A primer on street medics

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.

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