Sometimes Good Guys Don't Wear White

They may look more Slayer than healer, but the hand-printed medic logo safety-pinned to their sweatshirts suggest otherwise. The street medics, a loose organization of volunteer healthcare providers tied together by a shared ethic of collaborative service, have helped keep the Madison protests healthy and safe.

I spoke with Brian, a street medic for several years, to learn more about the organization. "Street medics grew out of a community of medical providers offering their services to the civil rights movement in the 1960s," he said. The movement was revitalized in part by civil rights veteran Ron "Doc" Rosen around the time of the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, and membership has grown to the point where they are a regular fixture at protests, rallies, and other mobilizations.

For the most part, he says, "we coordinate the medical infrastructure in a way to allow others to step in," and the trained street medics can harmonize their efforts with other medical personnel and volunteers. "Street medics come from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines, and each of us have at least twenty hours of supplemental training both in basic first aid services and what I would call 'street sense', meaning the tools necessary to engage as a provider in a tough situation without the ability to call for advanced care," such as in the midst of a riot. Their services were particularly important in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, when street medics started the Common Ground health clinic in the first days after the storm, serving over 160 patients per day with only twelve clinicians. (The program has since grown into a nonprofit relief agency helping to rebuild homes, give free legal advice, and offer job training).

"While some protests may result in injuries, that is not the case here," and "professional EMTs are present." The role of the street medics during Madison protests, then, has focused more on promoting basic hygiene and helping run the first aid station, a particularly important role when people are overnighting in the capitol and donated food is served in an impromptu manner.

Outside of services offered during crises and protests, the street medic ethic is one of "community medicine" where medical providers reach out to the community, build trust, and participate in education. In Madison, he said, street medics offer free clinics in the summer months, and free meals on Sundays as part of the "savory Sundays" program. The latter is aimed at the poor and homeless, and includes medical care and education; foot care, Brian says, is particularly important. These community events aimed at the most vulnerable populations also build relationships and allow the medics to better connect the disadvantaged with available resources.

Brian emphasizes they approach their work in a nonpartisan way and offer aid to anyone who needs it. "We offered help to the Tea Party last week," he said.