Health Professionals Say Police Are Targeting Them at Protests

In cities across the U.S. — from Seattle to Austin, Asheville, and Denver — medics say they are dealing with police altercations while trying to render aid

On Saturday, May 30, in Seattle, Washington, Alex* stood next to the police as civilians protested against the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black people at the hands of law enforcement. It was late in the afternoon and the rain was starting to come. Tensions in the crowd were high. It had largely been peaceful, but then some protestors started throwing empty water bottles at the officers.

With a brief warning, but not enough time for people to respond, police officers started tossing canisters of tear gas. Tear gas eventually settles; if someone stays on the ground too long, they could die. “People started dropping,” says Alex, who was working as a medic. She was standing near the front of the line and ran to tend to civilians who were on the ground. As a medic, she identified herself using crosses of red tape on her right shoulder and back. At one point when she was assisting someone, she noticed that a couple of police officers kept their eyes on her. She pointed at her medic marking on her shoulder, but the officers aimed three different canisters at her. “I couldn’t believe it. I was not prepared to be targeted,” she said. She only had on her glasses, bike helmet, and cloth face mask — which were insufficient to keep out the toxic fumes. For a moment, she had trouble breathing, and another medic had to pull her out of harm’s way.

Over the last few weeks, as protestors have taken to the streets, some of these largely peaceful protests have turned violent seemingly at the drop of a pin. Law enforcement has turned to using rubber bullets, tear gas, and other “non-lethal” tactics that have high potential to cause lasting harm to control the crowd.

If we are to think about racism as a pandemic, then street medics are the frontline workers. They’ve played a role at protests for decades. When a protestor goes down, medics are the ones who run forward. They quickly assess who is injured and help those in need — whether it’s by treating rubber bullet wounds, flushing out someone’s eyes after they’ve been tear-gassed, getting an inhaler to anyone who’s having an asthma attack, removing contacts, or pulling tampons out (tampon strings can wick tear gas, explains one medic, causing the user to feel like the tampon is on fire). But in cities across the U.S., from Seattle to Austin, Asheville, and Denver, medics have told Elemental that while they have been rendering aid during the recent protests, law enforcement has been targeting them. (For the medics’ safety, the author has given all of them pseudonyms in this story.)

Some medics are affiliated with fire departments, but most street medics are civilian volunteers with no institutional backing, paying for supplies out of pocket. Volunteer street medics come to protests with varied experience — whether they’re formally trained as a medical worker or EMT, or have received wilderness first aid or 20-hour training through a street medic collective. Although targeting medics and medical supplies is a war crime under international law, street medics aren’t protected by the law because of their lack of affiliation. “All medics are risking arrest,” Alex told me last Thursday as she was setting up her medical station. Her short-sleeve shirt revealed fading Sharpie phone numbers on her arm, in case she needs to call someone because she is jailed.

If we are to think about racism as a pandemic, then street medics are the frontline workers.

Jamie, another medic who has been working the Seattle protests, tells a similar story to Alex’s. Jamie clearly marks herself with red crosses; however, on the first day of the protests, she was helping a woman having an asthma attack as she was pelted by rubber bullets. “I was screaming, ‘I’m a medic,’ ‘I’m a medic,’” she says. Jamie has been working as a medic for over 13 years; she says that the extent to which the Seattle Police Department has been targeting medics is unprecedented.

On Saturday, May 30, in Denver, as George* ran to the front lines to put a cone on a tear gas canister to prevent the gas from spreading, he was shot in the face by a rubber bullet. The line of protestors had moved back a few feet, and there was someone laying down. He says he knew he was being targeted when he was trying to help because “there was nobody else around except for the person laying there that the police would have been firing at.” Because of the adrenaline, he didn’t realize what had happened at the time until others told him that his face was essentially hanging off. He wasn’t marked as a medic in any way. “There’s a lot of safety in being non-identifiable,” he said. He is mixed race, and presents as African American. “I needed to cover up all my skin because I was worried to be singled out as a minority in the protest.”

Sarah*, a medic in Asheville, North Carolina, would rather be marked so civilians can recognize who she is. “If there’s a video of police attacking medics, it holds them more accountable,” she says. Around midnight on Monday, June 1, law enforcement found her medical station in an alley and threatened her and her medic partner with live rounds if they did not evacuate.

Medics also cite examples where law enforcement is controlling their access to medical resources. On June 2 in Asheville, police officers clad in riot gear stabbed water bottles and destroyed medical supplies at a medic tent. One medic in Minneapolis noted how the police were monitoring and controlling the ability of medics to get an ambulance.

Alex and her partner were working alone as medics during the protests for the last week but they’ve recently started teaming up with others, and she hasn’t had the police throw any weapons at her since. “We’ve been coordinating better,” she says. Not only has she come up with a better protocol to get out of the line of sight, but she’s rallied and found other medics to support each other and project strength in numbers.

However, that doesn’t mean the threat is over. Jamie reports that she and other medics have been approached by undercover cops who ask about their training and affiliations. “Any funding, food, medical aid is important if they want to cripple the protest,” she says. “They’re motivated to stop the helpers.”

A spokesperson for the Emergency Operations Center in Seattle said that Seattle Fire and Police are not aware of street medics being targeted but are “concerned to hear those reports.” The Denver Police Department did not return emails for comment.

Despite the dangers, George in Denver is keen on getting back out once he’s healed from his rubber bullet wound. “I see it as a moral imperative to continue getting out there,” he says. “This movement is gaining so much speed and momentum.”

Journalist based in Seattle.

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