During the civil rights marches in the 1960s, as a nurse and a longtime street medic Ann Hirschman treated people teargassed, fire-hosed, and clubbed. She is regarded as a grandmother of sorts to the Colorado Street Medics. She calls street medics, activists. She is proud that street medics, historically, who will help whomever, no matter what side they fight on, were generally more in people’s faces on issues that matter like war and civil rights.
Although street medic groups now span the country and internationally and help provide medical assistance to protesters at climate change actions or other political or social justice actions, they originated during the civil rights era. Now, they conduct extensive training for every age group, unlicensed, and don’t carry any traditional over-the-counter drugs, but provide grassroots medical care.
According to Zoe Williams, the leader of the Colorado Street Medics, they participate in live actions at global summits, national political conventions and hold educational programming throughout the year, including CPR and first aid certification classes. The street medics often are in the position of helping vulnerable social and environmental justice activists exercising their right to freedom of expression and their right to peaceful protest.
According to Ann Hirschman, many early adopters of the street medics, had a “rescue-fantasy-adrenaline-junkie mindset.” The number of street medics assigned to any action depends on each action. It varies if it’s for Occupy movement actions, climate camp actions or localized community health work beyond protest actions. For instance, they’ve helped in post-Katrina efforts.
After Hirschman graduated nursing school, she began offering classes to protesters. She was a medic at the 1973 Wounded Knee incident that left 3 dead, and she said that the dangers like being possibly gassed come with the territory. When describing the medics she worked with, she saw many of them as rescue nuts, who wanted adrenaline and to be activists at the same time.
When comparing today’s protest sites to the early civil rights actions, Hirschman says that while the world has changed, the skills are the same. They are still motivated by creating peace.
She also remembers when they were seen as dangerous.
“I knew we were important when we started to be seen as dangerous by power structures. The first time would have been Chicago in 1968, when Mayor Richard Daley got on TV and said, ‘They must be planning violence; they brought their own medics.’ We had made an impact. Now, I don’t think anybody plans a demonstration without counting on the fact that there’s going to be street medics, ” said Hirschman.
Here is Zoe Williams talking about their free medical services being offered in Denver during an action.
On October 29, 2012, the Occupy Denver protest became the most violent day of Occupy Denver, but Williams and one other medic treated 45 people. She joined the group as a preteen at the age of 12 and now heads the group. While her political leanings are at times criticized, she is always ready to assist someone who has been hurt at an action. She prepares for protests by stuffing twenty pounds of equipment into three hip bags, one backpack and the pockets of her black EMS pants. Even as a little girl she said she wanted to help the poor. Since then she’s been a marine biologist, art therapist, a regular therapist, and on the TV show ER.
If someone has the bug to help and seek training to be a street medic at protest actions, here are some reassuring words. Medics don’t have to be adrenaline junkies, but it certainly helps, according to Hirschman. She loves rescuing. Participating medics see the Colorado Street Medics as being a stable torch-bearer. Mostly, the times have progressed beyond the early days of the movement, when law enforcement targeted medics. Part of this community’s history is the theory that if officials wanted to get protesters to leave a space, they might need to haul medics off to jail. Williams and Hirschman hope those days are history.
Sources: Bostonia Alumni Magazine, Denver Westword, The Protest Magazine