on a Sunday pounds against the windows, clouding the view of the Chicago skyline. Ripped couches and creaky chairs fight to stay out of shadows in the unevenly lit room. And a fiery red mural spans an entire wall, depicting clenched fists and reading “Solidarity” in bold letters. Opposite is a small stage, framed overhead by gloomy Christmas lights, where five street medics explain how to treat injured protesters.
Three dozen people – some tattooed, some dreadlocked, but all focused - feverishly take notes as the trainers speak. College kids, senior citizens and every age group in between, they’ve come to learn street medicine. The 20-hour workshop is part of the Spreading the Health Conference, a weeklong forum organizing and training medical volunteers two weeks before the NATO summit.
Street medics are unlicensed. They’re loosely organized into metropolitan or regional collectives. And they don’t carry traditional, over-the-counter drugs. But that doesn’t stop them from providing grassroots medical care. Police must secure a perimeter before formal paramedics can wade into protests, often wasting precious minutes of patient care. Street medics aim to fill that gap.
Instruction at the conference focuses on what street medics often see among protesters: dehydration, blisters and headaches. But the volunteers carry personalized supply kits in fanny packs, vests or backpacks to prepare for the worst, says Keller, a lead trainer.
“Random patients now and then that will throw you something,” she says. “They’ll throw you a head injury, throw you a sprain, throw you a big old bruise from when people got shot in the back with a bean bag gun when they were running from the cops.”
Treating such injuries may seem too tall a task after only 20 hours of training. But Juliana Grant, an Atlanta-based public health physician and medic with Atlanta Resistance Medics, says informally-trained volunteers are often better prepared for protest situations than their professional counterparts. The latter may have superior knowledge of physiology and when to elevate care to hospitals, Grant says. But medics prepare specifically for protest situations, emphasizing calm, working within demonstrations’ often non-hierarchical structure and using minimal resources.
“There’s no cookbook about what the ideal [street medic] training is,” Grant says. “There are suggestions, but there are a lot of different approaches, a lot of different skills you can learn… . And that’s important in a collective, particularly for street medics who generally approach things from either an anarchist or egalitarian perspective.”
Medics’ role in protests, however, goes beyond the front lines. Chicago Action Medical manned its NATO Wellness Center with about 35 volunteers, including self-trained herbalists, acupuncturists and massage therapists. Other medics, meanwhile, held open-air seminars in protest staging grounds to educate activists on how to stay safe and healthy.
And they don’t just relegate themselves to live action such as global summits or national political conventions. Zoe Williams, leader of the Colorado Street Medics, says her group holds educational programming throughout the year.
“We always do CPR and first aid classes – the sort of standard – so people have those certifications,” says the 26-year-old aspiring acupuncturist. “And when we do them we try to bring in the street medic concepts such as solidarity and mutual aid.”
That sense of unity is a universal sentiment, Williams says, and medics often travel across the country to work at protests. She adds that at least 25 non-Coloradoan volunteers came to Denver to work at protests outside the 2008 Democratic National Convention.
Keller, a 5-foot-10 medic with straight, blond hair and an easy laugh, volunteered in post-Katrina New Orleans, post-earthquake Haiti and various protests across the country. The NATO summit, she says, “was too compelling to resist.”
“You’ve got war and austerity meeting at the same time,” the Louisiana native says. “The convergence of messages is kind of hard for people to put into words. That’s a big draw. That’s a lamp to a bunch of moths.”
Child of the ’60s
The medics eat lunch in the early afternoon, picking up vegetarian or vegan potluck dishes from a dark kitchen attached to the main room. They shuffle back to their couches, chairs and floor for a short break. Trainers, meanwhile, cue up scenes fromMedium Cool on a 10-foot screen onstage.
Made in 1969, the film includes footage from protests outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. For the medics, it’s a family film of sorts – an up-close account of their activist ancestors, the giants upon whose shoulders they stand. Keller cracks a smile as protesters in the movie begin to chant, laughing, “That’s the same shit we say nowadays.”
Street medicine first appeared in the 1960s, when the Medical Committee for Human Rights called on healthcare professionals to provide first aid during civil rights demonstrations in the South. Ann Hirschman, one of the original street medics, says many early adopters had a “rescue-fantasy-adrenaline junkie mindset.”
“It occurred to some of us that a) we want to be more politically involved … and b) people needed first aid,” Hirschman says. “I have a personal problem with people bleeding on the floor.”
Although the 1960s and 1970s saw medics gain prominence in the activist community, collectives’ non-hierarchical, informally-organized nature led to major fluctuations in activity over the decades. The volunteers “can be a pain in the ass when there’s not a crisis going on,” Hirschman admits.
“We argue when we’re standing in a family room party,” the 65 year-old jokes. “Give us 50 patients to treat and we’re a crackerjack team.”
The recent rise of street medicine began amid increasing anti-globalization and anti-war demonstrations in the past five years. Participation depends on each individual action, says Williams, who estimates the Colorado Street Medics range between 15 to 30 members a protest or other action. The Occupy movement shot additional life into street medicine last year, as long-term camps often required more organized medical support systems.
