Terminology note for this post: When I talk about public defense, I mean the defense, in a criminal case, of someone who can’t afford a lawyer, by a lawyer whose job it is to defend indigent clients. When I talk about indigent defense, I mean both the public defense system, and the common system, used because there are far too many indigent clients for most public defense systems to handle, of conscripting private lawyers into defending indigent clients in criminal cases.
The Marshall Project, which is in general a great source for news and commentary about the criminal legal system, has an excellent and disturbing three-part series out about underfunded public and indigent defense in Louisiana and other states. The articles talk about group plea deals involving dozens of indigent defendants from unrelated cases, long waiting lists for indigent defense services, the single public defender of one Louisiana parish (working with no health insurance) handling up to 50 cases simultaneously (including major felony cases), defendants who only get thirty seconds to speak with their lawyer before pleading guilty to felonies, insurance and real estate lawyers conscripted into indigent defense, and much more.
The Sixth Amendment Center has much more. This report talks about denial of counsel for misdemeanor cases around the US. It notes that in one Michigan county, which imposes a $240 charge for all misdemeanor legal representation, 95% of defendants waive having a lawyer at all and 50% plead guilty at their first appearance. It notes that 13 states have no statewide structure to ensure public defense, and nine states have a statewide structure but misdemeanor prosecution takes place outside that structure. It has chilling publications on the state of indigent defense in Utah (where according to the Marshall Project, 62% of misdemeanor defendants have no access to a lawyer), Delaware, Nevada, and Mississippi. It has news and state-by-state data on indigent defense systems.
Let me tell you a story.
Not very long ago, I was a criminal defendant, and was acquitted at trial of two charges, with the third dropped. As is not uncommon with high-profile political defendants, I had strong representation. I was represented by lawyers from the Mass Defense Committee of the National Lawyers Guild of Massachusetts. My lawyer, though experienced, was not a criminal defense attorney, but during the late stages, the trial and trial prep, he had a co-counsel, my other lawyer, with experience defending activism-related criminal cases. Over 14.5 months, I had many meetings with my lawyers, both in my original group of defendants and on my own. As much as I didn’t want to take a deal admitting responsibility when I didn’t think I’d committed a crime, the prosecution was pushing for jail time, and I was terrified and unsure – and my lawyers had many long conversations with me about what was likely, what was possible, what our strategies could be. Despite how long the process takes, how many hours of work, my lawyers were able and willing to push through to trial – they are busy people, but not to the point of barely keeping their heads above water. During the trial, my lawyer spent hours composing his closing statement (I think he called me about six times the evening before the last day of trial to ask for my feedback on different things he wanted to put in). We had detailed discussions about what my options were, what was happening, relevant case law. Since I was testifying in my own defense, we had witness prep, with a simulated direct examination, and a simulated cross examination in which another lawyer from the NLG Mass Defense Committee, a tough career public defender, played the part of the prosecutor and critiqued my performance as a witness afterward.
Granted, I also experienced a downside to being a high-profile political defendant – the District Attorney’s office threw everything they had at me, in a way that would not have happened if I had been an ordinary misdemeanor defendant (I could make that a post in its own right, because it’s a pretty absurd story, but it’s out of scope for this post). However, it is still true that if I had been an ordinary defendant, and couldn’t pay for a private attorney, I would not have been able to fight my case the way I did. And without an attorney with the time and resources to know the case in depth, to give me individualized attention, to have the resources to push it to trial without breaking the (time, energy, resources) bank and have that reflected in tone and attitude when we discussed options, I would have been more likely to be confused and frightened into caving.
Everyone should have that. An attorney who can afford to follow through on a client’s right to trial, gain real familiarity with their case – that’s the basics of effective representation. There’s an unfortunate stereotype of public defenders as bottom-rung lawyers who couldn’t get anything better. That stereotype is definitely not true for the people I’ve met who work in public defense, and in big cities, despite the abysmally low pay in many states (local folks, that includes Massachusetts), public defense jobs are highly competitive. And there is some evidence that career public defenders get their clients more acquittals and shorter sentences than private attorneys conscripted by the courts for indigent defense. The problem is that we don’t dedicate enough resources to indigent defense, even as the need for resources has grown. Mother Jones has some distressing statistics on how much time attorneys on indigent defense cases are actually able to spend on cases, vs how much is recommended by national advisory bodies. And how much money states have to spend on defense per case. Even the highest-spending states average well under $50 per case. It’s grotesque. The Yale Law Journal, in an essay warning public defenders to be wary of implicit racial bias in how they prioritize cases, likened indigent defense to medical triage, “determining which clients merit attention and which ones do not.”
According to the Marshall Project’s first story in the above-linked set, 90% of criminal defendants in the US qualify as indigent. According to the same story, since the constitutional right to counsel was established by Supreme Court decision Gideon v Wainwright in 1963, the rate of incarceration has more than quadrupled. Mass incarceration has put the current strain on public defense systems. But the strain on state indigent defense systems also feeds mass incarceration. Defendants with public defenders who take their cases to trial are twice as likely to be convicted as those with non-indigent-defense private attorneys – disparities not explained by case characteristics, amount of evidence presented at trial, and attorney skill. The underfunding and overworking of public defense offices promotes burnout and high turnover, which promotes longer sentences, as a 10-year veteran public defender, on average, reduces length of incarceration by 17% compared to a first-year public defender. The fact that we don’t properly fund public defense, and either throw unfunded mandates at public defense systems, or contract out indigent defense to (sometimes unpaid) private attorneys who may know little about criminal defense and have paying clients to deal with, leads to more convictions and longer sentences, as indicated by both some of the links in the previous paragraph, and this study of the federal indigent defense system, which found that the difference also had a disproportionate impact on people of color and immigrants.
In other words: More experienced public defenders do better for their clients than less experienced ones, but the overwork and underfunding burns public defenders out. Public defenders do better for indigent clients than court-appointed private ones, but in many locales, public defense systems simply can’t afford to take on more than a small fraction of the indigent cases. And private non-indigent-defense defenders, in a comparatively luxurious situation as they take cases voluntarily and can charge clients who go to trial for the extra time spent on the case, are more likely to get their clients acquitted than public defenders, who are working with very limited resources.
What can we do about this? I’d like to see the anti-mass-incarceration movement place more emphasis on indigent defense funding. You can learn a lot about your state’s system and how it is funded on the Sixth Amendment Center’s website and on your state government’s website. You can pressure your state legislature and governor. But even more than that, right now, state indigent defense gets very little federal funding. And compared to a lot of what the federal government spends its money on, funding states’ indigent defense systems with vastly more money than they have access to now would be a financial drop in the bucket. The government could also adopt national standards for indigent defense systems. You can contact your representative, your senators, the president, the Department of Justice, about these issues and the increased role that the federal government ought to be taking. You can make this an issue in your protest organizing, or run an awareness campaign.
As this will probably and unfortunately be a medium or long term goal, you can also donate to the Sixth Amendment Center, which provides indigent defense systems evaluation, standards development, and public education/awareness-raising. Or to Gideon’s Promise, which provides training, continuing education, mentorship, and leadership development, for aspiring and current public and indigent defenders, primarily in the South, where the need is most dire. And you can share information with others about this underappreciated issue.
I already told you all some stories about the RNC. Here’s a few more. You may notice a theme emerge.
During the flag-burning protest arrests, my medic buddy at the time, N (a tiny trans man, maybe 5’3″ or 5’4″ with a slight build) and I were caught in a crush. After it became slightly less crushy, we stood to watch the arrestees be led away, to see if we could count them or if any were obviously injured. a huge Bikers for Trump man (at least 6’4″ or 6’5″, and broad-shouldered) in a bulletproof vest strode between the police bike line and myself/N. The Bikers for Trump guy said “Move back.” N calmly asked “Sir, are you an officer?” The Biker for Trump shoved him, hard enough to knock him back three or four feet despite all the crowd in the way, and loudly threatened to kick our asses. N looked at the actual police officer a few feet away, with other police officers in a line on either side of him, and said that the Biker for Trump had shoved him, not that this wasn’t plainly obvious since the cop had watched the whole thing. The cop told him he should have moved back, then.
