Running toward chaos: Street medics provide frontline care

 A complex network of medic organizations has expanded to provide aid to activists and community members in the Twin Cities over the last year.

By J.D. Duggan, Freelance Community Journalist

After watching George Floyd’s murder, MJ hit a breaking point.

She went to a protest in the summer where she expected some chanting and people holding signs. What she saw, she said, was Minneapolis police escalating violence near the Third Precinct building.

“I pretty much didn’t leave the cities here for like four days,” MJ said. “There was just a ton of people that were becoming injured, were getting traumatized. They were getting sprayed, or gassed, or whatever it was.”

She had been a paramedic where she worked alongside Minneapolis police for about eight years. She felt a duty to help those around her. 

Ambulances stopped running during part of the summer’s unrest. Since then, a tight network of community-run medic organizations has expanded and woven itself into the fabric of Twin Cities activism. The organizations render aid to those who need it — from the charred remains of the Third Precinct building to the recent unrest in Brooklyn Center after a police officer killed Daunte Wright. 

Clad in yellow safety vests or white helmets marked with a bright red cross, medics are strewn throughout the crowd to respond to injury. Many are professionally trained and a key tenet to their work is that they only address what they are qualified to treat. Some have EMT certification and some, like MJ, have worked as paramedics for years.

MJ showed up to protest on that first day without the intent to be a medic, “then all of a sudden people started dropping around me and getting shot with these rubber bullets by [Minneapolis Police Department], being unconscious and bleeding out of their heads,” she said.

She couldn’t call 911 — she said they were the ones causing the problem. 

She saw a crowd gathering around a semi-conscious, bleeding young Black man. He was shot in the head with a rubber bullet. As the crowd tried to lift him, MJ said “Everyone stop, I’m a paramedic, let me help him.”

The crowd told her they were taking the man to a nearby restaurant where a first-aid hub had already been improvised. This was MJ’s first glimpse into the ad hoc infrastructure set up by various medic organizations. 

An uprising continues

Last summer, a compound was erected in the Lake Street Kmart parking lot as protests moved from the husk of the Minneapolis Police Department’s Third Precinct building to the fortified Fifth Precinct building.

Metal barriers and road blockades were entangled in a wide space around various tented stations that included first-aid supplies and a staff of trained medical personnel.

When curfew descended and police stormed the street, tear gas blanketed the compound.

“Despite being clearly marked with red crosses, or the vest, or simply helping people in need with our first-aid supplies, we have been brutalized as much as everybody else,” said Matt Allen, founder and vice president of Justice Frontline Aid. 

About a dozen medics said they have been targeted by police while rendering aid.

Allen was in the compound during the police onslaught — it was the first time he was shot by rubber bullets. He said the medics were picking up injured people and trying to drag them out, which is one of his organization’s key goals: pull injured people out of dangerous situations and into safety.

“We’re just trying to continue on with the practice of the community serving and protecting the community,” Allen said, “which is, unfortunately, something that the police should be doing.”

When a young Black woman was maced to the point of having a seizure during the unrest in Brooklyn Center, Allen said the community came together. He said she was on the ground convulsing and unconscious as police continued to mace and shoot less-lethal munitions at her. 

“After what seemed like a very long time of continuing attack, the community came around us as a shield,” Allen said. “They still fired on them as well.”

Most organizations provide aid to injured activists, but they vary in their scope and outreach beyond that. 

Justice Frontline Aid, arguably the most visible organization, marshals protests and sets up spaces for medical equipment and essential items, Freedom Street Health distributes protective gear and conducts first-aid training courses, 612 MASH acts is a hub within George Floyd Square. A host of other organizations and individuals have also offered their services.

MJ is part of Freedom Street Health, a community medic organization that started over the summer.

“We cannot rely on and cannot trust state-run systems, we have to develop our own.” said Zoey, a street medic with Freedom Street Health. “And I think that seeing [medics] come in and set up triage stations in church basements during the [summer] uprising, like sterile fields, draped tables — we can do that.”

A sense of duty

Acting as a protest medic is a calling to many of those in the streets.

Kalaya’an Mendoza, a team lead for Nonviolent Peace Force’s protest community safety team, said it is a dangerous time for people to exercise their fundamental human rights. His group’s role is to make sure that unarmed civilians are kept safe in any space.

“This is an ancestral gift. It’s the only reason that my people were able to survive centuries of colonization, and I feel like it’s something that I’m called to do,” Mendoza said. He said he stands in solidarity with all communities that are under attack.

The group is working to find its place within the network of other organizations on the ground, which have already built “an ecosystem of trust” with each other. He said Nonviolent Peaceforce hopes to offer what it has learned during its work in conflict zones throughout the Global South to other communities facing violence from state and non-state actors.

For Freedom Street Health, preventative care has been a focus. The group has used donations to hand out things like gas masks, shin guards, helmets and ear protection to prevent injuries from happening. 

SM Cerberus, a medic with the group who also works in the healthcare field, said that the “fraternity of first responders” can sometimes lead to harm. Paramedics will often defer to what police request without doing a full medical assessment. In some cases, officers will tell paramedics to inject a person with ketamine, which can be fatal.

That’s part of why he works as a street medic outside of his day job — it feels more authentic.

“It’s still the Mr. Rogers helping people thing. I want to be the best part of somebody’s worst day,” Cerberus said. “I want to be there to help when shit goes sideways.”

In George Floyd Square, 612 MASH acts as a sort of hub. The squad of medics and volunteers has built partnerships with tons of organizations, some from around the country. The group includes a team of five medics, three nurses, one physician and about a dozen part-time volunteers. There are about six people who hold administrative roles.

Huda, a team member with 612 MASH, said she sometimes works with the homeless encampments around the city where she is treating frostbite, cuts, bruises, and other ailments. 612 MASH, like other organizations, also works to make Narcan — a medicine that reverses an opioid overdose — accessible.

The organization is still working to open a clinic around George Floyd Square so it can “overserve an underserved community,” said Kia, president and co-founder of the group.

When asked why they do this, 612 MASH team members shared a similar sentiment: “It’s the right thing to do,” Kia said; “Why wouldn’t you look out for your community?” Chantal said.

Huda said, “Why wouldn’t you take care of your family?” 

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