When protest movements lull, however, medics don’t stop providing grassroots healthcare. Scott Mechanic, a Chicago Action Medical organizer, says collectives often coordinate around social justice issues within the healthcare system. Mechanic was among the volunteers who founded and staffed the Common Ground Health Clinic in post-Katrina New Orleans. The non-profit exists to this day, providing low-cost primary care to The Big Easy’s poor.
“It’s a natural step for street medics to go beyond doing care for protests and to do more community health work,” the 27 year-old says. “Seeing that good work being done kind of makes you want to keep being involved.”
Such work is gaining notoriety in the American activist community. Williams and other Colorado activists have even started compiling artifacts for a street medicine museum, slated to open in Denver this year. While medics have always felt a sense of permanence, she says, the museum will help chronicle street medicine’s intricate history.
“A lot of stories are the glory stories about wearing the gas masks and stuff like that,” Williams explains. “But it’s not just the war stories – it also includes some of the human impact that comes from them and the toll that it takes on people.”
Despite the recent growth of street medicine, Hirschman – a family nurse practitioner – says medics’ development into an independent activist group has been “a disappointment.” She’d rather they foster closer ties with other protest organizations and healthcare professionals.
That’s not to say there aren’t any connections between street medics and conventional medical providers. Indeed, Atlanta Resistance Medics includes two physicians and several nurses and EMTs, according to Grant. In a Journal of Emergency Medical Services article following the 2009 G-20 Summit, meanwhile, Pittsburgh’s former EMS Chief Robert McCaughan even suggests coordinating future care with street medics.
Matt Anderson, a physician and professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, has pushed to develop working relationships between medics and healthcare professionals. Like Chicago Action Medical, many collectives offer bridge training for healthcare workers. But sustaining the growth of such ties, Anderson says, is difficult.
“There have been a lot of cultural differences that we’ve had to iron out,” Anderson says. Whereas street medicine’s egalitarian, non-hierarchical model has evolved through trial and error, medical professionals strive for rigorous performance analysis and standardized training. But trying to professionalize street medics, he adds, could “be impractical and violate the ethics of street medicine.”
“You Don’t Win at the Action”
The struggle between protesters and authorities on Cermak continues as I watch more riot police march toward the intersection. Barricades and law enforcement vehicles block all the major streets, making it near impossible for Trinidad and her medic partner to rejoin the main crowd. We rest for a moment on the sidewalk, most of the nearby protesters gone, and try to regroup. But an order from a nearby police commander breaks the calm. “Get ’em out,” he barks.
Dozens of reserve riot police in formation on Michigan Ave. drop to a knee as one. Only a few arm-lengths away, I watch in dismay as they simultaneously reach into black pouches on their upper left thighs: gas masks.
“You ever been gassed before?” Trinidad asks coolly. She quickly reaches into her backpack, pulling out a windbreaker, plastic goggles and a surgical mask. After calmly removing her charcoal gray bucket hat – revealing a small tattoo on the back of her neck reading “Resist” – Trinidad dons the only armor she has. I shake my head at her and jerk the collar of my t-shirt over my nose, feeling anxious for the first time all afternoon. I’m not ready for this.
For Hirschman, a medic at the 1973 Wounded Knee incident that left three dead, such potential danger is a trifling concern for many medics. Some are “rescue nuts … wanting adrenaline to pump,” she tells me over the phone. But they’ve all played an integral supporting role in contemporary protesters’ fight for change.
“Bringing your own medics has always been something successful warriors do,” Hirschman says. “I do consider activists warriors.”
But it doesn’t end with physical protests such as those at the NATO summit, according to Keller. The minister’s daughter also worked at the Common Ground Health Clinic in New Orleans, and she says the city became a “Katrina support group.” Providing such low-cost community healthcare – occasionally for long periods of time– is the foundation of street medicine, she adds.
“As I got older, I realized that you don’t win at the action - you win in the years after the action,” Keller says. “It’s really about sustaining these communities… . Now, I see mass mobilizations as an opportunity for street medics to gain clinical experience… . In the short term, I think street medicine is self-defense. In the long term, I think it’s about building self-reliance and self-determination.”
The falling sun begins dipping below the National Teacher’s Academy as Trinidad drops her black backpack onto the scraggly grass outside – a much-needed minute of rest. Only a few handfuls of protesters remain in the neighboring State and Cermak intersection, their chanting muffled by nearby Green Line trains roaring overhead. Hundreds of riot police behind metal barricades, meanwhile, block every direction but south. The demonstrators had been steadily pushed away from McCormick Place without the help of tear gas, giving Trinidad time to weave through open side streets to meet them.
The protesters are losing both their numbers and energy – and understandably so. My body aches from hours of action. I depart during Trinidad’s short break, slowly shuffling west across the field toward the Cermak-Chinatown “L” stop. But I stop before losing sight of the dwindling demonstration.
I raise a hand to block the yellow glare of the evening light, and my eyes return to where Trinidad stood only minutes before. She, her backpack and partner had disappeared into the shrinking mob of protesters. I continue scanning the area, struggling to find where the street medic had gone. My eyes never find her – not her personally, at least. But my gaze falls elsewhere in the crowd, focusing on what look like small targets. They’re unmistakable, even from a few hundred feet away: bright, red crosses plastering medics’ bags and bodies – scarlet symbols of calm gleaming boldly in the setting sun.
This piece appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of The Protest.