It’s rather disturbing that police would allow an ultranationalist vigilante biker gang to “help” with crowd control (i.e. hassling people standing in a public space not doing anything wrong).
The Biker for Trump continued to shove, growl at, and threaten N as the police watched dispassionately. I’m hardly an imposing physical presence myself – narrow-shouldered, curvy, not notably muscular, only coming up to the Biker for Trump’s shoulders – and was not thrilled about the idea of confronting a huge and probably armed ultranationalist vigilante who had already threatened to kick my ass, but this seemed like it was not getting better and you look out for your medic buddy, so I stepped forward and snarled “Leave him ALONE!” The Biker for Trump glared at me, but oddly, stopped shoving, though he continued to loom angrily over us.
After N and I moved back onto the sidewalk – again, right in front of a police line – we were confronted by two Trump-supporting dudebros, whom I will call Trump bros. One of the Trump bros called N a “commie” and loudly threatened to pin him down on the ground and…he opted not to complete the rest of his sentence, leaving us to infer either a sexual or physical image, I’m not entirely sure which he was going for. It was a hot day, and after turning his attention from the Trump bros, N started to take out his water bottle. The cop in front of us told him to stop and told us to keep our hands visible. He did not tell this to the Trump bros, who kept on engaging. So we stood there, two street medics, with our hands visible, palms out, while the Trump bros continued to give us shit (including repeatedly suggesting, toward the end, that N’s gender and political views were because he’d been molested by his family, and telling him what pretty eyes he had), and N periodically attempted some kind of civil discussion.
At one point they directly threatened to beat us up (again, all this is happening a few feet away from cops who are making us keep our hands out, palms visible, while not reacting to the Trump bros). I said something like “Gee, you guys are very friendly to first aid providers.” The guy doing most of the talking sneered and said that he knew all about “first aid providers,” that we commit vandalism and violence all over the country, and asked “What kind of first aid provider wears goggles?” in reference to the swim goggles hanging around my neck because people had reported the use of chemical munitions during the arrests. I looked at the cops, curious to see whether they would have any reaction to this. They did not.
I was boggled about what to say. When you’re a street medic, you might be providing first aid to people while stuck in a cloud of tear gas, or while pepper spray is flying around (usually sprayed by cops, but (content note: graphic pepper spray photos) Trump supporters have pepper-sprayed people before). If nothing else, you might want to avoid getting the pepper spray from a patient’s face or body into your own eyes by accident. How do you explain this to someone to whom it’s not obvious? How do something as benign as swim goggles become considered a sign of violent intent? They’re no more violent than the bulletproof vests that the city EMTs were wearing, and far more subtle. How does first aid become a sign of violent intent? This is not the first time I’ve run up against this mentality, but I’ve never stopped being confused by it.
I’ve already talked about the police attacking those counterprotesting the Westboro Baptist Church with bikes. There was a separate occasion in which they forcibly cleared everyone except the Westboro Baptist Church from Public Square, filling it with hundreds of police. The people attacked and forcibly removed were primarily left-wingers, doing the same thing that the WBC was doing – shouting at their opponents. The WBC, however, was not attacked, and not cleared out.
The fact that the police thought the medics were big-time “anarchist troublemakers” became kind of a running joke for us. I was in a small group of medics at one point who were surrounded by police and questioned for supposedly using the portapotties too much, by which I mean an average of once each (supposedly out of concern for our wellbeing, which I’m sure is why they needed more cops than medics, slowly maneuvering to be on all sides of us, to ask). Several medics were searched during the RNC. One medic team was carrying a bag of bananas to a free food distribution site, and had their bag of bananas searched. Another had their container of plastic water bottles searched.
Of course, it wasn’t just medics getting searched. Note how these protesters were surrounded and searched to confiscate a gas mask and a spray bottle. Meanwhile, this neo-Nazi* vigilante found carrying a knife longer than 2.5″, temporarily banned in the event zone under the same ordinance as gas masks, was handled in a less escalated fashion and allowed to put the knife in his car rather than having it confiscated.
Before the RNC and DNC, the DHS and the FBI put out a briefing on possible “domestic extremist” violence at the conventions. Their categories included both left-associated and right-associated types of extremism. However, in their “Potential Threat Indicators” list, the only ideology singled out as a potential threat indicator is anarchism (and even though it has to be coupled with other factors to be a threat indicator, it’s the only political view so singled out – neo-Nazi flags or signs, for instance, aren’t listed as a potential threat indicator when coupled with other factors). You know what else is singled out as a potential threat indicator? Treatments for tear gas/pepper spray (or “eye drops”)! Oddly, guns are not a potential threat indicator, though “unusual” requests for shooting lessons or range time are. As a street medic with a plastic bottle of liquid antacid + water in my bag, I’m apparently considered more of a potential threat than a neo-Nazi with a gun. At least, unlike some of my colleagues, I’m not (*gasp*) an anarchist street medic, though I gather that the cops at the RNC assumed we were all that in any case.
You get the idea. I noticed a pattern in how left-wingers and right-wingers were assessed and handled in Cleveland by law enforcement, with left-wingers treated with more suspicion and more force (while right-wingers were allowed, in some cases, to get away with vigilantism, not to mention threats and assault/battery). And in how showing up to help people was seen by both Trump supporters and law enforcement as suspicious.
Remember this photo from a previous post? Those guys had uniforms that said “Police” so I assumed they were police. I talked to another medic at the DNC, who was also at the RNC, who, when I described these guys, including the rifles with what appeared to be silencers, reported hearing the guys with rifles with apparent-silencers, telling someone that they were actually a militia group. If we are actually talking about the same guys with rifles with apparent-silencers, that’s pretty disturbing, because that would mean that they were impersonating police and the police allowed this to happen. I haven’t been able to find confirmation one way or another on this (and I spent a fair amount of time looking, but I haven’t been able to even find a reference to or photo of these guys other than my photo). They’re from Texas, I’d guess, judging by the Texas flags on their vests. If anyone has a clue who they are – police, militia, or something else – let me know.
*I know the Soldiers of Odin claim not to be neo-Nazis. The SPLC, as you will see if you follow my link, thinks otherwise. And, pro-tip, if you want to claim you are not neo-Nazis, you probably shouldn’t call yourselves Soldiers of Odin. Or be founded by a violent and avowed neo-Nazi. Or (content note: very disturbing photos of Nazi crap and vigilante imagery, descrptions of racist violence) keep Nazi items, posters, and magazines in your headquarters.
I became infuriated, during the RNC, when someone showed me this NPR piece referring to what the police were doing there, particularly the tactic of hitting people with bikes, as “soft force tactics.” The first time the police did this, I was nearly knocked to the ground, as the person in front of me was hit by a bike and slammed into me. Had there not been a larger Fox cameraman for me to be slammed into in turn, I would have. The first injury I provided care for at the RNC was to someone who had a three-inch-long cut down their leg from being hit by a bike (bikes have some relatively sharp bits on them, notably on the pedals). Cops were shoving people with bikes in crushes where there wasn’t really anywhere to move. Furthermore, they were usually doing so for no reason at all. That first time, when I almost got knocked over? The Westboro Baptist Church was protesting. Other people were counterprotesting. Both groups were shouting, but there was no violence. The cops decided that they wished for the groups to be further apart, so they hit counterprotesters (not Westboro people) with bike lunges to drive them back, meeting lack-of-force with force. There was another time when they cleared the entire public square, except for Westboro, by force, simply because some people were yelling back and forth with Westboro.
