by Renee Raketty
The presence of volunteer medics at Black Lives Matter demonstrations and in the former Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) became known after several high profile incidents and protester injuries were reported in the press. During those early days, volunteer medic teams and unaffiliated independent street medics treated everything from pepper spray reactions to laceration burns and contusions from police munitions. Today, Darkmed and the Pink Umbrella Medical Collective (PUMC) are two of the most recognized groups providing care at the protests.
On Labor Day, for example, PUMC had several teams of medics and a patient transport vehicle alongside the protesters who marched on the Seattle Police Officer’s Guild building in the 2900 block of 4th Ave. S. It was here the volunteer medics really showed their mettle. After the police unleashed their munitions upon the people, they began a bullrush that caused the medics to attempt to treat the patients on the run: 23 eye washes from pepper spray, one patient with dehydration. They even transported a patient with a hand wound from a blast ball to the emergency room amid the chaos. Likewise, Darkmed was in the thick of it, one volunteer medic was even arrested after stopping to assist an injured protester.
The conservative media and members of law enforcement often seek to cast doubt on the qualifications and experience of these volunteer medics but a check of their qualifications found most to be licensed medical professionals, such as emergency medical technicians, registered nurses and, even, a few medical doctors. Those with only first aid training or experience only provide basic care such as treating pepper spray injuries with eye wash. However, regardless of their background, they say they are often targeted for harassment from police.
“Seattle Police Department harassment of medics and protesters on the way home from events is so common that we are forced to change clothes and appearance and hide personal protective equipment before heading out,” explained Elise, a regular volunteer medic and registered nurse in Seattle providing care to cancer patients. She asked us to withhold her last name due to security concerns for her family.
Calliope Taylor, a former emergency medical technician and instructor who now volunteers with PUMC, relayed their own experience to the Seattle Gay News. They prefer they/them pronouns. On July 25th, their team marched alongside a peaceful group of protesters returning from Volunteer Park on Capitol Hill. Taylor described someone playing a flute and local businesses coming out to show their support. However, when they hit E Pine St and Broadway, the police began using flash bangs, gas and pepper spray. Taylor said they also were “beating people.”
“We became stuck between the police line and the body of the protest. They made no attempts at arrest and pursued the fleeing protesters back up Broadway…” said Taylor. “During the entire time we had our hands up and they were shoving us forward into an immovable group of fleeing protesters. They would strike me in my back along with another medic at my side. They were freely spraying pepper spray into us and the back of the crowd. Throwing flash bangs and yelling for us to ‘run faster.’
“Periodically, if we became slowed by the mass of people in front of us, they would strike us; shove us and run bicycle tires into our ankles. One of our medics was hit by a flash bang grenade thrown at her head, which detonated at head height. At no point did they allow anyone to stop moving. At no point did they attempt an arrest.”
On August 16th, the SGN was in Cal Anderson Park developing a story during the early morning hours when a fight broke out between a man and two newcomers who beat the man unconscious. Suddenly, individuals who had been hanging out in all corners of the park emerged with their walkie talkies and attempted to provide aid. These were volunteer medics. They carried the unconscious man to a private vehicle and took off in the direction of Broadway and E Pine St.
However, 30 minutes later, this writer was driving south on Broadway when they came across the same vehicle surrounded by several patrol cars and a Seattle Fire Department aid car near the QFC at Broadway and E Pike St. The aid car pulled away with the unconscious man inside. Kristin Tinsley, SFD’s Senior Communications Manager, later told the SGN that they had “transported an approximately 48-year-old male to Harborview in stable condition.” The SPD on the other hand was less forthcoming with information.
“This is related to an ongoing assault investigation. Because of the ongoing investigation, we don’t have anything further we can provide at this time,” a SPD spokesperson told the SGN.
Elise heard about the incident through the local medical volunteer network, where many licensed and credentialed professionals have formed impromptu groups to “intervene where the police have refused to assist.” She adds that they keep track of violent incidents and areas of high conflict so they can “step in safely wherever necessary.”
An internal medic communication obtained by the SGN, recounted the events on August 16th. It reads that the minivan transporting the patient to the hospital was pulled over and “one of the people providing care was arrested.” The communication stated that the police broke through a vehicle window and struck a volunteer in the face. Police reportedly denied the volunteer, who had a history of respiratory issues, use of their inhaler. The communication also said that the “justification was some minor traffic thing” and that police pounced only after the vehicle was “isolated.” Furthermore, the police were said to be “standing around casually,” delaying the victim from getting to the hospital.
Elise says such instances are all too common. “SPD’s recent pattern of withholding and delaying emergency medical care is an act of violence against the whole community – a hostage situation in which all of Seattle is used as a lever against even the most peaceful protesters,” she said. “From their lethal interventions in emergency response to CHOP; to their regular obstruction and even assault of medics in their duties at protests; and to their isolation of clearly injured people from timely response
(including non-protesters) – they force the people they target to rely on the mercy of strangers for transport and care, and to hope that SPD doesn’t show up to prevent even community aid from assisting.”
Taylor added that PUMC had to cease treatment on a man with a laceration to his neck from a blast ball because “police were pushing the line so far.” In addition, they say the same thing happened while helping an elderly man with a head wound. “At best it is a treat and move,” said Taylor, recounting one July example. “After the push to Volunteer Park, we had six patients – all with injuries sustained from SPD during the push – that weren’t able to get treatment until we were safely away from the SPD. Ankle sprains, impact munitions contusions and soft tissue trauma; baton strike soft tissue trauma. All walked or ran while injured to get away from the multi-block push.”
Last month, the City of Seattle agreed to a U.S. District Court order protecting medics from police abuses during protests. At the time, the ACLU of Washington called the order the “most comprehensive in the country,” and included a variety of provisions restricting police abuses. However, the heavy police response at the Labor Day protest on Monday has shown that medics remain caught in the fray.