Any time you challenge a country’s existing power structure, people are going to get hurt. Police have inflicted immense, disproportionate violence against peaceful (and not-peaceful) protesters during the uprisings that have swept across America since the police murder of Minneapolis resident George Floyd. They have used batons and shields, sprayed people with pepper spray, shot journalists with rubber bullets, choked entire city blocks with plumes of gas and smoke. Many protesters, at this point, have some rudimentary knowledge of first aid: pepper spray must be flushed from the eyes and skin, head wounds bandaged to control the blood. But in nearly every major protest, some activists have become specialists in treating these wounds, often before traditional emergency services can make their way through the bureaucracy and brutality of police. These “street medics” have turned into a vital part of the protest movement.
Discourse Blog chatted on the phone with two street medics, Mervyn, a former Navy Corpsman in Oklahoma City, and “Beartrap,” a 23-year old Marxist-Leninist from the Philadelphia area about their work in the protests this week, and the role of a street medic during revolutionary unrest. Beartrap asked to use a pseudonym rather than his real name because of his involvement in the protests.
So, what drew you to being a street medic? Why did you decide that would be how you’d participate in the protests?
Beartrap: I didn’t see myself as first and foremost a street medic necessarily, but as an active participant who had a good deal of knowledge of medicine. The only reason that I kind of blend the two is because I can do both — I’m not as trained as some of the designated medics. I’m an Eagle Scout, and I studied first aid in high school, and I just kinda made it a hobby to know how to do that kind of thing. So when it comes to a protest that’s largely disorganized, figuring out the best division of labor once you’re there becomes pretty important. Che Guevara talked about how the first doctors are supposed to be part of the guerilla band, and be tightly integrated with the group — I think he was on to something there.
Mervyn: I was a hospital corpsman in the Navy. I spent two years with a general surgery team in Okinawa, and then three years with the 1st Marine Division in Camp Pendleton. So I was already trained for this — obviously not for the idea of police on citizenry violence directly, but for strange and traumatic wounds happening live. I got an invitation to come to this march, because of my liberal leanings, and I thought the best thing I could do was strap on my old med bag.
“It sucks to be out there and throwing ourselves on the line, but we literally don’t have any other choice. Until we’re all free none of us are free.”
What were the scope of the injuries you were seeing?
Beartrap: This was easily the most intense protest that I’ve been to. We were mostly around the [racist former Philadelphia mayor Frank] Rizzo statue. Oddly enough they didn’t deploy pepper spray or tear gas but they were shoving us with their riot shields and their batons. I did end up having to treat one guy who caught a baton pretty bad to the head. It opened him right up. It was a pretty nasty gash, there was blood all over his face. Mainly what I saw was blunt trauma — them pushing people to the ground, holding them down on the steps.
Mervyn: At the start of the day it was just normal stuff: people dropping from dehydration, sunburns, so we were handing out water, handing out sunscreen, treating small abrasions, everything was totally normal. As soon as the sun went down and the chaos started, it was rubber bullet wounds, tear gas canisters to people’s faces. A woman was hit by a car. A lot of what I did was triage management — sending people to the right place to get the right treatment, going into the tear gas clouds to get people out, going back into the tear gas clouds to get more people out.
Why is there a need for street medics when traditional EMS and the fire department are also at protests?
Beartrap: One thing I would say about EMS and firefighters — and I know that this is not a sweeping statement, is in no way true of all of them — there’s such a thing as first responder culture. It’s really weird and insidious how cops have over the past years sort of made themselves troops, that they’ve aligned themselves as a military force, where they demand the same kind of respect and prestige, but they’ve kind of dragged firefighters and first responders [and] EMS people in with them. The same kind of weird shitty reactionary right-wing attitudes that you see among cops, you sometimes also now see among firefighters and EMS [workers], and they don’t sometimes don’t have the level of class consciousness that they should as public servants who explicitly make things better as opposed to police, who explicitly make things worse. They don’t need to have anything in common, and we could absolutely use the help of firefighters and first responders.
Mervyn: The street medics can be right there in the thick of things, with everybody. To me that’s why it’s important that I’m in there with the protesters, because I’m not EMS. I don’t have to maintain this ideal of neutrality. Still, as a corpsman, I believe if an enemy is wounded you help them too — if an officer was actually wounded at one of these things I’m not going to leave an officer to just sit there and wait for what comes next. But I can be right there with the protesters, I can be the first responder when something bad happens right there. I can get them, as a street medic, to appropriate medical care that otherwise might have to wait out a little bit.
I have nothing negative to say about EMS or fire, throughout all of this, but they have to wait on the sidelines. They have to wait until they’re cleared to come in. They can’t just rush in and get somebody out of a tear gas cloud that’s crying out for help, that’s taken a rubber bullet to the knee or something. At the OKC protest I was at, they [regular EMS] probably weren’t able to get to several wounded people for some time, because the officers of the [Oklahoma City Police Department] pushed us out of there after the initial tear gas volley, pushed medics out specifically, and weren’t letting any emergency vehicles like that in.
What has fulfilling the role of a medic taught you about the common struggle, and the nature of solidarity?
Beartrap: To anyone who is thinking about going to one of these, but hasn’t because they’re scared: About 80 percent of the time it just feels fucking awful. There is a nauseous pit in our stomach and you don’t know what’s going to happen. I would way way rather be at home chilling out on the porch. But this is what we have to do. They have taken away all other options, there is no effective method for change that they have allowed us to participate in, so all there is now is burning down every institution they have, and it fucking sucks. It sucks to be out there and throwing ourselves on the line, but we literally don’t have any other choice. Until we’re all free none of us are free.
Mervyn: I’ve been social justice-minded for a long time. But I think when I got home from that protest that night and had been there in the tear gas and had been treating the wounds, and had been helping everyone I could, and had seen my entire medical team shoved out by the police and no allowed to help any more people — I think that that is the first time that I felt an appropriate rage for the amount of social injustice that the black community or minority community suffer overall.
I don’t think I had ever felt the correct level of rage. It taught me more about what they live with every day and what they’re scared of every day than any amount of blog posts or news articles or podcasts could. I was there with them, I looked them in the eyes and walked into the tear gas together.
The idea that we need everybody to come together to fight this was really just evident from the fact that some of us got to leave there instead of immediately being arrested. They [the police] were brutal, but how brutal would they have been if it was only the black community there?
Photo by Jack Crosbie.