by Riley Clare Valentine
“The history of street medics goes back to the Civil Rights era,” the medics who trained me during Occupy let their words hang in the air. I am 19 and these words fill me with a feeling of urgency and drive. Now, I am 28 and, talking with one of the medics I know, we swap histories and stories that go back to the Civil Rights movement – the histories hang between us, the narratives and knowledge passed down orally, filled with internal criticism, but external praise. Street medics are often praised as heroes, but our history is just as flawed as activism.
How is this different from Katrina? I ask myself this, sitting in a room with a government official, three other medics with me, arguing for community resources – for masks for children for those families who cannot leave their New York City apartments.
How is this different from Chicago? I walk with my medic buddy, the bloc in front of us, we walk down the Atlanta streets, and when someone is hurt from being pulled from the cops, we find each other later. I run my fingers over their arm, looking for wounds.
Street medics present an alternative to hierarchical care. We learn this in our trainings and we also learn the importance of knowledge. In our pairs, we discuss our skills bluntly, with no false modesty or patting each other for lower skill levels. The medic with more knowledge will field those wounds. I will take the other wounds, but often the comforting and quiet advising. Regardless, our history is the same. The Civil Rights era had street medics faced with ethical conundrums. White medics had to decide whether to fight for Black activists to get care in white hospitals, for the immediate care, or whether to fight for long-term desegregated care. These problems run through us. In Occupy Atlanta, people leaving emergency rooms because of wait times would come to our clinic. Who do we prioritize?
Our culture confronts us with a history that deserves bluntness. At the convergence center a few days before the protests against the Klan gathering at Stone Mountain, a person I once mediced runs up to me. They pull me to their friends and tell their friends about how I found them about to pass out from dehydration, giving them water and pulling them away to check them for heat sickness. We are careful about what we discuss here. Riot stories are fun, and they pass around the room like quiet secrets – when I walk up it changes to making fun of bloc kids forgetting they are human, and with that the times I forgot that I am human. Street medics often embed ourselves so deep in momentary movements that we forget the long-term projects. Katrina, Occupy, and Sandy made us confront that. Building collectives after these catastrophes, sitting in our communities, there for the long haul, finding out how we look at our history and answer for what we have not done.
Standing outside the jail after the Alton Sterling protest, I come with other medics, having salves, bandages, water, and a slew of other care products. Most of what I do is walk up to friends and family members and talk. Medicing is not just physical care. The quiet emotional work matters just as much.
Sometimes a protest is like any other protest. The thing that makes medicing confrontational to the right wing is not the care we provide – they have their own medics. What makes us confrontational is having a history to answer for, and the ways we respond to that. Staying after the Red Cross leaves, finding the corners behind dumpsters where hurt and maybe frightened people hide, staying awhile – looking at history to understand what we should do.
“The history of street medics goes back to the Civil Rights era.” I am 19 and carry my epilepsy medications with me, scripts ready in case of jail. I learn how to stabilize a C-spine injury. I learn how the fear of cops and the fear of white supremacists is one of the strongest weapons they have. Trauma goes beyond the body. The anti-authoritarian nature of street medicing is at the nexus of our practice and knowledge. We do not get it right all the time. Sometimes isolating ourselves, working just with activities and organizers and not the community itself – we have to answer for that too.
I am 28. I realize with a shock I am not a baby medic anymore. I realize this during Trump’s Inauguration as I see medics I never met before. Protestors from North Dakota Access Pipeline ask me about another medic. Of course, I know them. They trained me. Lord knows how many trainings I have gone to – hosted one. They call the medic “comrade” and I smile, remembering the list of gender-neutral terms I learned for patients when I was 19 – comrade, or even better, friend. I always use friend. My Southern accent works better with it, maybe cher. Never comrade, always friend. The Georgia drawl rolls across my tongue – thick and heavy. I like to think that it is comforting. Friend is a word you use for people you will know for the rest of your life. I see these protestors. I know their faces, and they know my name.
Years before Trump was a name I thought of, crouching in Chicago streets, I ask my new friend if they can hear me, if they know their name, if they know where they are, when is it. My new friend leans against a wall telling me the answers in between uncomfortable shouting, with photographers fighting to get a picture. I scream at them, “No fucking photographs! Get the fuck away!” A bloc kid runs up and shields me with a big black flag. I get my friend to the EMTs who finally were able to negotiate through police lines. My friend smiles at me as I help transfer care.
