These Frontline Workers Are Protecting Protestors at All Costs
For volunteer medics and legal observers, confronting police violence can come with mental and physical tolls
Shortly after midnight in Seattle in June, cars passed the street where Danielle Meehan kneeled with an unconscious girl lying on a cot. Aubreanna Inda had been hit by a flash-bang grenade in her chest, and she’d lost her pulse several times.
A registered nurse, Meehan had been volunteering as a medic at protests in Seattle since May 30, following George Floyd’s murder. Meehan and her team of medics had shifted Inda to a “safe location” five blocks away from the protest zone; they evacuated her after police launched flash-bang grenades on the crowd of protestors.
When Meehan asked for an ambulance on the 911 call, the dispatcher told her they couldn’t come to their location, which was still too close to police activity. “They asked us if we could get to an intersection two blocks away,” Meehan said.
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But when they reached the intersection, no ambulance was in sight. Meehan says they had to take Inda to the hospital themselves.
Inda survived, but Meehan remained frustrated. “As a health care professional, I’m used to working with [police and dispatchers] and seeing patients in the hospital,” she said. “It was mind-blowing that they weren’t there to protect the people at the time.” The Seattle Police Department declined requests for comment.
Meehan is one of hundreds of medics, legal observers, and frontline workers across the country who care for people at protests while facing institutional neglect and police violence themselves. Often, medics and legal observers are caught in the line of fire when police deploy tear gas, rubber bullets, and other violent tactics upon protesters.
Some frontline workers allege police have targeted them specifically. Legal observers and medics in different cities across the United States told GEN they have been physically assaulted at protests, followed home, and surveilled by police.
Asia Parks, a legal observer with the National Lawyers Guild, was arrested during protests in Atlanta on June 1. “The police started randomly grabbing people based on curfew arrests,” she said. “Black people in the area were arrested because they looked like protesters, but white people who looked like they were just shopping weren’t arrested.”
According to Parks, anyone who looked like a protester was arrested. Legal observers are often not key in organizing or coordinating protests, but Parks speculated that her proximity to protesters may have increased police scrutiny.
“We shouldn’t be treated better than protesters, nobody should be subject to brutalization,” Parks said. “But police think we’re leaders or organizers of the protests. We’re grouped in with the protesters, where it puts a target on us.”
Confronting police violence doesn’t just make it difficult for frontline workers to assist people at protests, it takes a toll on their mental and physical health. Additionally, when legal observers and medics are left traumatized or physically injured after facing police violence, their capacity for caring for others is critically compromised.
Tory Smith is a legal observer with Up Against the Law Legal Collective in Philadelphia. While filming an arrest with their iPhone at a protest in late May, Smith was allegedly assaulted by a police officer, which Smith says caused a traumatic brain injury. Afterward, Smith suffered from migraines and couldn’t sleep at night. The Philadelphia Police Department declined requests for comment.
Legal observers attend protests to hold law enforcement accountable and ensure people who are arrested are accounted for by obtaining their first name “so they don’t get lost in the system,” Smith said. Smith’s collective combines cop-watching with legal observation and teaches protesters how to adhere to their civil liberties in interaction with police. And the evidence legal observers collect at protests can help in crafting a defense for protesters, when they are arrested or charged with a crime.
“Our collective isn’t a big network, it’s a group of people who trust each other,” Smith said. “When a few of us get knocked out, it affects the whole group. And we were still being asked to be out there and to make sure people are safe.”
Street medics ensure the health and safety of protesters. Sometimes that means handing out water bottles, other times it means performing eye flushes when protesters are pepper-sprayed or tear-gassed. While many street medics are sympathetic to the protesters, they treat patients regardless of political affiliation. “A lot of us are here to support the protests, but we’re indiscriminate in who we will treat,” Meehan said.
Street medics are also accountable to a countrywide network of other medics assisting protesters on the street. They undergo a 20-hour training before caring for people at protests or encampments.
“We shouldn’t be treated better than protesters, nobody should be subject to brutalization. But police think we’re leaders or organizers of the protests. It puts a target on us.”
“You gain experience through the people who train you and [work with] other medics, who act like a mentor,” said Marie*, a medic in Philadelphia who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
While many street medics are white (just as the medical field as a whole is dominated by white people), BIPOC street medics are organizing trainings for qualified people of color to medically assist protesters. Jacqueline Zepeda, an emergency medical technician of Latinx background, leads a BIPOC-majority group of street medics in Minneapolis.
“It’s important to have BIPOC street medics out because we need protesters to be taken care of by people who look like them,” Zepeda said. “There’s a level of empathy that isn’t always there when it’s just white medics or people not in the community [helping protesters].”
While many frontline workers experienced violent police tactics simply because they were in a crowd of protesters, some medics and legal observers allege being deliberately targeted by police, even when they are assisting protesters.
On May 31 in Austin, Texas, 20-year-old Justin Howell was shot with a rubber bullet in the head by police. While helping to carry Howell out of the protest on a stretcher, Maredith Michael, a volunteer with Street Medics Austin, was shot in the hands. And while the laws of war don’t apply to domestic protests, targeting medics with violence violates international human rights law according to Ida Sawyer, the director of crisis and conflict at Human Rights Watch.
“Targeting medics providing crucial, life-saving assistance to protesters is a clear violation of the right to health,” she said.
Corey Brooks, a trained street medic and social worker in Louisville, Kentucky, set up a tent with water, sunscreen, and medical supplies at a protest on May 29, demanding justice for Breonna Taylor, who was killed by local police in her home earlier this year. “I was running water, getting things to different locations,” Brooks said.
“I heard the tear gas canister go off, dropped the things I was taking to the other line, and ran back. And the medic tent was literally just engulfed in a sea of tear gas.”
Marie, the Philadelphia medic, knows she always has the option to leave when she feels unsafe at protests. She goes to protests with a “medic buddy” and debriefs with her medic collective when the protest ends.
Even as medics navigate a lack of safety because of their work, they are building community with other medics who share their experiences. Sometimes, that means knowing when to take a break.
“Some of us have been like, ‘Hey, I can’t. I need to take a week or some days off.’ And we just do it,” Marie said. “I definitely talk about it with my therapist, and sometimes I’m able to talk about it with friends, but they don’t always understand.”
Other frontline workers find it harder to step back, especially when they feel they are needed on the street. “It does take a toll,” said Smith, the legal observer in Philadelphia. “Making sure everyone is safe can be difficult to balance against your own personal safety.”