Atlanta (CNN)Protest medic Austin Gates was out with his medical cart on Tuesday night, supporting hundreds of peaceful protesters gathered in downtown Atlanta to call out racism and police brutality.
Street medics brave danger to treat wounded protesters
The 25-year-old political organizer has provided first aid and health support at dozens of rallies over the past seven years. But this weekend was the first time he's ever had to hand out more than a Band-Aid strip.
The majority of his work over the past five days has been flushing out tear gas from people's eyes.
Though he was stationed in his usual location at Centennial Olympic Park more than 500 feet away from the main protest activity, Gates' medical cart was hit with a rubber bullet shortly after the city's curfew came into effect.
Soon he saw a man with blood pouring down the side of his face, stemming from a deep cut just above his forehead.
"You could see he'd been hit really hard by a projectile," Gates said. The man's blood soaked through multiple gauze sponges, and Gates was attempting to place a bandage on the wound. But the police were closing in.
They had to run.
Like field medics in a war zone, protest medics in the United States support demonstrators exercising their First Amendment rights. But their work can be so perilous that many won't talk about it at all.
One example of this type of targeting occurred at a protest Tuesday night in Asheville, North Carolina, when a SWAT team cracked down on a medic station, despite what medics described as a verbal agreement with police that they could remain after curfew to attend to the wounded.
Police forced the dozen or so medics to leave, and a video by Asheville's Citizen-Times shows police slicing through bottles of water.
The city's police chief, David Zack, apologized in a statement for destroying rather than confiscating the medical supplies. He defended the action, stating that officers were trying to "eliminate objects that can be thrown at protesters and law enforcement" and that the medic station was on private property.
Five street medics that CNN reached out to for this story said they were unwilling to be quoted using their full legal names, citing fears of being targeted by police for providing medical assistance at previous demonstrations.
"We try really hard to not interact with the media to maintain privacy for our patients," said one medic, using the pseudonym Emma. "They have been hurt by law enforcement."
She shared her story under condition of anonymity, in order to protect her identity and that of patients she has treated who she said have been wounded by police. For that same reason, she wouldn't name the city where she's been working over the past week.
Emma is part of a street medic collective devoted to providing medical support at protests. For the collective to safely function, she said it's best for them to be as discreet as possible.
"We don't want law enforcement to target street medics any more than they already do," she said. "They think that we're in a leadership role."
While some medics identify as health workers during protests, she explained, many do not because they also fear being targeted by police.
Many patients Emma and her colleagues treated this week have required eye flushes due to tear gas exposure. Some have suffered asthma attacks after breathing in the riot control agent.
"Police are constantly unleashing weapons that make people cough during a pandemic," she said. "That's unconscionable."
Nearly 1,300 public health and medical officials on Tuesday signed an open letter calling for law enforcement to stop using "tear gas, smoke, or other respiratory irritants, which could increase risk for Covid-19 by making the respiratory tract more susceptible to infection, exacerbating existing inflammation, and inducing coughing."
Tear gas is banned by the Geneva Convention for use in warfare between nations, but is commonly used to disrupt large-scale riots in cities around the world. Its use is legal in the US.
In the past few days, Emma and fellow medics have treated broken bones, head injuries and projectile wounds from rubber bullets that had resulted in some patients losing their vision.
Emma began serving as a street medic in 2011 during the Occupy Wall Street movement. Since then, she's treated injuries at demonstrations and protests in about a dozen cities, for causes including Black Lives Matter, immigrant justice, climate change and LGBTQ rights.
In that time, she has directly trained more than 100 people in street medic procedures and instructed hundreds more activists on how to stay healthy while demonstrating.
Following the recent death of George Floyd at the hands of police, protests in cities nationwide are receiving a different response from authorities than what she's used to seeing at left-wing rallies.
"Police are much more violent when protesters are specifically calling out police brutality," she said. "Police are not just there as law enforcement. They are there as counter-protesters."
Given the increased use of tear gas and rubber bullets to quell lawful protesters, Emma felt it was important to step forward.
One of the best resources is "Riot Medicine," an online book recently published for free, she said.
She ticked off tips that battle-hardened protesters have learned the hard way.
"Don't wear contact lenses to a protest," she said.
The chemical can get caught in contacts, making the burning much more difficult to address, she said. If you're anticipating tear gas, it's better to use goggles with rubber around the edges