Being a medic is living in stories. We soak up each other’s stories until they become as close as our own. I can talk about that time we struggled with the Red Cross in Haiti – except I am not us. I was a kid, a real kid. But this oral tradition grounds us.
By centering ourselves in stories, we can know what future we are building, whether we are repeating the past we try so hard to address in the now or if we are building something new. The now is heavy with the past. An anti-fascist future depends upon knowing this past. Medics work towards this future informed by a muddied past – built on conflict and our own failure, we can see what dismantling structures means.
We started by leaving the Black communities in the South to prioritize Black and white activists. A lot of the early white medics joined as disaffected youth, struggling with direction, and seeing a fight where they could help. I see a lot of myself in that, which makes avoiding those mistakes personal. Medics have to work with structures. We have to work with hospitals to save the lives of our friends. Many of us have medical backgrounds in some aspect. Many of us grew up in medical households, or have medical conditions making us familiar with medical institutions. But our shared history lets us remember how to not repeat those hierarchies.
After Hurricane Sandy, I worked with doctors who were not medics – a few were confused to have a young college student taking time off to figure out their life briefing them. One did not like this and got annoyed with me, but most noticed that we knew the families. We knew the children. We knew the traumatic stories of two teenagers standing on top of buildings swaying in the wind, wondering if they would die. We held onto their stories too. We spent the time getting notes on what they needed to get these doctors here, to get the doctors to the patients who need their expertise.
We work with structures, bringing our personal knowledge and care to them. We take our horizontalized care and work across boundaries. Fascism is built on firm boundaries. It is for the state, by the state, and of the state. Fascism is a movement that is heavily structured. Fascists have their own medics. They, too, have their own history, but it is a history of building boundaries. If we are going to be anti-fascist, we need to continue to be boundary crossers. If we bring in hierarchies, we need to also subvert them. If our friends cannot get into these institutions, we need to find ways to cross those boundaries.
Anti-authoritarian measures in the medic community cannot be divorced from our failure to subvert boundaries effectively and in a way that does not leave a community confined by the boundaries that we crossed for a short time. I sit in the convergence center and we talk with the protestors – some of the medics will go with one arm of the protest, another with the other arm. At some point someone tries to set something on fire – I swear to God it is every protest – and I walk up to them quietly and talk about gortex burning onto their skin. Another member of the bloc steps in. No gortex, just cotton. These protests are not always going to focus on crossing boundaries, but what they do is reveal what us, the folks who live here, need to do. It is just another protest, but it is another way to see how we need to care for people in changing ways.
We reject authoritarianism through stepping back from ourselves. I am just a body here trying to figure out what best to do, and everywhere I live it is a bit different. Authoritarianism can be a slow creep. Authoritarians are well organized. When medics say we are anti-authoritarian we mean that we de-center ourselves. Our internal dialogues focus on how we can evolve to be more sustainable, more helpful, better able to find what needs to be done underneath the big umbrella of “keep the peace.” Radical care is a flexibility to cross boundaries, work with hierarchies in a way that is person-centric, reflecting on our failures and actively trying to do better as a community.
The history of street medics goes back to setting up fifteen feet soaking stations set in a circle, coffee and snacks to the side, and sighing out, “What happens now.”
Effectively responding to authoritarianism requires a form of care that is informed by the past to build a radical future. Italian fascists sent intellectuals to prison, many of whom were working on educational programming. Anti-fascism and anti-authoritarianism are learned. Anti-authoritarianism comes in building processing meetings after protests and emergency response situations.
Riley Clare Valentine is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at Louisiana State University. Their research focuses on language, neoliberalism, and care ethics. They have been a street medic since Occupy and were trained in Occupy Atlanta. Since then, they traveled to protests across the country as a medic, participated in disaster response, and continue their work as a street medic. Beyond their grassroots organizing, they have also worked on campus changes at LSU for other LGBTQ+ individuals.
**Note: This piece speaks only to the author’s experience as a street medic with other members of the community, and there are varied experiences within the community that differ from their own.**