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Street Medicine: Volunteers for Pepper Spraying?

Street medicine and action medics are in greater demand than ever. This article reviews basic street medicine organizations, many inspired after Seattle's WTO protests and police riots.
Street Medicine: Volunteers for Pepper Spraying?
by Kirsten Anderberg
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In solidarity with the upcoming WTO protests in Cancun, Mexico, this September, groups are mobilizing worldwide with calls to action. This is a fitting time to talk about one of the legacies the WTO protests in Seattle, Wa. left behind - Street Medicine Organizations. First Aid is about what to do *first* in a medical emergency. Street First Aid incorporates basic first aid, but then expands it to include chemical weaponry aftercare and treatments for likely injuries at mass demonstrations. Most of the dozen or so "Action Medics" and street medicine organizations now in existance on the Web were self-admittedly inspired by the WTO police riots in Seattle. With the increasing frequency of political discontent and public protest, and the escalation of violent weaponry and the militarization of police forces in America, street first aid is a necessary field of study for concerned health care workers, as well as average citizenry (after all it is our children they are using these weapons on, not just us).

Street medicine information is so sorely needed that the Black Cross Collective (www.blackcrosscollective.org) in Portland, Oregon, decided to conduct its own research. Brave Portland activists actually volunteered to be pepper sprayed onto their skin and into their eyes in the name of science. Black Cross said during the experiment, some people panicked when sprayed, thus the environment was tense. They have published a list of things they found to relieve the painful reactions to police weaponry, as well as lists of what did not work (eggs, toothpaste,...) and things they have not yet tried (such as a bagel). Black Cross offers 8 hour "Affinity Group Medic Workshops" in Portland, yet also travels to educate, such as when they came to Seattle for workshops in May, prior to the LEIU protests. Their website had the most concise pepper spray and tear gas information of all the sites I visited.

Each street medicine website I visited had a different uniquity. For instance, the BALM Squad (www.bostoncoop.net/balm), the Boston Area Liberation Medic Squad, has a downloadable Spanish language phrase book for first aid trained activists, as well as information on hot and cold weather protests, and a list of upcoming global protests. The Bay Area Radical Health Collective (www.black-rose.com/radicalhealth.html) has an article on aftercare for projectile injuries, such as rubber bullets out of an AR-15, such as Seattle Police use. The Palestine Red Crescent Society (www.palestinercs.org) has an emergency guide with instruction for conflict situations. Handcuff injuries are addressed at www.action-medical.net, which was probably the most thorough site on street medicine I saw. They offer a 13 page detailed "Training Supplement" to download for trainings, and a supplies list that includes medical equipment and supplies, chemical protective gear, chemical weapons treatment supplies, and other things not on ordinary first aid lists.

Most of these websites contain similar basic street treatments and remedies. Such as bandannas soaked in vinegar, kept in ziplock baggies until needed, partially filter out tear gases. (One site even recommended wearing a paper filter under the bandanna due to the vinegar fumes). Lemon juice, or even water, works better than just dry fabric, they say.
A combination of one part water and one part liquid antacid for skin and eyes to relieve burning seemed consensus. Squirt bottles were recommended to flush out eyes with water, and contact lenses trap toxins under them, thus sites warned to remove them before protests. One site suggested ordering prescription swimming goggles for activism. These sites all recommended covering as much of your body as possible at protests, suggesting activists wear long sleeves, long pants, closed-toe shoes, and baseball hats, as well as sunscreen. All sites recommended bringing LOTS of water.

An interesting side issue emerging in street medicine is an ethical dilemma. Traditionally, first aid medics at an event treat *anyone* in need. At mass demonstrations and when social unrest is involved, this may include injured police officers and right wing counter-protesters. Many people form small affinity groups for actions, with a trained activist medic for their group's needs first and foremost. Non-affinity group action medics need to come to a moral decision on who to treat *before* the event. It makes activists look good to treat the enemy with kindness, yet if that means they just turn around and hurt more activists then, this becomes a problem. In an article by Brian Domnick, entitiled "The Principles of Action Medical Patient Care," he outlines 7 elements he finds important: 1) Do No Harm, 2) Treat Anyone in Need, 3) Treat Patients as Comrades, 4) Triage, 5) Documentation, Debriefing, and Analysis, 6) Honest Evaluation of Medics, 7) Constant Strive to Improve Skills. He stresses that action-medics are *not* politically neutral, and are working alongside the patients in struggle, as a movement group.

Street medicine organizations and action medics are an interesting result of the growing chasm between police and our public emergency responce teams, and the average youthful rebel or peaceful anti-war protester today. This field is in its infancy. It was created to empower, not frighten, protesters. Hiding our heads in the sand means we get our asses kicked. This new defense field of street medicine is much needed and will only develop and expand in time.

Copyright Kirsten Anderberg 2003

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