Protests can often feel like communities in miniature, and as thousands of people across the country continue to turn out in the wake of the recent police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade, parallel economies of care have emerged: pockets of collaborative leadership develop organically as people lead chants, close gaps in the flow of marchers, and help keep pace. Others, in cities from Pittsburgh to Minneapolis and Los Angeles, station themselves along march routes with bottles of water, hand sanitizer, and masks. On the edges of the action, visible from space in their lime green hats, notebooks in hand, are the legal observers. Medics, professional and self-trained, are often distinguishable by their large backpacks and white helmets or hats with red crosses, sometimes fashioned with tape. In these moments, it’s clear that more than just showing up in rejection of violent systems, protesters are also demonstrating, in real time, the world they are trying to build.
In recent days, in response to these demonstrations of care, police have assaulted medics attempting to identify themselves. They have destroyed water supplies stationed to keep people hydrated in intense heat. They have indiscriminately used tear gas against crowds. We reached out to some of these protest care workers to talk about what brought them into those roles, and their experiences with the police over the last week. “The cops at the protest that day wouldn’t make eye contact,” one said. “They were laughing at one point. I think they think this is funny.”
Interviews have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
On what brought them out into the streets
Sabrina Johnson, personal trainer, community medic, Los Angeles: I had gotten involved with Ground Game—grassroots community organizers who are part of the Los Angeles Covid-19 Mutual Aid Network—because the city hasn’t been doing much around Covid. We help get supplies from neighbors to other neighbors. Part of that was doing a community medic training. Last Wednesday, there was a protest with Black Lives Matter LA, and a couple of us who are also involved in Ground Game were at that protest. We were there when the police officer drove through a crowd, and a man was on the hood of the police car and was injured. A couple of us rushed over and tried to help out before the ambulance arrived, and at that point, I realized that I needed to have my medic bag with me at all of these protests going forward.
Omid, street medic, Brooklyn: Shirin, Isaac, and I decided to go out because in the past we’ve seen police brutality leading to injuries, and people need to be removed from the scene immediately. Also, we knew that right now, under Covid, nurses and doctors and other health care professionals wouldn’t be able to be out there helping out as they would be normally. With our first aid training, we thought we would be a good assistant to the medical professionals that will address their other needs later.
Isaac, street medic, Brooklyn: It’s a really tangible way to contribute, and it’s a good support role—a really hands-on way to contribute.
Jorge, 26, Pittsburgh: I have some related training, so when I was hearing that there was going to be a protest, I knew I had things at home and had read about how to come prepared to support people. I have always volunteered in hospital settings. That’s sort of how I got into the career that I’m in now. I’ve always felt that I’ve had some type of calming nature, and a ready-to-work type of thing. I think it was a mix of all of what was going on and wanting to do more, while seeing a role that I felt comfortable in. I wanted to de-escalate in the moment. I felt like if I could somehow project care, and caring, then that’s something we can focus on as a collective. I knew to document, be present, and support. I wanted to provide aid and calm.
On who is out there
Shirin: This really feels like a moment when New Yorkers are coming together in an amazing way. One of our fellow medics went out to replenish supplies at the hardware store, and the owner just gave them a box of masks. He recognized that this person was getting supplies together to help people.
Omid: And these are the small stores. When we ran to get extra supplies, Target, CVS, all were blocked off and protected by the police, and the police were inside keeping them closed. But if it hadn’t been for these bodegas that stayed open, we wouldn’t have been able to buy water and milk and things to help people.
Shirin: When we were out Friday night, I was trying to take people onto side streets and sidewalks—someone had a huge gash, and I was cleaning it out, these people came out of their home and brought us water and fresh masks, because our masks had been destroyed. And one held a flashlight for me so I could see what I was doing. This is a citywide and community-wide effort. The mayor may be saying, these aren’t my citizens who are doing this. But these are his citizens.
Arianna Wegley, 23, resident of St. Paul, Minnesota, former longtime Minneapolis resident: People were really confident and really poised to be out there. People seemed really self-assured. I saw this one person who was wearing this bright neon-blue life jacket that just said “Fuck 12” in green paint on the back. A lot of young folks were showing up on the streets—that part of Lake heading to the 5th precinct, where a lot of stores had already been looted and burned.
A lot of people had speculated that maybe the cops had gone downtown to protect the property that hadn’t been destroyed in the same way. The crowd was a lot more active than they had been the rest of the day and was starting to burn stuff and destroy things.
