'Street medics' gear up for RNC protests

Street medic
Street medic and registered nurse Scott Weinstein checks in on a homeless person in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Weinstein, of Montreal, has also served as a street medic offering help to protesters during mass demonstrations.
Photo courtesy of Common Ground Health Clinic

Maybe the best example of how street medics can spring to action came right after Hurricane Katrina. Registered nurse Scott Weinstein was watching the news coverage in his Montreal home, outraged by the lack of medical response to the flooding.

"I said to myself, 'Well, I'm not going to just yell at the computer monitor. I'm going to go down and do something this time,'" he said.

So, in his scrubs, he hopped on a plane to Louisiana. Once in New Orleans, Weinstein and other volunteers set up shop in a local mosque, offering free health care and counseling.

Setting up shop
Doctors and volunteers report to work at the Common Ground Health Clinic in New Orleans. The clinic was created a week after Hurricane Katrina by a handful of street medics and community activists appalled by the humanitarian response.
Photo courtesy of Common Ground Health Clinic

Weinstein isn't involved with Minnesota's street medic movement. But he has responded to other big demonstrations. He says street medics emerged during the Vietnam War, when activists were getting pummeled by police batons and tear-gassed.

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"These are folks who are generally in solidarity with the protester, or at least support the right of people to protest," Weinstein said. "They're out to make sure that everyone stays safe, or -- if they, God forbid, do get injured -- are able to get treated effectively and efficiently right there."

Organizers with Minnesota's North Star Health Collective offered first aid training to volunteers this week in preparation for the Republican National Convention. The workshops weren't open to the media.

While many of the volunteers are medical students and professionals, others have no formal training at all.

"I'm sure these people are well-intended, but they may well cause additional injury -- and it causes me some concern."

The collective has also set up a temporary clinic and wellness center in downtown St. Paul, but organizers haven't disclosed the location yet.

Street medics say they'll treat anybody -- protesters, police or bystanders -- as long as the have patients' consent. Organizer Celia Kutz says their goal is to make sure that people on the street get the help they need.

"Dehydration, sun exposure -- anything from those really basic needs to chemical weapon exposure and decontamination," Kutz said. "One thing that's been on our radar has been the recent purchase from the St. Paul police with the Tasers."

Kutz, a coordinator with the new North Star collective, says a lot of protesters have been talking on online forums about how to treat people who may be stunned by Tasers during the RNC.

While it's true the St. Paul Police Department did purchase more than 200 Tasers earlier this year, spokesman Tom Walsh says officers don't intend to use them for crowd control during the convention.

Walsh also says if he needed medical attention, he personally would call a real medic rather than a street medic.

"I'm sure these people are well-intended, but they may well cause additional injury -- and it causes me some concern," Walsh said.

But street medics say their job isn't to replace hospitals. They say they'll refer patients to emergency rooms if the injuries fall outside of their realm of expertise.

They liken themselves to wilderness first responders -- only their environment is a crowded street rather than the back woods.

United Hospital in downtown St. Paul is expecting visits to its emergency room to increase by 30 percent during the four days of the RNC. Dr. Marty Richards, an ER physician at United, has never heard of street medics. But he says he welcomes them for basic first-aid needs.

"It would be great to have some laypeople with some education who can help out with minor stuff like that, especially when we're expecting to have increased emergency department volumes ... during the RNC," Richards said.

Street medics with the North Star collective are also preparing for mental trauma cases. Social workers, massage therapists and even acupuncturists will be at the wellness center to treat people who may be dealing with the crowds and conflict in unhealthy ways.

Scott Weinstein, the nurse from Montreal, says street medics can also console panicked people when things get hairy. The medics may tell them to take a few deep breaths and look at the big picture.

"I was in a situation where tear gas was thrown, and someone was running in circles in the middle of the tear gas cloud, freaking out," Weinstein said. "I basically tried to get them to calm down and get them out of the tear gas cloud. It was as simple as that. But when they were panicking, they couldn't think, 'Oh, I can leave this tear gas cloud and breathe a lot easier.'"

And in some cases, the work of street medics outlives the crisis.

The makeshift first aid station that Weinstein helped set up in New Orleans three years ago has evolved into a free community health clinic that still operates today.