Certainly, hitting people with bikes was not all that was going on. I had just made it onto the site for the Revolutionary Communist Party’s flag-burning. I saw them getting hit, shoved around, slammed up against the fence, people fleeing the area gasping to get their breath back. In my own area, I got to watch horse cops ride through a crowd, at faster than walking pace, and hit several people, fortunately none harder than a bump. I also did jail support for those arrestees, which included not only a bunch of RCP folks but a journalist and a bystander. A protester had a bone broken during that melee! People were choked, pulled up against and over barriers with an arm to the throat, hit. People, including elders with preexisting conditions, were thrown to the ground. Police sprayed some kind of irritant, possibly a tactical fire extinguisher, all over the place. Police hurt people who were restrained to stop them chanting toward the cameras. Several arrestees had injuries, some went to the hospital after getting out. And you know, flag-burning is legal. The guy whose Supreme Court case established it as protected speech, was the one burning the flag in this case, and was one of the arrestees. I’m not sure why the police used force or made arrests at all – they’re claiming that they gave a dispersal order, which is contested, but also jumps right over the question of what grounds they had to order the dispersal of people engaging in Constitution-protected speech.
After the convention I spent more than $30 replacing medic kit supplies that I used at a convention where supposedly nothing happened and the police were so soft and gentle. And then we had the DNC, where also supposedly nothing happened, and most of the time nothing did, but there were still a few people who got pepper sprayed, and a few, including a medic, who were beaten up.
My observation here, which has been my observation for years, is that the way a lot of media assess police tactics is completely broken and back-asswards. They look for the dramatic photos, and for the novel. So tear gas is seen as very escalated and violent on the part of the police. People being hit with blunt force, thrown down, those are seen as nothing. Handcuffs being “too tight” is also seen as nothing. And yet, I would rather be tear gassed – and I have been tear gassed before, so I don’t say that from a place of unknowing bravado – than beaten up. Or subject to a cop who sees handcuffs as punishment devices – I’ve known someone who was long-term disabled from that, at another action where police were widely reported as having been soft and gentle. Being hit once by a bike or horse is not quite the same as being beaten up, but it can cause actual injuries, especially if done hard, or in a tightly-packed crowd where it’s difficult to move away from what’s hitting you, or if you fall down.
I’m not even talking about batons here, as they got little use at the recent conventions, but I would take most tactics over being beaten in earnest with a baton. Because I was a medic at the NATO summit protests in 2012, and I saw what happens to people when you beat them in earnest with batons. And yet, I remember seeing news stories after that talking about how Chicago had acquitted itself so well, had banished the specter of 1968. More than two dozen protesters went to the hospital in one afternoon (and I can guarantee you that’s probably no more than half the number that should have gone). I know someone who had to change careers because of the injury they took there. But, you know, no tear gas!
I am not saying that tear gas is a minor thing (it isn’t, it sucks and if the canisters are fired from a weapon they can be extremely dangerous projectiles in their own right). I’m saying that I wish more journalists had the experience and savvy to assess police tactics in a way that looks at risks, effects, and whether force is even justifiable at all in a particular situation, and not just flashy pictures and novelty. There are some who do, but it would be nice if it were standard.
I spent last week running around medicking at the RNC protests. Here is a partial list of things that happened:
Edited to add: I forgot to add what some people would probably consider the most interesting bit. I got a ride from the Akron airport to Cleveland with Vermin Supreme.
– I helped set up the medic wellness space, in a historic church that was a former Underground Railroad station.
A sign from the medics’ wellness center
– Some city EMS personnel (who knew about the street medics beforehand – our organizers had been in contact with them) asked for (and got) their photos taken with me.
– Someone drove by the street medic meetup after the first night of protests, where a bunch of us were hanging out in the church parking lot after the meeting, and screamed “Fuck all you motherfuckers, fucking DIE!” out his car window. I was a bit disconcerted by this because 1) how did this random dude find out where we were meeting? he clearly had opinions on us that wouldn’t follow from just seeing some figures in a parking lot in the dark, ergo he was probably aware, when he passed by, of what we were, and 2) that’s a lot of hostility to have to people for providing first aid.
Don’t know where these cops were from, but they had some heavy gear.
– I got sunburned.
– I watched people play a version of duck duck goose in the grass while being watched by a police helicopter.
– The first time I experienced the cops doing their “shove people with their walls of bikes” thing (same situation as the video here but I was in a less populated section of the crowd where the cops were pushing harder, with more follow-through, because they had more room), I was trying to slip past a Fox cameraman without disrupting his interview with a protester. A cop rammed a bike into the person a few inches in front of me, causing them to ram into me, and me to ram into the Fox cameraman, which disrupted his interview. Had the cameraman not been there I would have been knocked flat on my face, as the bike shove was very hard and the person being knocked into me was like being hit by, maybe not an adult linebacker, but a high school one at least. As it was, I was crushed between people until the bike-shove stopped, and then managed to disentangle myself. This has been described by some media (not the same ones hit by the bikes) as “soft tactics,” which I mean to post about later. Nothing was happening that warranted this, or even warranted compelling protesters to move. It was just some Westboro Baptist Church people and some anti-Westboro people yelling at each other in a public park, no physical violence. Notably, the cops didn’t hit the Westboro people with bikes. Or ask them to move.
– I did jail support – waiting around outside the jail, with my medic kit, for people to get released – for the people arrested at the RCP flag-burning protest. I ended up burning through a lot of supplies, despite whatever you may have heard about there being no injuries (the “no serious injuries” phrasing – my emphasis – bothers me less, since I’m aware that “serious” often means “potentially life-threatening” in medical parlance).
– I also did some first aid for someone who was hurt when a cop hit them with a bike, and for people dealing with issues like heat exhaustion and foot problems.
– I experienced street harassment that involved calling me “baby” (typical enough) and also the harasser shouting something about how our tax dollars are spent (not typical, and I wasn’t sure whether this was a reference to me in some way or to the hospital I was walking by). Having never previously experienced street harassment that involves tax spending commentary, I mentally filed this one as “Only at the RNC.” Also Only at the RNC: A guy leaning drunkenly out of a bus window to yell “We’re the Young Republicans of America!” at me while I was trying to find directions on Google Maps.
– Four or five police questioned me and a group of three other medics about why we were using the portapotties so much (two of us had gone once each while standing in the area, I had not gone at all, and one guy had gone into two separate potties because there was no hand sanitizer left in the first one). They pretended that this was about concern for us, which I’m sure is why they needed several cops to surround us to ask. I assume they suspected that we were gathering bodily fluids to throw at them, because by all accounts, the cops were obsessed with the idea of people throwing things, especially bodily fluids, at them.
– A medic team got detained over carrying a bag of bananas. This attracted the attention of several reporters, who took pictures of the bag when the medics opened it for police, and asked them what the bananas were for, which caused them to look strangely at the reporters and wonder what exactly they think the other uses of bananas are.
– The police, at various times, believed that food distribution group Seedz of Peace’s bags of cherries were rocks to throw at them, that the medics were “anarchist troublemakers” probably carrying weapons in our bags, and that bottles of water with Vitamin C powder in them were pee bottles to throw at them. They also had a tactical team to collect the crap output of the police horses so that it couldn’t be thrown at them, though I will say that the tactical team was slow enough that if anybody had actually wanted to do this they would have had plenty of time.
– I was in one of the crushes that happened during the RCP flag-burning protest after police escalated the situation from a flag-burning protest into a melee, though not the crush where people were being arrested. I was able to see part of that crush, though, through the fence, and it looked pretty vicious. I was worried about people getting hurt or being unable to breathe from being slammed and crushed at length against the fence.
Public Square after the cops cleared everyone out because people were yelling at the Westboro Baptist Church.
