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Street medics, or action medics, are volunteers with varying degrees of medical training who attend protests and demonstrations to provide medical care such as first aid. Unlike regular emergency medical technicians, who serve with more established institutions, street medics usually operate in a less formal manner.
Street medics, or action medics, are volunteers with varying degrees of medical training who help provide medical care, such as first aid, in situations frequently neglected by traditional institutions – protests, disaster areas, under-served communities, and others. Unlike emergency medical technicians (EMTs), who work for state-sponsored institutions, street medics operate as civilians and are not protected from arrest.
Street medic organizations also run low-income herbal health clinics, wellness clinics for migrant workers, and temporary family practice clinics to support people who are organizing for self-defense or advocating for their rights. A group of street medics founded the first healthclinic to open in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Street medics work under the philosophy of “first do no harm” (i.e., the Hippocratic Oath), meaning that medics employ treatments that must never harm the patient more than they help. Because medics have different levels of training, they will be able to provide different types of care. Street medic collectives representing cities or regions plan training programs focusing on treating demonstration-related injuries, and plan health, safety, and medical coverage of upcoming demonstrations.
Sometimes an affinity group will include one or more trained street medics to attend specifically to members of that group.
Many street medics have pursued further medical training, most commonly in nursing, emergency medicine, and herbalism. There are street medics employed in almost every field of medicine and rescue, including surgery, family practice medicine, psychiatry, research, both classical and traditional Chinese medicine, medical herbalism, first aid instruction, fire-fighting, and wilderness medicine.
A Condensed History of Street Medicine in Practice
The concept behind street medicine is not new. Originally seen during the African-American Civil Rights Movement and the protests against the Vietnam War, street medics are volunteer activists who attend political actions equipped with the knowledge and inventory necessary to give medical aid to protesters and civilians in need.
Street medics originated in the United States of America in 1964 during the African-American Civil Rights Movement. They were originally organized as the Medical Presence Project (MPP) of the Medical Committee for Human Rights (MCHR), the voluntary health corps of the Civil Rights Movement. In the 1966 MCHR Orientation Manual, MPP is described.
“Just presence of … health … personnel has been found extraordinarily useful in allaying apprehensions about disease and injury in the Civil Rights workers… There also seems to be a preventative aspect to medical presence – actual violence seems to occur less often if it is known that medical professionals are present, particularly when Civil Rights workers are visited in jail at the time of imprisonment or thereafter regularly. In addition, medical personnel should anticipate violence in terms of specific projects and localities and be present at the right place and the right time. Thus, medical personnel should be in intimate contact with the civil rights organizations at all times, and … be aware of any immediate planned activities.”
The MPP evolved into the early street medic groups, who conceived of medicine as self-defense, and believed that anyone could be trained to provide basic care. Street medics provided medical support and education within the American Indian Movement (AIM), Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), Young Lords Party, Black Panther Party, and other revolutionary formations of the 1960s and 1970s. Street medics were also involved in free clinics developed by the groups they supported. The street medic pepper spray removal protocol was later adopted by the U.S. Military.
In the 1980s, “action support,” including medical support of long marches in the No Nukes and Indigenous Sovereignty movements, was provided by non-street medics. One of these action support groups, Seeds Of Peace, (formed in 1986), stopped offering medical support as the street medics re-emerged.
Street medics were active on a small scale during the protest activity against Operation Desert Storm (1990–1991). They were rejuvenated on a large scale during the 1999 Meeting
of the World Trade Organization, when street medics attended to protesters who were injured by police and use of chemical weapons such as pepper spray and tear gas.
In the aftermath of the WTO Meeting, protest sympathizers and/or attendees organized street medic trainings nationwide in preparation for the next round of anti-globalization marches. The parents of the post-WTO street medic boom (1999-2001), who trained thousands of medics in a few years, were the Colorado Street Medics (the direct descendant of the first MCHR Street Medics), Black Cross Collective, and On the Ground.
As social movements gain momentum and attract attention, they become increasingly likely to come up against those who would do serious violence to maintain the status quo, rather than allow meaningful change. Metropolitan police represent the most immediate physical threat to those who attempt to change the system, even via peaceful means. A demand as simple as “please stop shooting unarmed citizens on public transit platforms” can and will be met with violent resistance from the state and its police force.
Into this volatile situation, where there exists a real threat of violence perpetrated against protest movements, come street medics. This guide hopes to serve as both a simple primer for those interested in educating themselves to take a medical role in situations of civil unrest or for those seeking to aid fellow comrades in the street.
Street Medic Training
The amount of training one seeks out before becoming a street medic varies, depending on the duties one intends to perform during political action. Don’t mislead other activists about your level of medical training or competency – be upfront with them about your supplies and abilities.
It is better that they call for outside medical assistance immediately, rather than wait to find you, only to hear that you cannot treat them. That said, one need not do more than carry water for other protesters, or bandages, or sunscreen, to make a difference. Even this minor effort can mean the difference between activists staying in the street, or having to go home for water, food, or medical treatment.
