What is a street medic?
Street medics are a community of people who, for the last half-century, have provided medical support at protests, direct actions, uprisings, and natural disasters which are complicated by police or military targeting of the survivors. Becoming a member of the street medic community involves completing a 20-28 hour training (or bridge training for medical professionals), working at an action as the buddy of an experienced street medic, and maintaining relationships in the street medic community.
Street medics have varying levels of additional training ranging from “some first aid” through physicians – though most have the skills of first responders with some supplemental knowledge of herbalism. Street medics are expected to keep their skills current by pursuing continuing education and maintaining an involvement in action medical responses. Contemporary street medics often identify as anarchists, and even more as “radicals”, though being an anarchist or radical is not required to become a member of the community.
Street medics originated in the U.S. in 1963 during the African-American Civil Rights Movement. In 1963, the Medical Committee for Civil Rights formed as an integrated affinity group of medical professional and joined the March On Washington to demand civil rights for Black Americans. As the march wound down, MCCR members transitioned from being protesters into a standing group planning to play a medical observer role. Their name changed in 1964 to the Medical Committee for Human Rights to reflect the ideological shift that they were undergoing. Early in the summer of 1964, medical observers immediately found themselves in situations where they a duty to act. The need for first aid led to a nurse with Red Cross family background who help train other civil rights workers to administer first aid at protests.
There was, predictably, a struggle over the new Medical Presence Project, and the training of the first street medics. However, the struggle withered away in time, and street medics emerged developing a specific set of skills and ethics. A clear training methodology grew out of time. By the late 1960s, licensed professionals routinely attended street medic trainings in order to be cross-trained to work in the great variety of protest environments that emerged over the course of the decade. The trainings were often offered by medics with no medical license or certifications. The fields of prehospital care and peacetime paramedicine were born with the founding of two programs: one based out of a hospital in Baltimore, and the other an independent Black-run inner-city community self-defense organization in Pittsburgh.
Street medics considered medical knowledge a form of self-defense, and were deeply involved in the health education and medical support during the Civil Rights Movement, the work to end the war in Vietnam, and the New Left. They have also been involved in movements for the equity and independence of women, LGBTQ/queer folk, veterans, Native Americans, prisoners, and mental patients. Street medics shifted from a focus on prehospital care to a focus on community health and mental health over time. In the 1970s, street medics worked in Black Panther community programs and People’s Clinics, the American Indian Movement battle at Wounded Knee, and other revolutionary projects.
In partnership with national liberation organizations like the Black Panthers, street medics pioneered in the field of public health. They helped develop rat abatement programs, led testing programs, children free breakfast programs, and community drug prevention and treatment programs. They helped force more equitable inner-city garbage collection and fire safety. They supported the long struggles to reform the VA hospital, recognize Agent Orange sufferers, define and acknowledge Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, close the asylum system, and end the diagnosis of homosexuality as a mental disorder.
Street medic collectives maintained their focus on non-protest long-term community support work, long marches, and extended back woods campaigns through the 1980s and early 1990s. For example, the Peoples’ Medics did urban healthcare and protest healthcare in the Bay Area in the 1980’s, and the American Indian Movement medics worked together with other medical professionals to train Mayan survivors of the civil war in Guatemala to provide their own community health care over the course of a decade. They trained trainers among the Mayan community and eventually returned to the U.S.
The values and lessons of thirty-five years of learning and service reached a new generation in the months before and after the 1999 World Trade Organization (WTO) protests in Seattle, Washington. May community health workers converged in the medical response to Seattle, with backgrounds in Earth First!, Act Up, fair farms, Pagan cluster communities, and radical feminist health collectives. The street medic model broadened through battle testing and new forms of horizontal organizing. Almost every month for several years, mass mobilizations converged throughout the world and engaged in direct action that paralyzed trade summits and key meetings. The movement forced reforms of several of the institutions driving the disparity, and cancellations of some of the worst planned trade deals. Anti-globalization and global justice convergences faced a growing militarization of police forces. The police were equipped with tear gas, pepper spray, pepperballs, flash-bang grenades, helicopters, plastic bullets, bean bag rounds, tasers, police dogs, horses, and a growing national security apparatus.
A new role developed, as medics trained tens of thousands of protesters in short courses focused on health, safety, eye flushes, critical incident stress management, herbal aftercare, and more. Street medics functioned as a second tier of care to an informed public, and thousands were trained in the United States and Europe. Dozens of medical professionals attended Bridge Trainings and joined the street medic community. Many medics perused advance medical training after finding a life purpose in medical work. Some entered war zones during mass deportations in Europe and during the Second Intifada in Palestine, where they provided support and care with voluntary ambulance services and on foot.
As the anti-globalization movement wound down, street medics entered new fields. A team of Native American medics responded to the impact of the 2004 Asian tsunami on indigenous village in coastal Thailand, where they provided mental health, medical aid, and assisted with burying bodies. Street medics developed the first medical clinic in New Orleans to provide care after Hurricane Katrina and transitioned control of the clinic to the local community. Common Ground, the clinic, was the highest-volume free clinic in the U.S. for much of its first year, and won awards for the quality of care and health education provided. Street medics have also provided support and training to Appalachian families and their supporters for over a half a decade in the ongoing pitched battle against mountain top removal coal mining. Street medics formed affinity groups and responded during the early aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, an developed a temporary natural health clinic at the request of tribal leaders in South Louisiana after the 2010 Gulf oil spill.
The revitalization of mass political work, against economic injustice and political corruption in the 2008 Oaxaca uprising, the 2009 Greek uprising, the Arab Spring, the occupation of the Wisconsin capitol, the occupations of universities in the UK and Chile to protest tuition hikes and program cutbacks, and the Spanish Indignante movement rapidly revitalized popular social movements around the world. Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy uprising in the United States and Europe inspired new medic collectives to form and grow in response to the need for ongoing care at occupations. The 2017 Charlottesville murder of Heather Heyer by a white supremacist brought street medics to the forefront of the news, as radical medics were (as often) first on the scene working to save her life. Now, the 2020 Movement for Black Lives uprising is the most recent struggle with which we find ourselves bound up together, burning with fierce hope. We find ourselves more than fifty years in, being re-formed again through dialogue with a new generation of protesters and health workers and new challenges.
Street medics are ready to meet the challenges of the next fifty years together.