– I watched reporters in the crush that I was in physically fighting with each other for space, grabbing each other by the head and shoulders and trying to throw each other out of the way (no room to do so, really).
– My medic buddy at the time got shoved around by a Bikers for Trump guy and harassed and violently threatened by some Trump-supporting dudebro. More on this later.
– I spent a lot of time in Public Square, a park where protesters of various sorts would hang out, where I saw socialists, liberals, anarchists, revolutionary communists, antifascist and black bloc-ing kids, Wobblies, Trump supporters, delegates and their guests, far-right bikers (some of whom were open-carrying, open-carrying white supremacists and militia types, literal neo-Nazis, Westboro Baptist Church members, mainstream reporters, non-mainstream reporters, performance artists, and hundreds of cops from more than a dozen states. Sometimes all at the same time. Sometimes the cops would push everyone out for no apparent reason, as in the photo below where you can see hundreds of cops in Public Square.
– I watched Infowars interview some Wobblies after their singalong, though they didn’t say that they were from Infowars until the end. Infowars seemed a little slow on the uptake, to be honest. After having listened to the end of the singalong and then spent six or seven minutes talking to the Wobblies about their beliefs, they asked, “So, it seems like you aren’t actually capitalist at all? More like some kind of communist?”
Photobombed by a fellow street medic
– I had a couple of Trump supporters in Public Square actually understand that “Cleric” on my “Social Justice Cleric” shirt referred to the cleric class (which is typically a healer class, as befits my activities as a street medic) in many gaming systems, and ask me about it in non-hostile fashion. They didn’t get aggro even after I explained the “social justice warrior” joke – I got the sense that they considered me a curiosity.
Unless you’re a brand-new reader, you’ve probably seen my posts about street medicking before. With the 2016 RNC and DNC looming, and large Black Lives Matter protests around the country, I thought it might be worth a post on what a street medic is. Not only does most of the public not know, but neither do a lot of newbie protesters and organizers (and any time you have big high-profile protests you’re likely to have some newbies). So, an introduction (very much from a North American and particularly a US perspective, though I know that Australia has an active street medic community and various other countries have people who play similar roles). Also, you should consider donating to the RNC street medic fundraiser, which needs more money pretty badly.
What is a street medic and what do you do?
Street medics provide first aid and basic emotional support at protests and other activist convergences, as well as running health and safety trainings for activists. This covers different settings – street medics operate within marches, rallies, and so on, run pop-up first aid clinics or wellness centers at protest camps and large protest sites. Often, we are part of teams that sit outside of jails waiting for arrestees to get out, so that we can provide help to any who are hurt, dehydrated, traumatized, and so on. The contemporary North American street medic movement came out of doctors and nurses from the Medical Committee for Human Rights providing first aid for Civil Rights Movement protesters, and eventually training others to provide first aid in activist settings. Street medics have been present at (partial listing) the Civil Rights Movement, the Occupation of Wounded Knee, the anti-Vietnam-War movement, the anti-nuclear movement, the environmentalist, anti-fossil-fuel, and climate justice movements, the anti-Afghanistan-War, anti-Iraq-War, and other anti-war movements, the anti-globalization movement, Occupy, Black Lives Matter, Quebec’s 2012 student protests, and the protests of various Republican and Democratic National Conventions. Some street medics have traveled internationally and done protest first aid work together with locals, for example in Palestine, or during the anti-austerity protests a few years ago in France. There were street medics at the recent neo-Nazis vs anti-fascists protest/counterprotest in Sacramento that ended with several people being stabbed.
Street medics have also been active in disaster relief and community response efforts. Street medics worked in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, providing door-to-door aid and founding Common Ground Clinic, which still operates there. Street medics provided door-to-door aid and pop-up first aid clinics in New York City after Hurricane Sandy. Other community and post-disaster settings where I know that North American street medics have worked include:
– Community vigils after the Boston Marathon bombing
– Lower Manhattan after the 9/11 attacks
– Rural areas amongst migrant farmworkers
– Haiti post-earthquake
– Southeast Asia post-tsunami
– Greece, with Syrian refugees
Why are you needed? Isn’t this what emergency medical services are for?
Emergency medical services are usually not right there on the spot for the level of immediate response that we can do. They’re not allowed to enter a scene to help if the police say that it’s not stable or safe and tell them that they can’t. Occasionally they’re hostile to protesters (one of my street medic friends once tried to pass a patient off to EMS in the relevant city, only to be told that EMS was only there to help the police). There are some things that we have experience with that aren’t really part of usual EMS work and training, like dealing with pepper spray, tear gas, or handcuff injuries. And there are some activists who aren’t comfortable interacting with them, either at protests (“I’m afraid of being arrested if I go to the hospital”) or in general (“I have Medicaid in a different state and I’m worried that it won’t pay if I go to the hospital for my sprained ankle, even if it’s supposed to,” “I’m trans and I’ve been discriminated against by EMS in the past”).
All that said, it’s not like we’re not opposed to EMS or hospitals. We’re filling in a gap. At big planned summit protests, like national conventions or trade summits, we often build a working relationship with EMS beforehand, and may end up transferring sick or injured people to EMS or driving them to the hospital.
How will I know who you are?
At least in the US, we commonly wear duct tape red crosses (not to be confused with the Red Cross symbol, which is specifically a square red cross on a white background) and carry first aid kits, as seen in this photo from Flood Wall Street (I hear that Canadian street medics often wear green crosses instead). Big collectives may have a patch with the logo of their collective, such as this logo from Chicago Action Medical. At large actions, we may also have an action-specific patch or insignia, that will also be something obvious and first-aid-y.
Are you protesters?
If we’re running marked as medics, we aren’t protesting. Two different roles. We’re on the ground protecting the health and safety and rights of the protesters, as the National Lawyers Guild’s legal observers do from a legal angle. That doesn’t mean, though, that we don’t identify with the movements whose actions we’re medicking. I very much saw/see myself as part of Occupy, for instance, or the LGBTQ+ movements, or Black Lives Matter, or feminism (all of which are movements whose actions I’ve medicked).
Sometimes people who are trained as or often act as street medics want to be protesters at a particular action and still be able to provide first aid. In that case, they run unmarked, with no street medic insignia – in other words, a protester who happens to have some training and be carrying a first aid kit.
What kind of training do street medics have?
The basic street medic training is 20 hours (in times of need, people with existing medical qualifications can get a 4-hour “bridge training,” but the intention is that they will still get the full 20-hour training when they have a chance). It covers advanced first aid (i.e. something more extensive than the Red Cross’ basic first aid training but less extensive than an Emergency First Responder or Wilderness First Responder training), including being able to spot possible life/ability threats. It also covers consent culture, situational awareness/working as a pair in a potentially volatile environment, basic emotional and community support practices, basic prevention (e.g. of heat-related or cold-related illness), and some things you’re not likely to find in other first aid or medical trainings, like how to help people who have been pepper sprayed or tear gassed and how to assess handcuff injuries.
All street medics have that baseline level of training. Many have more. Some street medics are present or past doctors, nurses, EMTs/paramedics, ancillary care professionals, WFRs or WFAs, CNAs, former military medics or Combat Lifesavers. Some have special training or qualification on the mental or social health side – psychologists, rape crisis counselors and domestic violence advocates, social workers, licensed counselors, trained peer counselors. Some have Masters of Public Health degrees and/or work in related fields like epidemiology. Some are volunteers or professionals in some health-related field or setting other than street medicking. Some have volunteered or worked as other kinds of responders – in firefighting, search & rescue, etc.
Street medics are not necessarily offering every form of health-related care that they have ever learned how to do, though, because that could be dangerous and not practical. To go with an obvious illustrative example, a street medic who is an active, board-certified professional neurosurgeon is still not going to be doing brain surgery in the street.
How do I find you if I need you?