When a potential medic decides to start offering protest support, they should consider starting their training by taking a professional First Aid/CPR course. Learning proper treatment techniques for cuts, bruises, and other injuries is important, as inexperienced attempts at administering aid can potentially worsen an injury and leave the wounded worse off than they
would have been without your intervention. This is another reason it’s extremely important to be honest with yourself and your fellow protesters about your level of medical ability.
Further studies and training within the realm of street medicine can include free street medicine training provided by qualified instructors through a local health collective. One can continue studies by obtaining professional training such as that of an Emergency Medical Technician, Wilderness First Responder, or Paramedic. These resources require increasing levels of time and financial investment, so it’s best to use one’s own judgment about how much time and money can be invested into training and resources.
Potential medics may be employed by institutions that may take issue with their involvement in political action (such as ambulance crews, government organizations, and so on) – it would do such individuals well to disguise themselves as fully as possible before being seen and photographed taking part in any activism.
Street Medic Clothing and Gear
Street medicine is an inherently defensive action, as it is a direct response to offensive violence by the police. Medics should equip themselves accordingly. Inventory should be dictated by potential opposition, which can vary widely when confronting a heavily-armed, paramilitary police force. Equipping oneself on the side of caution is advisable, as one well-protected medic can do far more good than three medics who fell to tear gas. Below is a guideline inventory list for a well-equipped medic. Add or remove from this list as personal weight limit, resources, expected challenges, and range of motion dictates.
1. Wear as much clothing that covers as much skin as possible, without being overly hot or restrictive. Remember: you may have to run. Most street medics will clearly mark themselves with red crosses, to aid in quick identification in crowds. Nylon will dissipate heat and sweat easily, as well as protect the skin (to some degree) against chemical agents. Cargo pants or BDUs with accessible pockets can come in handy, as can hip bags, utility belts or tackle vests
2. If you wear corrective lenses ensure that the lenses are unable to be shattered, if possible. DO NOT WEAR CONTACT LENSES TO A PROTEST! Tear gas or pepper spray can become trapped between the contact lenses, and your eyes which can disable a medic.
3. Gas masks or industrial particulate respirators and sealed goggles. Respirators should havea NIOSH rating of N95 or higher, to ensure proper filtering of police chemicals.
4. Unbroken CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear) gas mask filter, should you carry a gas mask.
5. Protective shoes that will still allow quick movement. No open-toed, strapped, or high-heeled shoes. You may need to run, and your toes will be stepped on in crowds.
6. Ace (or equivalent) bandages for strains and splinting.
7. Gauze wraps.
8. Gauze pads.
9. Nonstick pads or xeroform/adaptic pads.
10. Triangle bandage.
11. Wound closure strips.
12. Tape (paper or plastic, not electrical).
13. Examination gloves (vinyl or nitrile, to avoid latex allergies).
14. Stick-on bandages (various size and type).
15. Saline solution (contact lens solution is fine, there is no need to buy a more expensive special formula).
16. Antibiotic ointment.
17. Anti-hemorrhagic agent (Most of these are only available to military or law enforcement, but QuikClot has a “sport” version that will do the trick).
18. Sunblock with UVA and UVB protection (water or alcohol-based, as oil-based sunblock can trap teargas or pepper spray against your skin and compound their effects).
19. Bandage shears (blunt tip can be important, as a sharp tip can more easily be deliberately misinterpreted as a weapon by the police, and used to charge you with crimes).
21. Protein bars.
22. Clean bandannas, and/or bandannas soaked in water, for handing out to other protesters as tear gas masking. These should be carried in zip-lock bags until needed, to avoid evaporation.
23. Instant ice packs.
24. Messenger bag or MOLLE pouches that can be easily accessed without the medic having to stop and take them off. Backpacks can be difficult to access while you’re walking, running, or otherwise trying to keep up with your fellow activists, who may be marching, or running from danger.
25. Glucose tablets, honey packets, cake icing, or other emergency sugar supply, to treat diabetes-related hypoglycemia.
26. LAW mixture (see below).
27. Re-hydration mixture (see below).
28. Ear plugs for yourself and others in case of sound-based police weapons.
29. CPR mask or bag valve mask.
What is the recipe for LAW?
Liquid Antacid and Water is a 50/50 mixture of water and an antacid containing either Magnesium Hydroxide or Aluminum Hydroxide. This remedy is used on both eyes and skin in the event of a tear gas or pepper spray attack.
A small amount applied directly to the affected area should be sufficient to reduce pain once the afflicted person has been moved to a safe location. Application of LAW mixture (especially under the eyelids) can be difficult, and it is advisable for a medic to attend training sessions by established street medic groups.
If LAW mixture is not available, milk can be used as a stop-gap in the event of a tear gas or pepper spray attack. Other alkaline solutions, such as water and sodium bicarbonate, can also be used to combat lachrymatory agents. LAW is preferred by street medic groups as a result of both scientific testing and ease of manufacture.