“We’re here, we’ve got you. We want you to continue feeling safe as you make your point.”
Throughout 2020, crowds took to the streets to protest the police. This week, with the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on Wednesday, there will be more demonstrations.
During these events, street medics provide support for protesters. Street medicine epitomizes community care: people from different backgrounds volunteer to provide aid at protests and resources about safety, unified by a willingness to help and educate their communities. There is a long tradition of this mutual assistance, as street medicine can be traced back to 1964 and the Medical Committee of Human Rights, a group of healthcare professionals supporting civil rights workers in Mississippi by treating minor ailments and providing psychiatric care and rest and recreation opportunities for those with battle fatigue.
Operating autonomously from the state, education for a lot of today’s street medics has been created and standardized through informal mutual aid networks over decades. Ann Hirschman, a licensed nurse practitioner known as the ‘grandmother of street medics,’ authored some of the earliest training programs. There are plenty of resources for street medic indoctrination: Do No Harm Coalition, founded by Dr. Rupa Marya, professor of medicine at University of California, San Francisco; Paper Revolution; Riot Medicine; Street Medic Handbook by Chicago Action Medical; books like “Where There Are No Doctors” by David Werner; zines like “We Take Care of Each Other” by Pittsburgh Street Medics.
Street medics generally go through a training from their local collective or group that covers first aid, crowd assessment, and ethics of providing medicine. After a 20-hour training program (for those with no medical experience) or a shorter bridge training program (for medical professionals) and further education about scene safety, street medics are equipped to give protesters water if they’re dehydrated, to wash pepper spray and tear gas from eyes, and to tend to wounds, splint broken wrists, and more.
“I think a huge part of street medic training is—especially for people who don’t have any prior medical background—teaching people that they have the skills, confidence, tools, and self determination to provide help when needed, in protest on the street,” said Sophia Belle, a street medic. “It’s definitely mutual aid in the flesh at all times.”
Protests, especially large ones, are crowded scenes with protesters, street medics, marshalls, legal observers, and EMS in the fray. Like street medics, EMS also provides aid, with the major differences being that EMS represents an official government entity, and everyone who works at EMS is trained through the department. In contrast, the level of experience for each street medic is not immediately clear, according to Boston EMS Chief Jim Hooley. Hooley said for basic first aid, it is “no different than if you’re a trained [EMS] medic … or a bystander [with basic knowledge]. If it gets more complicated, if somebody has an asthma attack, then obviously you need medicine.”
While more severe injuries may require hospitalization, street medics can provide stabilization for the patient while they await more intensive care. “One of the things that [street medics] are able to do for us is trying to find people in the crowd. They can often also help get our attention,” Hooley said. “I’ve been at events over the years where I’ve seen street medics … doing eye washes, also saw some people volunteering out at Franklin Park last summer. It was a long day and they were handing out masks because of COVID … they also had some water. They were very beneficial in that sense.”
In some cases, according to various street medic resources, EMS will not enter scenes without the police clearing them first. The Street Medic Handbook used by Chicago Action Medical states: “It is possible that EMS will not come to your patient until the police declare the scene safe by their standards, and you may need help before that time.”
Actively surveying scenes, street medics are often quick to respond to those in need of help, and to fill in care gaps. “You’re often somewhere where you don’t have the luxury of immediately activating higher medical care,” said one street medic who spoke anonymously. “You don’t necessarily always have the option to call an ambulance to where you are if you’re in the middle of a protest, especially because ambulances regularly come with police.”
Sophia Belle carries Narcan to reverse overdoses. Beyond first aid, street medics also quell panic at protests, which is integral to sustaining any demonstration’s momentum. They said it is critical to spread calm since police tactics involve instilling panic. In one tactic, police kettle demonstrators, confining them and blocking off streets: “One thing that consistently helps the mental health and also the physical health of protesters is to encourage people to remain calm, to take it easy and take a breath before they do anything or go anywhere.
“In a lot of protests, when shit goes down, it’s really easy to sort of lose track of yourself and other people. Just being there and being calm and letting people know that we have their backs and that everyone has their backs is an extremely important part about being a street medic.”
Medics also foster crowd stabilization.
“[We] help people feel safe and protected, feel like they’re part of a community that has their back,” said the street medic who spoke anonymously. “If you can make someone feel safe, maybe like patch them up a little bit or just encourage them to take care of themselves, they feel like they have more power to continue raising their voice, especially because the biggest weapon of the police and the state is fear.
“What [the police are] trying to do is freak everybody out and get everybody to go home. And so when people feel like they’re in danger and there’s nothing they can do, they’re more likely to give up whatever protest they’re doing and go home. Street medics push back against that and say, You know, we’re here, we’ve got you. We want you to continue feeling safe as you make your point.”
In protests that have taken place since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year, officers have been especially violent, using rubber bullets, pepper spray, and tear gas. The actions of Boston police in particular have been made into something of a national spectacle, since first hand bodycam footage of their actions were made public by the national news outlet the Appeal.
For those with asthma, tear gas can be deadly. Even without traditional weapons like batons, police often injure protesters, from pushing top steering their cars into crowds. For these situations, street medics are ready with first-aid kits and water. In some cases, they will guide protesters to safety or further medical attention. In their experience, Sophia Belle has splinted a broken wrist and rinsed eyes in the past year.
“This is absolutely a new era [of policing],” said another medic who spoke anonymously. “Judging from the police response at the Straight Pride Parade [in August 2019] … there was a massive change in tactics in the two years that I have been [a street medic]. There was this massive escalation of force every single time.” During the Straight Pride Parade in 2019, police wore riot gear and used pepper spray on counter protesters.
Street medics face challenges beyond the sheer aggression of authorities. It’s also easy to burn out. The first anonymous medic spoke of “the capacity to rack up traumatic stress from the things you see during protests,” and said, “we have to do a lot of work, like checking in with ourselves and making sure that we’re still in a good mental health space to continue doing this work.”
The COVID-19 pandemic is another serious consideration, and street medics have to make sure they are vigilant about not spreading the virus. According to the first anonymous street medic, that could involve setting up rotating schedules.
It can also be difficult to emotionally reconcile with people not consenting to care. “Consent is one of the most important things that we practice and live by when we’re out on the streets,” according to Sophia Belle. “If someone is not consenting to care then you don’t give them care. … Sometimes, it’s definitely an ethical dilemma, where you think that someone really needs care. … but they’re refusing that care. Being able to hear that and be like, I’m not going to provide care is a really hard thing to do, but ethically necessary.”
Still, in catastrophic times, street medics argue that mutual aid is more important than ever—essentially, it’s about people caring for each other in their communities.
“[Street medicine] is a really poignant example of solidarity, not charity,” Sophia Belle said. They added. “Liberation for one is liberation for all.”
Olivia Deng is an arts and culture writer who also covers politics and social movements. Her work has appeared in DigBoston, WBUR, Boston Magazine, The Atlantic, Boston Art Review and more. She is also an illustrator and painter.