Some actions have their own process, but in general, in case of injury or illness, shouting “Medic!” and getting the people around you to do so as well is the right idea. Please do not shout “Medic!” because you want a cough drop. Just seek us out in the crowd for that.
What are your political beliefs? Do I have to agree with them to get help?
There is no ideological litmus test for getting help. There are many examples of street medics providing care for counterprotesters or people who were in the group being protested. We do look out for our own safety, which means that if it looks like your buddies are going to beat us up if we approach, we’re not going to approach.
All the street medics that I’ve met are broadly on the left – it’s a phenomenon with its roots in left protest after all – but there’s plenty of diversity. I’m somewhere in the social democrat/democratic socialist realm. Quite a large number of the street medics that I’ve met are some flavor of left-anarchist or mutualist (and next time you hear someone demonize anarchists, you might reflect on that). Some are socialists of various flavors. Some are plain old liberals. Some reject any sort of label for their ideology, or have complicated descriptors for it. There’s also a wide range of viewpoints about priority issues, tactics and strategies, and so on. I wish the left as a whole worked as well together as street medics with different viewpoints do.
Do street medics ever get attacked or arrested?
Yes. And there’s stuff that I could have put in that post, and didn’t, including street medics being shot with rubber bullets and jailed for days in Baltimore, street medics having an arm broken or being clubbed in the head and arrested at the NATO summit protests. Not to mention my own arrest experience.
Wait, really? What about the Geneva Conventions?
The Geneva Conventions are treaties that set down rules for humanitarian treatment of prisoners, the wounded and sick, and noncombatants, in war. They don’t apply to domestic handling of protests. You might think it’s wrong that street medics get attacked and arrested, but the Geneva Conventions don’t say anything about that wrongness.
That also means that stealing our red duct tape (or buying your own) and sticking a street medic cross on yourself when you aren’t a street medic, so that you can protest however you want to with impunity under the Geneva Conventions, is not going to work, and will get the medics pretty irritated with you besides. You might wonder why I bothered to say that. Let’s just say that it’s not a product of my fevered imagination.
Do you know where this march is going?
Okay, seriously, undercover/plainclothes cops, I don’t know why you all always seem to think that medics will know the answer to this question, but we usually don’t. Please stop asking me. Also, most of you are bad at pretending to be protesters. There are notable exceptions, but they are generally not the ones who meander up to street-medics fake-casually to ask where the march is going. If you’re not a cop and you’re asking me this question anyway, I still probably don’t know. Ask an organizer.
As I’ve mentioned before, I am a Bernie Sanders supporter! I also have some thoughts, regarding different subsets of people, about the mess in Nevada and some of the resulting Internet conversation.
To the people who doxxed, harassed, and threatened a Nevada Democratic Party official: Stop being assholes, okay? And no, the fact that the relevant info was publicly available doesn’t make it better. Doxxing and harassment have a long and ugly history in the anti-abortion movement, that predates the word “doxxing” even existing. Leave that kind of targeting of people to them, leave it to the Gamergaters, leave it to right-wing talk radio hosts (I was doxxed, albeit incompetently, by a right-wing talk radio host after my arrest last year). I mean, fight them, don’t just leave it to them and then call it a day, but don’t join them. Okay? I don’t understand why this is hard. Why would you threaten somebody’s grandkids?
If you are saying “But some of those weren’t threats! They were only saying that she should be hurt, not that the person was going to do it!” then you should consider that they are obviously meant to frighten the person they’re directed at. They are threats in a common-sense understanding. “You should be hurt” is a threat. And use some empathy, for chrissake. Last year after my arrest, in addition to the right-wing talk radio release of what the host believed to be my then-home-address, I got some threats of this nature, in the form of tweets and comments on news articles. Notably, a guy who runs a certain well-known and longstanding sportsbro media outlet, as well as a radio show of his own, posted to his legion of followers that we should be slowly and gruesomely publicly beaten to death. By the logic that some people are using when talking about Nevada, I shouldn’t have considered this to be threatening. I am irritated about the downplaying. If you’re defending threats this way, you might support the same candidate as I do at the moment, but you’re not some kind of compatriot, you’re not trustworthy, and I believe that you’ll turn on me as soon as something pisses you off.
To Bernie Sanders: Sorry, your statement was bad. I get that you have some concerns and complaints about the process, that you feel like you’re beating your head against a party infrastructure that is dubious about you. I get that you think the Nevada party leadership is singling out your supporters, when your own staff in Nevada were apparently targeted for violence by unknown persons during the Nevada campaign. None of that belongs in your statement. It’s not adequate to throw in a bit of “And of course I’m against violence.” You need to condemn the harassment against and threatening of the state chairwoman and anyone else who was targeted, and intimidating behavior like chair-throwing on the convention floor or use of misogynistic slurs. Full stop. Nothing else belongs in that statement. Process concerns can go into a different statement. Violence against your staff is abhorrent, and was not an issue of the recent convention, and can be addressed in statements that are not responses to the convention. Bringing them into your statement muddies the waters, and these are waters that shouldn’t be muddy.
To some subset of Nevada Sanders delegates: I don’t know how many of you have a background in street protest. Maybe you do, maybe you don’t and you just know what you’ve seen on TV or the Internet. But in either case, this is not street protest. You chose a “respectable” role for this one. You chose to formally represent a major campaign (and possibly your local Democratic party; I’m not sure how that works in Nevada) at a party insider business function. Nobody made you decide to do that instead of, say, marching through the local streets or sitting down in an intersection outside the building. Nobody made you pursue the electoral route to advance your causes at all. And believe me, I’m not dragging you for your choice here. I support your choice! I believe in diversity of tactics – actual diversity of tactics, not the sometime protest euphemism for breaking windows. I believe that the boundaries between institutional politics and protest politics, between within-the-system and outside-the-system, should be fluid, with activists able to assume different roles at different times if they want to, and people understanding and respecting the usefulness of different roles.
Hell, I’m a street medic who just finished going through the court system after an arrest, and I’m also a delegate in my upcoming state Democratic convention. Which, to my eternal relief, does not have to touch the Hillary vs Bernie issue, because we already chose the candidates’ national delegate allocations through our primary process. There would be something really weird going on if I didn’t believe in being able to move among different activist roles and tactics.
However, different is a key word here. Some of the Nevada delegates didn’t act like they understood what they were there for, from a tactical perspective. They didn’t learn the rules, to the extent that they even scored an own-goal when it came to constructing the party platform, and then were upset when they lost. They responded to procedural things not going their way by angrily going toward the stage and yelling. Protest politics vs institutional politics is not totally binary, and you can certainly do institutional politics with an edge (Bernie Sanders has in fact made a career out of that) or mix the two up a little. But, this isn’t breaking a kettle. It’s not pulling aside the barricades to Wall Street. It’s not disrupting a public Trump rally, or some other kind of antifa-ish action. It makes sense to change your tactics based on the context, and what will advance your goals in the context that you’re working in. If you choose the ground of a major presidential campaign and a state party convention to plant yourself in, then I think you should follow through with it. And just like you’d go to a direct action training, or a know-your-rights training, or a protest health & safety training, or seek out advice from experienced protest-goers, before a big protest, if you’re going to be a delegate, you should do what you can to learn how to be a delegate for the relevant convention, which is something I am trying to do now. I would even be willing to believe that some of the reports of delegate behavior have been skewed or unfair – I wasn’t watching the live feed, and lord knows that’s common enough with protest reporting – but the fact that people accidentally removed a section that they cared about from the platform because they didn’t understand what they were doing, and then were angry about it, is hard to get around.