Shirin: It’s really disappointing that protesters are being painted as some sort of sinister operation, because it’s very clear that the people present were just regular old people—they had homemade signs, they weren’t dressed for protest. We came out in gear because we knew that sometimes things can escalate, and we know how to protect ourselves. But most people out there, they were in shorts and a T-shirt, they’re in sandals. These are people who are seeing the injustices and want to protest. These are people who are scared and upset and care about Black people. It was very apparent that most people had never been to a protest before and that they had been mobilized by terrible things they had seen on the news.
Omid: And by community leaders. We were just there to assist and to help them. They organized, and I think they got their message across.
On police escalation
Omid: Shirin and I both said to each other, I haven’t seen police violence like this since Occupy [Wall Street]—people leaving with broken noses, broken heads. And the last time she had seen it was after the election on J20.
Jorge: From where we were standing, we could see the backs of police. We were facing the crowd, opposite from them, from a couple of blocks away. We couldn’t get through because the police had cut us off. When I saw someone getting pepper-sprayed, we started taking the alleyways [between buildings] to get closer to them. People who had been hit were sitting down. I introduced myself, said, “My name is Jorge, I have these materials. This is saline, these are gauze.” Just a general first aid overview. I asked if I could help them. Then I asked what their names were, what happened, and if there was anything beyond immediate treatment that they needed.
Emma, 23, Pittsburgh: Some young white men had burned an empty cop car. But at that point in the protest, a lot of people were starting to go home. I don’t even know how many cop cars came down, maybe 20-plus? They kettled everybody. We were a little further up, maybe a mile or two, and we saw all of the cars and thought, “Alright, they’re going to start teargassing people and hitting people with pepper spray.” And when we got there, that’s what they were doing. For the most part, people had their hands up. They made barricades with trash cans. It felt like everyone was just asking to go home, but they started hitting us with tear gas. I had goggles on, so I felt comfortable being in the crowd. I don’t have a background in medicine, but I had read a lot the night before to prepare, and I felt like, I’m ready to put saline solution in someone’s eyes. The people they hit, the ones we treated, were just walking. They were so young: Two were in their late teens, maybe.
Sabrina: It was just treating injury after injury. We treated a lot of people who had been hit in the hands because they were blocking their faces with their hands—I saw broken fingers, slashes across their fingers needing stitches. Tear gas was being thrown by police, smoke bombs were being thrown to obscure our vision.
On who helped
Arianna: I ended up leaving with my group, and we went to a friend’s house. We kind of sat down for a bit, talked, and then things started getting set on fire close by—a liquor store, some restaurants, and the flames were totally blazing and started to kind of engulf that area in smoke and ash. We went outside and looked into the sky, and all these glowing embers were starting to land on trees and on houses and backyards. It was kind of everywhere. And it was extremely scary, because suddenly it was like, these stores and businesses are burning, but near these residential areas full of homes and kids and families, and the combination of people who live in this area, it’s white people and it’s also Latinx communities, and Black people, and Native people.
There was a really intense rush to put out any risk of a fire. We all doused my friend’s house in water and hooked up the hoses, and everyone was doing that to their own homes and their neighbors’ homes. It was a mad dash to protect what was left. And I walked out to the corner with my friend, and we saw a bank in flames—it wasn’t totally engulfed yet, but it was on the precipice of being an unstoppable situation. I was so tired, and I was kind of flashing in and out of whether I thought it was a dream, just because of the light and how it was affecting my eyes. It was very surreal.
Then this random group of people came running around the corner with this firehose—no one knew where they had come from. They hooked it up to the fire hydrant, and I helped hold up the hose, and we put out this fire. That was adjacent to a home that was really close to the flames, and that was our first priority. If that house would have caught on fire, it would have put the adjacent row of homes at risk.
Shirin: On Friday night, I was washing out someone’s eyes on a sidewalk, fairly removed from the protests, when someone kicked me in the back, and it was a police officer trying to tell us that we had to move. And I was trying to communicate to him that we would comply as soon as possible, but the woman I was helping could not see and could not get up. We were surrounded, and one of the officers grabbed her by the arm and dragged her into a nearby park. And I had to finish and help her there.
