The Street Medics

by Matt Bivens

This article originally appeared in The Nation, and is reposted by permission.

You're among thousands at an antiwar demonstration when police start using pepper spray and firing tear-gas grenades. You're choking and blinded. People around you are shouting and panicking. Ordinary fire and rescue services are standing idle--they are instructed never to enter areas until police declare them secured, and to tear-gas a crowd is to define it as insecure. Who will help?

The street medics. A loosely organized band of volunteers with varying levels of medical training ad healthcare experience, street medics walk purposefully alongside frightened crowds, urging them to "walk!" (they never shout "don't run!" knowing some people will hear only the word "run!"). They move in buddy pairs, carrying a hodgepodge of medical supplies and wearing eclectic uniforms--a fishing vest with MEDIC stenciled on the back, a white shirt emblazoned with a cross of red duct tape.

At many recent protests, street medics wearing swimming goggles and breathing through vinegar-soaked bandannas have led to safety those blinded by "chemical weapons"--the movement's characterization of tear gas and pepper spray. Once in a safe area, the medics treat victims by flushing their eyes with water and their irritated skin with a milky mix of liquid antacid in water (or LAW). In some cases they administer MOFIBA: "mineral oil followed immediately by alcohol." A little mineral oil dabbed on a pepper-spray victim's cheek will attract and bind the spray's irritants--making things worse, until the oil and irritants are wiped off together with alcohol.

Walking with the crowd yet apart from it, communicating with each other via handheld radios, ready to provide water for heat exhaustion, bandages for cuts, even moleskin for blisters, street medics were there to help at anti-corporate globalization protests in Seattle in 1999, Washington in 2000 and Quebec City in 2001. They were there again in Washington at the end of September for protests aimed at the annual meeting of the IMF and World Bank. And they are already talking about turning out in force this fall for demonstrations against war with Iraq. Among the 649 people arrested on the first day of last September's protests, twelve were street medics--or about a third of all medics working at the demonstrations.

Yet it can be hard to get a handle on who the street medics really are. In skill level they range from medical doctors to EMTs to herbalists and acupuncturists to laypeople who've gone through a stint of informal "street medic" training. (In addition to tear-gas treatments and basic bandaging and splinting, the core lessons of such training are: Do no harm, provide treatment commensurate with your skill level and help anyone regardless of politics, but only with their consent.) The street medics are organized into a handful of regional groups, like Boston's BALM Squad (Boston Area Liberation Medics), Portland's Black Cross Health Collective and Colorado Street Medics. Efforts are also under way to organize a DC Medics collective in Washington.

At a demonstration, medics of all stripes and organizations gel, or at least try to gel, into one working collective. That's possible in part because the movement is still quite small: New medics introduce themselves by saying they were trained "by Ace and Bounce," by "Doc" or by "Delilah." No one asks for clarification, much less last names--street medics all know who those people are, and like the larger anti-corporate globalization movements, they are also cautious of police infiltration. In the week before last month's DC protests, every street medic meeting began with a request that journalists and law officers present identify themselves and leave (an exception was made for The Nation and some IndyMedia reporters).

In addition to patrolling the protests, street medics run pre-march workshops to educate demonstrators on basic health and safety. They emphasize the obvious, like wearing good walking shoes, getting a good night's sleep before a rally or march and not showing up drunk or on narcotics. And they highlight the less-obvious: Don't pick up tear-gas grenades to throw them back, because they are hot enough to cause severe hand burns. Wash your clothes and yourself with a nonfragrant castile soap, and use an oil-free sunscreen--oil-based skin lotions, fragrant soaps and detergents can collect pepper-spray irritants. If pepper-sprayed or tear-gassed while wearing contact lenses, remove them immediately or risk serious eye damage.

Even in the days after a demonstration, street medics are still working: conducting debriefings, checking that everyone is safely out of jail and resupplying themselves. Medic collectives receive small sums of expense money from protest groups like the Mobilization for Global Justice, but the bulk of costs are absorbed by the volunteers themselves. To many the costs seem worth the rewards.

"A lot of people take to street-medicking as activism, because it's a way of empowering people," says a 22-year-old who goes by the name of Bee, and who helped conduct a training session in Washington the week before the September demos. Bee says she feels good about working "to make a safe and healthy space for people to express their dissent"--particularly in times when expressing such dissent seems both unusually important and unusually risky.

The BALM Squad gratefully acknowledges "The Nation" for their permission to repost this article in its entirety.

This page last updated: 1/22/2006