To some subset of Clinton supporters on the Internet: You have good reasons to complain here. The fact that progressive politicians were booed is not really, in my opinion, one of them. I get that it is upsetting to see progressives that you admire and think have done great work, booed. But no politician is owed unbroken deference by members of the public, and dealing with a little booing and heckling is part of a politician’s job. “Where do these ungrateful twerps get off, daring to boo when a progressive hero like Barbara Boxer is speaking?” is a very different statement from “Booing Barbara Boxer as a delegate at a Democratic Party event probably doesn’t help either Sanders’ campaign or the advancement of his policy agenda.”
To the many, many people in 2011-2012 who criticized Occupy on the grounds that what it really needed to do was to be more like a left-wing Tea Party, to try and take over the Democratic Party from within: Congratulations! You spoke, and some people both inside and outside of the movement listened and concluded that you were right! They decided to channel their energy, their desire to move the country leftward, into an election, into gaining power within the Democratic Party. Wait, why do you look so upset? Why are you going on about how the primary is damaging the party or damaging its chances in the general? Isn’t the Sanders campaign an example of what you straight-out told people to do if they wanted to be Effective Responsible Leftists?
First of all, I know I’m nearly two weeks late posting about this, but as many of you have already seen, the final charge against me was dropped! So, hooray, my criminal case is over.
Unrelatedly (well, mostly unrelatedly), I want to make a point about the Democratic primary and identity.
My approach to this primary, and most elections, is largely a mix of ideology and practical concerns. Since there is little danger in most elections that I’m going to find any major candidate to be too far left for my taste, what I generally want is the leftmost candidate that I think could win and could do the job effectively (which in this case, in my assessment, is Bernie Sanders). However, I don’t think it’s wrong to factor in identity when you’re juding candidates. If someone thinks multiple candidates are ideologically and pragmatically acceptable, but identifies with one of them because of her long fight to overcome, say, sexism and misogyny, and that last factor pushes that voter over the fence in terms of who they support, I don’t see anything bad about that. Identity doesn’t really come into play for me in this one because I have serious problems with Clinton’s hawkishness and DLC history. That doesn’t mean that nobody should be motivated by identifying with a candidate.
Let’s say that identity issues did factor significantly into my primary decision-making, though. What would that mean? I almost didn’t write this post because, since I’m writing about a “what if” that isn’t actually the case, it seems superfluous. But the discourse about identity and the primary has bugged me enough that I’m writing it anyway.
A lot of people assume that between Clinton and Sanders, I should identify with Clinton, because of our common history of experiencing sexism and misogyny. And it’s true that we both have that history. But I don’t see why so many people think it’s obvious that I should identify with “woman” more than “secular Jewish social democrat who has been arrested for anti-racist activism.” Or even, you know, any component of that description of Sanders. We’ve never had a Jewish president (either ethnically/culturally, religiously, or both). Or any non-Christian president.
There’s a particular feminist writer – I am not going to name her because she gets enough shit already, and I don’t know who is reading this, and I don’t want to direct any more shit her way – who is very pro-Clinton, and has written some things about how meaningful Clinton’s experiences with sexism are, and how familiar it feels to her when people say sexist things to and about Clinton. I can relate to that. I don’t have a public-facing job in the way that she and Clinton do, so I probably can’t relate to it in quite the same way, but I do work in a very male-dominated field. But I also see the photos and video of a young Bernie Sanders getting arrested – looking as the AV Club memorably put it, “like a young Rick Moranis gone political” – and picture a hundred activist arrests that I’ve seen, not to mention the one I actually experienced. I’m not talking, here, about how much “cred” it should get him, as I don’t think whether someone fought for civil rights in the ’60s has much bearing on whether their racial justice platform in 2016 is any good. I’m talking about identification, and what people assume that other people identify with.
I wish there was more acknowledgment that even if you are a woman or female-presenting, even if you have experienced sexism and misogyny, identity is about more than that alone. Experience is about more than that alone.
Well that was a week! This week I went to trial on charges of trespassing on state property, and (aiding and abetting of) disorderly conduct, and was acquitted! A thing I had never thought about before – how the rubbery-legged-ness and lightheadedness of of a major adrenaline surge, on top of anxiety, can make it surprisingly difficult to stand and face the jury, as required, for the verdict. The trial lasted three days (jury deliberation was about three hours, I think, including the time the judge spent restating parts of the jury instructions after the jury had questions about them).
However, it’s not over yet. In this state, conspiracy is required to be tried in a separate trial from the substantive offenses (whatever you were accused of conspiring to do). And the District Attorney’s office is still pursuing the conspiracy charge. Given that, I don’t want to say a whole lot, and this is going to be an uncharacteristically short post. I was arrested while walking away in some roadside grass, where I had been standing quietly to offer first aid to anyone who needed it, and observe police behavior and potential infliction of injuries, at a protest in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. For that, I’ve been embroiled in this legal battle for just over 14 months. There’s a lot more I would like to say but it should probably wait until some future time.
Fun fact though. I presented at the big annual conference of the American Physical Society, which was in Baltimore this year, the day before the trial. I was glad I could give the talk – it was originally supposed to be two days later, so it had to be moved to before the trial, and almost didn’t happen. But I would say that I do NOT recommend the experience of presenting at a major annual conference (including the prep work that represents – you grad students, faculty, postdocs, and industry/government/nonprofit researchers know what I’m talking about) in a city hundreds of miles from home and then going on trial the next day.
There’s a lot of interesting arguments going around in the wake of the cancelled Donald Trump rally in Chicago. One of them is that the protesters violated Trump’s First Amendment rights to free speech, or his supporters’ First Amendment rights to free assembly. These arguments are wrong, and I want to take a look at why that goes beyond the refrain of “freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences” (which is technically true, but I think it’s a flippant and overused argument).
The really obvious problem is that the First Amendment regulates the behavior of the state. The only First Amendment issues you could raise in this situation involve the actions of law enforcement, regarding their attacks on and arrests of protesters and a reporter outside – I would really, really like some of these defenders of free speech to show more concern about that part of what went down in Chicago – or if you don’t think they were legally justified in clearing the arena. The actions of private citizens have nothing to do with the First Amendment.
What people are somtimes trying to get at when they make this argument is that a society that values freedom of speech enough to protect it from government coercion in the constitution, ought to value it enough to guard against or avoid other kinds of coecive behavior in relation to speech. This is what people mean, I think, when they talk about “a culture of free speech.” And while this argument has gotten a bad rap on much of the left these days because we’re so used to it being taken to ridiculous extremes (“How dare you ban me from your website for racist comments? What about the culture of free speech?”) or to claim that criticism of one’s argument is anti-free-speech, it’s an argument that’s worth reckoning with. To understand why, I strongly, strongly recommend reading Chris Bertram, Corey Robin, and Alex Gourevitch’s essay Let It Bleed: Libertarianism and the Workplace, which takes libertarianism to task for its failure to “come to grips with the systemic denial of freedom in private regimes of power, particularly the workplace.” I don’t think the left in general, or the social-justice-oriented left in particular, should be jumping to fall into the libertarian failure mode, into the idea that state coercion is the only kind of coercion worth caring about or opposing. We should give some thought to free speech as a norm, if you will, and not just free speech as a freedom. This is why I don’t much care for, say, campaigns to get rank-and-file workers fired for saying racist, sexist, or other oppressive crap in their private lives. It’s not a violation of their First Amendment rights, but it’s also not good.