Sabrina: One of the most traumatic injuries I saw, it was a woman who police had shot with rubber projectiles, directly at her face. It completely split her face open. She was losing a lot of blood. She had a mask that had been folded up, and someone had given her a bandanna, and those were completely soaked with blood, and she’s holding them with pressure. I grabbed her and her friend who was helping her get through the crowds. She couldn’t really walk, she was starting to go in and out like she was going to faint, and I couldn’t get her back to where medics were. I took her under the eaves of some stores and was trying to treat her, and somebody else came over, an EMT, and he said, “Can I help?” I said, “Here’s my bag, get in there, get gloves on.”
On police retaliation
Sabrina: It’s very clear we are treating patients here, and a couple protesters tried to make a wall to keep protesters from running into us. And the police basically shot a tear gas canister right at us. I was wearing a heavy-duty mask and goggles, and I was able to walk in and out of these teargassed crowds, but even I was starting to feel it at that point. We treated a lot of people for tear gas. They were throwing it out all day like it was nothing.
When they shot it right at us while we were treating this woman, she could feel the tear gas in her eyes and her lungs and in her wound. We picked her up and tried to move her. I radioed the medics to say, we’re coming to you. But we didn’t even get 10 steps and she fainted from the pain.
Omid: The first night, Friday, we treated more head wounds. It seemed like Saturday, at least at first, the police were under different orders—more pepper spray, less gashes. But by the evening, we were treating people who were being attacked by the police, picked off one by one, and we were trying to remove people from the streets so they don’t get stampeded on. Isaac and I were treating people and trying to keep them from panicking. And I was on my way to treat someone when I was tackled from behind by an officer.
I called out that I was a medic, and I called out to let someone know I was being arrested.
Three officers held me down, even though there was no need, and then a camera light flashed on them, and one officer remained on my body at that point and carried me away. It really helped to have people filming. I noticed they behaved really differently the moment the light flashed.
Jorge: The first person I remember treating was a younger white woman who had gotten separated from the main group. The line the officers had created had cut her off from the car she was riding in to get home. So I asked her if we could escort her to the car. That’s when a really young Black girl was pepper-sprayed. She was running toward where we had dropped off the other girl. The cops were just throwing additional gas canisters. When we moved the girl away, someone screamed at the cops, “You just sprayed a 12-year-old girl!” Then another street medic showed up, and I shared my supplies. The group the girl was with was young—maybe 12 or 13 to 19?
Emma: The cops at the protest that day wouldn’t make eye contact. They were laughing at one point. I think they think this is funny.
Arianna: Right after we put out the fire, the cops come in this van, unmarked. They pulled up and they started gassing, and I wasn’t right here, I was helping put the hose in the people’s car, and they were trying to go on to the next fire. We were trying to get back to the home where we were staying, and we were walking fast, and we got hit with the tear gas—it was hard to breathe, and it was hurting our eyes.
And that van of cops just started shooting at us, and I got hit on my leg. I just kept running because I didn’t want to keep getting hit.
Sabrina: I ended up with three other medics getting kettled with a group of about 20 protesters, and the police were screaming at us from all sides, “Leave the area!” Where are we supposed to go? We were trapped on all sides by police. At one point, a guy on my medic team who was a little bit more of an authoritative figure because he’s a white man went up to one of the police officers, and he was like, “Look, we’re a medic team, we’re trying to comply with your orders, we’d like to leave the area now, just please tell us which direction you’d like us to go, and we’ll lead people.” And an officer was like, go north up this alley, and you’ll be allowed to leave. So we begin to go, and as we are moving north, another group of riot cops comes screaming down a side alley and splits the group in half, and kettles the other half from us, and wouldn’t let them go, no matter what we said. All they would say to us was, “Leave the area. Leave the area.” As they keep advancing on us.
All of a sudden, someone who lived in the apartment complex that bordered the alley opens up the gate to the alley and was like, quick come through here. So all of us, the medic team and the small group of protesters who got split off from us, five or 10 people, all rushed through the apartment complex and back out to a main road. That was a close one; we narrowly avoided getting arrested there.
That’s when it became clear the police had zero respect for the medical team.
Omid: Someone had collapsed, closer to the police line. The police were on top of that person and still moving forward, and trying to drag that person out of there. I pulled him to a stoop, I covered him with my body, and I said to the officer, “I’m just treating him.” And they pulled me and told me if we didn’t move they’d start hitting us.
We completely understand that the police don’t care that we are medics, and we don’t identify ourselves because we think it gives us any immunity or will protect us from the police—we do that so people can see us, and we can move through the crowds and get to people we can help. Labeling ourselves is for the protesters’ sake, not the police’s sake.