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Inside the Vicious Crackdown on Street Medics

By jailing medics, the government is stifling its citizens' basic right to protest.
Protesters at the inauguration of President Donald Trump on January 20th, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

Protesters at the inauguration of President Donald Trump on January 20th, 2017, in Washington, D.C. 

"I was there to help people; that's all I wanted to do," says Michelle "Miel" Macchio, a street medic at the J20 inaugural protests against President Donald Trump in 2017. "I knew there was a likelihood that police could respond violently. But I was prepared, and the mentality I had going into it was that if I'm there to help people and all I'm doing is helping people, I'm not going to leave."

DisruptJ20 is a political organization founded to protest and disrupt the inaugural events surrounding the Trump inauguration in January of 2017. For example, J20 protestors linked arms to try to shut down inauguration checkpoints and to close down traffic intersections. Miel (who uses the pronouns they/them) went to the DisruptJ20 demonstrations because they believe it's important to support protesters by providing medical assistance for people who want to express dissent.

For showing up to help others, Miel was held by D.C. police for 30 hours, during which time they were arrested and their hands were zip-tied. Because of dietary restrictions, they were only able to eat mustard packets. They were charged with multiple felonies. The prosecution later claimed that Miel and some 200 other people detained at the inauguration had been responsible for some $100,000 in property damage, even though there was no evidence that the people the police detained were the people who'd broken store windows or damaged businesses.

This December, the first round of trials was held, and Miel and five other defendants were finally acquitted of all charges. It was a vindication for the right to protest in general—and for the work of street medics in particular. Today, many prominent pundits paint young, left-wing activists as incipient totalitarians who want to close down speech. But medics enter dangerous situations in order to make it safer for people to speak. The way that a government treats street medics indicates just how much, or how little, it cares about protecting dissent.

Street medics have been a fixture at protest actions for decades. The Medical Presence Project, founded in 1964, was the first organization to begin training street medics to provide care to dissenting marchers. Under the auspices of the MPP, doctors and nurses, often wearing lab coats, worked among the injured at Selma and other demonstrations of the civil rights movement. Ann Hirschman, a nurse in Colorado involved with the MPP, began training others, and soon coined the term "street medic." During the 1960s and '70s, the Black Panther Party held similar sessions to teach people to care for each other during protests. Medics were present at Vietnam War protests, and at Wounded Knee in 1973. Over the past 20 years, street medics have worked at the 1999 Seattle World Trade Organization protests, at protests against the war in Iraq, at Occupy demonstrations, and at other protests, large and small. They've become a staple of left-wing protest in the United States.

There isn't an official certification process for medics, but most receive a standard 20-hour training program that covers basic first aid and best practices for the most common injuries seen during protests. Some may take classes to receive a Wilderness First Responder certification, which emphasizes providing medical care quickly and with limited available material. There are also bridge trainings for people who are already medical professionals and want to learn specific skills to serve as street medics. "After someone completes a training, we ask them to buddy up with experienced medics during a demonstration and also to keep in contact with the street medic community," explains Shawn Westfahl, a medic currently facing prosecution for his involvement in the J20 protests. "For me, [that training] was really an introduction into a lifetime of continued education and a caring community."

During direct action protests, medics are there to help people wash out their eyes after they are hit with pepper spray, or to pass out Band-Aids for minor wounds. Medics can also provide support for unexpected medical conditions, like heat prostration or an epileptic fit.

On the J20 protests in 2017, when police cordoned in protesters for hours, Miel provided aid to people suffering from panic attacks and worked with other medics to convince police to release a protester who was experiencing a dangerous asthma attack. One medic I interviewed, Jessie (last name withheld for safety reasons), says she has worked as a street medic in 14 different states, as well as in Washington, D.C., in Montreal, and in Palestine. Jessie passed out socks to the homeless at Occupy Boston, helped prevent a family from succumbing to carbon monoxide poisoning during Hurricane Sandy in New York, and bandaged and splinted people following the Charlottesville right-wing car attack that killed the anti-fascist activist Heather Heyer.

In a democracy that prizes free speech, you'd think we would celebrate and prize medics who put themselves at risk by caring for protesters defying neo-Nazi terrorists. According to Dana R. Fisher, a professor of sociology who studies protest movements at the University of Maryland–College Park, it is unusual for medics to be targeted by police. "You need medics there to make sure everybody's safe," she tells me. People who do direct-action protest tactics expect to be taken to jail. But, Fisher says, "usually the lawyers and the medics do not get arrested."

Still, street medics have not infrequently been viewed by authorities with mistrust or outright antipathy. During protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley insisted the protesters were terrorists in part because "They came here equipped with caustics, with helmets, and with their own brigade of medics." The prosecutors in the first J20 case told jurors that the defendants, including medics, had "agreed to destroy your city."

The idea that medical personnel tending to the injured are working to "destroy a city" is ludicrous—and the jury in the J20 case made their verdict accordingly. But even though the government prosecution in this case failed, persecution of medics has serious effects, even when the medics are acquitted. Even after Miel obtained pro-bono representation, and fundraising to cover their travel expenses, they still had to travel to D.C. from North Carolina every month for 11 months. As a result, they had trouble finding steady work. Because of state regulations, they also couldn't get a massage therapist license while awaiting trial for a felony. "Saving money or making enough money to survive comfortably has definitely been a struggle for me this year," Miel says. Miel's life was disrupted for almost a year, all for the crime of trying to tend to people's injuries.

By prosecuting medics, the government sends a message to medical personnel at protests that they will be treated like criminals, and jailed where possible. The government is also sending a message to protesters: That if they dissent, they deserve to face injury, or even death, with no right to even minimal medical care. "Without street medics at protests, more people would probably die or have long-term damage," Jessie says. "It seems likely to me that street medics saved lives and limbs in Charlottesville. It makes me really angry. Clearly, the federal government doesn't give a shit if leftists bleed out in the street."

Luckily, street medics aren't easily dissuadable; they go into dangerous situations to help others, knowing that they themselves may face violence from the weather, from police, or from marching fascists. "They are going to have to do a lot more than throwing me in jail and threatening me with decades in prison to keep me from coming out to the streets and supporting these movements that will shape the future of a just society," Westfahl says.

Still, the fact that medics are courageous shouldn't be an excuse to take them for granted; still less to criminalize them. If we want a healthy democracy with a healthy tradition of dissent, we need people, like medics, who are willing to care for it.