That said, not all kinds of exercises of power around speech are equal (I give some more examples in the next paragraph). State coercion actually is different – you can be arrested, subject to invasive searches of your person, have property confiscated, have to appear in court repeatedly, be forced to pay a lot of money, be incarcerated. You can lose much of your liberty. And the First Amendment regulates that kind of coercion, and I’m pretty fervent about the First Amendment. Once you get beyond that near-absolute, you have to make judgments about what kind of coercion, if any, is happening, and what kinds of effects it’s likely to have. And since none of the parties involved is the state, you have to consider the competing rights of private citizens (e.g. giving a speech is a speech act, and so is petitioning to stop a speaker’s appearance or heckling them), and the competing principles that many of us look to in governing human interaction (the idea that people should be able to express their views is a valuable one – so are anti-racism, feminism, affirming that marginalized people are welcome in your communities, and a lot more, and sometimes those come into conflict with people being able to express whatever views, wherever they want). You have to actually make some kind of evaluation about how far is too far for what principle and how to resolve competing needs. The Constitution won’t help you. And free speech advocates aren’t all going to draw all the lines in the same places – for instance, when it comes to speech and higher education, you have advocates like Angus Johnston (who you should all be reading) and advocates like FIRE, and they draw the lines in sufficiently different places that they’ve had public debates about it. I sometimes change my mind about situations that are sufficiently close to my personal lines, and my personal lines sometimes move a little bit as I think situations over (the anti-Trump protest in Chicago did not cross my personal lines). I don’t think you’re a better civil libertarian for having your lines in a different place than someone else, because civil liberties are about the individual’s relationship to the government.
For an average person who has to make a living, the employer has very strong coercive power, possibly more than any other institution except the state, but this power is much less for, say, executives, who have more power in the workplace, usually more financial resources, and probably more ability to get a new job easily. Because Facebook and Twitter are such huge platforms, they have a lot of power to control what ideas get out there and how (by taking action, or for that matter, by not taking action, such that people get threatened and harassed until they abandon the platform in stress and fear). The book-publishing industry has a lot of power over authors, but will be using that power against a whole lot of speech by definition, because they don’t publish every single author who submits something. The blogger who bans you from their comment section has almost no coercive power. The student who asks for trigger warnings both has little coercive power and is not stifling you in any meaningful way (oh no, you’re being asked to say a couple of extra words – I don’t buy that you can even call that an infringement on either speech OR the related but different norm of academic freedom, unless you think that profs being required to issue course syllabi at many schools is also an infringement). There’s also the issue of what kind of platform someone has – Donald Trump gets news coverage if he sneezes, he has one of the largest platforms in the country, the idea that protesting a rally such that he decides to cancel it is stifling him is laughable.
There are also ways in which the situation of Trump’s rallies is unusual. There’s the thing where Trump has encouraged his supporters to physically attack protesters. Like, earlier that day he had said to his rally in St Louis that that one guy getting sucker-punched is the kind of thing they need to see more of, not to mention his previous comments offering to pay the legal fees of people who hit protesters. He’s creating violent spaces at his rallies, not in the “frame everything as violence” sense that you see in certain kinds of activist discourse, but in the literal, physical, interpersonal violence sense. Even if you think that people should not try to shut down other people’s rallies as a matter of principle, “space where you’re encouraged to beat people up who disagree with you” is not usually what a rally is, and it doesn’t strike me as unreasonable that people would want to shut down such a space in their community, especially when it involves racists having such a space at a majority-people-of-color university.
A last bit of the argument that I want to address is the “Well now right-wingers will disrupt Sanders and Clinton events and then you’ll be sorry” argument. My answer is, maybe they will. Protest/counterprotest situations aren’t exactly uncommon. Primarily as a street medic, I’ve been in protest/counterprotest settings that were nonviolent and quiet, nonviolent and loud, and (on at least part of one side) not nonviolent. The first big protests I ever went to were protest/counterprotest situations around same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, when I was 18. Big loud crowds on both sides, people crossing the street to mess with each other, people milling around mixing, most peaceably if noisily, a few less so. I befriended a gay 13 year-old goth who rather hilariously photobombed some homophobes getting interviewed by TV news, and then got kicked in the leg while crossing the street. Also before I started street medicking, I was at a Planned Parenthood rally where the counterprotesters were mostly peaceful but a few of them were trying to tear down people’s signs, shove them around, and rush the stage. I’ve medicked some nontrivial number of Israel/Palestine protests/counterprotests that have covered the whole range of conditions that I listed above. I’ve seen a couple of white supremacists counter the Ferguson protesters I was medicking for, I’ve medicked LGBTQ and anti-fascist counterprotests of a Tea Party rally featuring vicious homophobe Scott Lively, I’ve medicked a pro-Syrian-refugees-coalition vs militia protest/counterprotest (that ended up being very mellow as the militia people decided to go march elsewhere). It’s just not that novel, oppostion happens when you do politics. Violence and threats, obviously, are different matter, but if right-wingers start loudly-but-nonviolently protesting Clinton or Sanders rallies, I’m sure that everyone can manage and it is not like anyone won’t be able to access Clinton’s or Sanders’ opinion on the issues of the day if they want it.
This is the companion to my previous post. There, I focused on my experiences of the protest, and explaining the concepts behind it (e.g. “What is pinkwashing?”). This time, I address why I was motivated to participate, why I don’t think groups that engage even in relatively mild forms of pinkwashing belong in the programming of social justice conferences, why I’m okay with measures that many liberal Jews consider a bridge too far like BDS or a protest of a reception.
I’ve seen comments from a few people that amount to “Ugh, why did you have to bring this debate into the conference?” and really, I would rather not have. This was my fourth Creating Change, and I go because I value the learning opportunity, the chance to be in a huge queer-normative space. Which I still got – the debate and protest around pinkwashing is only one thing that happened at a several-day coference – but I’m a relatively conflict-averse person by temperament and infighting in my communities makes me sad. So why, then, did I participate? I participated because once the presence of the reception had introduced the issue, I felt morally compelled, and here’s some of the reasons why:
I participated for Balata Refugee Camp, and for the cultural center staffer there who broke down and cried when talking about the traumatized, violently-acting-out, and suicidal children that he works with. I already wrote a long post about Balata and would love for anyone reading
My Palestine bead flag pendant from Balata Refugee Camp.
this post to please read that one too. Balata’s cultural center has a shop for internationals to buy crafts from, to support impoverished widows and children. During the march at Creating Change, instead of a sign or a #CancelPinkwashing sticker, I wore a pendant that I bought from Balata’s cultural center shop, with strings of beads that form a Palestinian flag. I used that pendant, during the protest, to remind myself that this was about more than the social dynamics of a conference.
I participated for Palestinian LGBTQ+ group alQaws, which supports and organizes LGBTQ+ Palestinians throughout Israel, East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza (and which used to be part of Jerusalem Open House, the organization that was to speak at A Wider Bridge’s reception – the relationship between the two groups is detailed here). And for Aswat, the group for queer Palestinian women living in Israel, which was denied by Jewish LGBTQ+ groups a chance to speak at the pro-LGBTQ+ demonstration after the mass shooting attack on a Tel Aviv LGBTQ+ center in 2009. Both alQaws and Aswat signed onto the coalition statement against A Wider Bridge’s reception being held at Creating Change.
Israeli soldier viewed through barriers inside a military checkpoint near Qalqiliya in the West Bank.
While I’m on that point, I participated for the LGBTQ+ Palestinians who live in areas that were long part of the Jerusalem metro area, who when the Separation wall was built suddenly lost the ability to access Jerusalem Open House’s LGBTQ+ on-site community services without permits to let them cross the Wall and undergoing the exteme fear, inconvenience, and uncertaintly that crossing the Wall brings. To approximate something the alQaws organizer that I talked to said to my delegation when we talked to her, there’s no pink door in the Wall for queer Palestinians.
I participated for the villages of Bil’in and Nabi Saleh, where I had the opportunity to attend weekly village protests against the Wall and the seizure of their land. They are two of many villages that have such weekly protests, and they can’t even have small nonviolent marches without being bombarded with tear
Facing off with soldiers through a cloud of tear gas in Nabi Saleh. One of my favorite photos that I took.
gas (and worse), from dozens of cannisters that could seriously injure or kill someone who was hit on the head. I wrote about them here
and you should read those posts.
I participated for the Bedouins in Southern Israel, Palestinian citizens of the State of Israel, whose villages are being bulldozed so that Jewish
settlements can be built on top of them, and the Jewish National Fund can plant forests on top of the ruins, as part of the Zionist project.
Our guide in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Alsira, an attorney with Adalah (the “Israeli NAACP”), shows off one of the solar panels he was responsible for bringing to his village.
I participated for the residents of the Saffafra neighborhood in the Israeli city of Nazareth – Palestinians who were, or whose parents or grandparents were, driven out of the nearby village of Saffuriya by bombing attacks, and can’t move back even though it’s the same country and only a few miles away, because it was expropriated to be a Jewish National Fund pine forest (don’t even get me started on the bullshit involved in planting pine forests that catch fire easily in the
Cultural artifacts from the destroyed Palestinian village of Saffuriya, collected by 1948 bombing survivor Abu Arab.
middle of the desert
– I even saw one of these forest fires from our bus at one point – because pine trees grow quickly and you want to cover up the land that you took from Palestinians with something else as quickly as you can) and a Jewish moshav (cooperative community).
I participated because on my delegation that took me to the region, one of our tour coordinators was a Palestinian from the West Bank who had recently graduated from college in the US, and for the first time, she saw what was left of Lifta, the Palestinian village at the
One of my delegation’s tour coordinators looks at a wall in her family’s old village which they fled in fear of Zionist paramilitary groups in 1948, now a nature reserve, which she is visiting for the first time.
edge of West Jerusalem that her family was driven from in 1948 along with the rest of the villagers after a massacre at the village coffeehouse by the Lehi
and other attacks by the Lehi as well as fellow Zionist militias the Irgun and the Haganah. Lifta has now been turned into a nature reserve by the Israeli government, the old spring into a place where ultra-Orthodox boys go to swim. If I wanted to visit the places in Europe and Turkey from which my Jewish ancestors fled violence or other disaster, or the place in Europe from which my Roma ancestors were expelled, my only barriers would be time and money, but my Palestinian tour coordinator had never had that chance because it was only the second time in her life that she’d been able to get the necessary permits to be allowed into Israel. She walked through the remnants of the place from which their still-living ancestors were forced to flee, allowed to see and touch it for the first time.
I participated for the mixed-ethnic Israeli city of Lod (or Lydda). Lydda’s pre-1948 Palestinian inhabitants were expelled, hundreds massacred, survivors robbed of their possessions, sent on what became known as the Lydda Death March. Today, Lod is a city where marginalized and often poor Palestinian-Israelis live with marginalize and often poor Sephardi-Mizrahi (Middle Eastern/North African), Ethiopian, and first-gen Russian immigrant Jews, in a struggling environment. Where, as described by my guide, a lifelong resident of the city, kids in the poor, mostly-Palestinian-Israeli
Shanty next to a garbage pile in the mixed city of Lod.
Rakevet neighborhood used to be regularly killed by trains – there are so many train tracks through there, and the trains so frequent, that some roads average one train crossing every few minutes at some times of day – because there weren’t signals to warn the walking kids that the trains were coming, until years of hard work by local activists finally convince that the problem needed addressing. Where a ten year-old tried to sell drugs to our driver and homeless people were living in boxes next to a dump.
I participated for the people of Aida refugee camp, where, when I visited, the primary school area of the camp, which is right up against the Wall, was being tear gassed multiple times per week (including while I was touring the camp), and IDF soldiers stood outside people’s doors at night. Where there are large numbers of disabled children and their parents struggle to provide for them because there are very few resources for disabled people in the refugee camps.
I participated for Tali Shapiro, a queer Israeli Jewish woman who I met and chatted with at a weekly village protest in Nabi Saleh in June 2014. In March 2015, at another weekly village protest in Nabi Saleh, she was (content note: images of military violence and injuries) beaten and arrested by Israeli military forces. Just as there’s no pink door for queer Palestinians, there’s no pink shield or handcuff key for queer Israeli Jews who want support freedom for Palestinians.
I participated because when I was in Ramallah I had the opportunity to observe a day-long conference on treating survivors of torture (Israeli torture, Palestinian torture, and any other source) and there were professionals, presenters, who couldn’t get to the conference because the IDF’s Operation Brother’s Keeper had restricted their movement too severely.
I participated for the Palestinian shopkeepers in Hebron/Khalil whose stores have garbage, debris, and concrete chunks dropped on them from above, and whose shop doors are vandalized, by Israeli Jewish settlers. A Wider Bridge has no problem, apparently, with giving someone who lived in a Hebron-area settlement to attend a radical religious hesder (combining religious studies with Israeli military service) Zionist yeshiva, who happens to be gay, a platform on their website (and yes, I realize that they give
Nets full of settler-thrown debris in the Palestinian marketplace of the old city of Hebron/Al-Khalil, which is deserted in anticipation of confrontation with Israeli soldiers.
anti-Occupation folks platforms on their website too, but an willingness to subordinate concern about gross ongoing human rights violations, to the gay self-discovery story of someone willingly participating in those human rights violations by being part of the settler movement, is an interesting illustration of what people are concerned about when they are concerned about Israel advocacy through an LGBTQ+ lens).
I participated because Israel, which portrays itself as an LGBTQ+ haven and makes much of supposedly being a lone liberal democracy in the Middle East, eavesdrops on Palestinians in order to gather information about their private lives, and uses queerness as one of many possible hooks (others include financial problems, drug use, and the need for major medical care that can’t easily be accessed because of the restrictions that Israel places on Palestinian movement) to blackmail Palestinians into collaboration with the Israeli government, which not only harms those individual Palestinians, but creates a public image that queer Palestinians (as well as Palestinians in the various other targeted categories) are likely to be collaborators. You should read alQaws’ statement on this story for important notes on framing and contextualization – I have tried to be mindful of their words in writing this paragraph, but it is entirely possible that I have screwed up.
I participated because, if you apply the Williams Institute figure of 3.8% of the US population being LGBTQ+ to the Palestinian-American population, that’s over 3200 LGBTQ+ Palestinian-Americans, who ought to be welcome at Creating Change. It sends a decidedly unwelcoming message to them when Creating Change has a sanctioned event by a group that supported Israel’s bombing of Gaza to the point of being willing to co-sponsor a protest in favor of it and push people to attend it (and seriously, how is that alone not serious enough for progressives to object to its presence at a social justice conference?).
You may notice that I brought up a lot here that takes place on Israel’s side of the Green Line, or both sides, rather than sticking only to what happens in the Occupied Territories. That’s because sometimes I hear that while what is happening in the West Bank or Gaza is terrible and Israel should stop that, things are just fine inside Israel (and that things are great for LGBTQ Palestinians inside Israel) so I should be nicer to it. Ending the Occupation is vital work, but the problems go beyond that (just as, say, racial justice problems in the US go beyond the legacy of Jim Crow laws, even though ending those was very important).
I’m not saying that if you didn’t, or wouldn’t, participate in the protest, you don’t care about these things. I’m saying that I had them in mind when I participated, and that I have them in mind when I do things like support BDS (which came up over and over when I was in the region, and is supported by a wide range of groups in Palestine ranging from unions to children’s theater programs to Palestinian LGBTQ+ groups to YMCAs). I thought it was wrong for Creating Change to have an event run by A Wider Bridge, an organization that doesn’t seem to care what kind of terrible things it supports (bombing the crap out of Gaza), or what kind of dubious groups it works with (StandWithUs, the Israeli consulate), or what kind of dubious activities it gives a glowing public platform to (settlements, hasbara), as long as it can link LGBTQ+ issues, LGBTQ+ people, and Israel (which, like the US or other powerful countries, is a state whose policies should be roundly criticized, not an informal group of people, many of whom are perfectly nice and well-meaning), together in the public eye to get people to feel positive feelings toward the Israeli state.