When Safa Abdulkadir, a first-year medical student at the University of Minnesota, attended a protest in Minneapolis in response to the killing of George Floyd, she had no intention of putting her medical knowledge to use. It was May 26, one day after Mr. Floyd was killed, and although Ms. Abdulkadir was attending the demonstration as a protester, she made a point of wearing her white lab coat, a common symbol of medical professionals and students.
“I went more as a sign that there is someone in the medical community who is here supporting the cause,” Ms. Abdulkadir said. “I wanted my people to feel as though I was there and supporting them, and feel my presence.”
Before long, however, she saw a young woman on the ground crying, a small crowd around her. The woman told her that she had been shot in the breast with a rubber bullet. When Ms. Abdulkadir approached the group, they asked if she was a doctor, and she explained that she was a medical student. Someone asked her to look at the young woman’s wound, and bystanders formed a barrier around them so that Ms. Abdulkadir could do so. She discovered some bruising but no severe trauma; she then gave the woman a bandage she happened to have in her pocket and helped find her a cold compress.
“After that day, I decided to just continue going to the protests with the purpose of actually helping people who were hurt,” Ms. Abdulkadir said. She and some of her classmates started bringing along basic first-aid supplies, like bandages, gauze, and mixtures of milk of magnesia and water to counteract tear gas. They used red duct tape to put crosses on their white coats, and within a few days found other medical professionals who had set up volunteer triage stations to serve demonstrators.
Ms. Abdulkadir is just one of the many people in cities and towns across the country providing medical care during the George Floyd protests. These volunteers often refer to themselves as street medics, and have a history that stretches back to the civil rights movement. The term refers to a loose, informal group of people with varying degrees of medical experience, from physicians to amateurs, who attend protests and demonstrations specifically to provide medical care that participants may need.
Coalitions of street medics have formed, and many offer a 20-hour training to introduce participants to basic first-aid skills specifically tailored to protests, such as treating people with dehydration or tear gas exposure. Some organizations, like the Do No Harm Coalition, also offer bridge training to introduce medical professionals to the world of street medicine.
Ahmed Owda, a fourth-year medical student at Columbia University, watched one of the coalition’s webinars as he was preparing to attend protests as a street medic in New York.
“I’m an African-American male, and that was one of the things that inspired me to come into medicine, the disparities that we witness in communities of color,” he said. As he saw documented instances of police violence against protesters nationwide, Mr. Owda said that although he was not yet a doctor, he felt it was important to use his position in, and knowledge of, health care to help protesters in ways that he could. He has been attending protests in New York in his scrubs, with bottles of water and a first-aid kit, but has not yet had to provide direct care.
Duck Bardus, a street medic in Columbus, Ohio, first completed street-medic training at the protests at the Standing Rock Reservation in 2016. Since then, Mx. Bardus has worked hundreds of protests — but this was the first time they had experienced violence directed at them while clearly marked as a street medic.
“This is the first time I have ever, ever seen anything like what we’re seeing on the streets in Columbus,” they said. “I have never been shot at with projectiles, I have never been maced at a protest, and all of those things have happened over the last week here in Columbus.”
Mx. Bardus estimated that over the past two weeks they have treated 150 to 200 people, most frequently for chemical irritants, and called for an ambulance several times, although emergency medical technicians were not always able to reach injured people through the crowds, highlighting the important role of street medics.
On May 28, Mx. Bardus said that they were with a group of peaceful protesters when police started to “bombard them with mace and pepper spray.”
“I treated the same guy three times in 15 minutes,” Mx. Bardus said. “I’ve never in my life seen a protester take chemical irritants like that and just pop back up and go right back. They were very, very resilient. They were determined.”
Darien Belemu, a graduate student at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said that the possibility that an emergency responder might not be able to reach a protester in time was one of his main motivations for working as a street medic at protests in New York. Mr. Belemu has his EMT-B certification, and took a bridge street-medic training course, designed for people who had medical experience, from a coalition in New York.
“I see a lot of 20-year-old, 19-year-old kids that are acting, I think, really heroically and standing up to the police and making sure they know they’re not OK with police brutality,” Mr. Belemu said. “It scares me to think that somebody is not going to get treatment, especially if they have a head wound and it’s going to affect their ability to live a normal, healthy life.”
Mr. Belemu said he treated a protester on May 30 whom police had pepper-sprayed directly in the face. When the protester turned to run away, Mr. Belemu said, an officer hit the protester at the base of the skull with a baton. By the time Mr. Belemu reached him, the protester was bleeding profusely.
“That’s where your brain stem is, and any swelling there could threaten a person’s ability to breathe, or it could stop their heart,” Mr. Belemu said. “That was a very scary situation.” Mr. Belemu and a nearby medical worker cared for the protester and urged him to go to the hospital immediately if he vomited or developed a throbbing headache.
For many street medics, the coronavirus has only made their work feel more urgent. Police officers have been using tear gas on protesters, which often causes people to cough, potentially adding to the spread of the virus. Some health officials have voiced their concerns, and most street medics have been carrying masks with them to hand out to protesters, as well as trying to change gloves in between treating individuals.
“It makes me really concerned that national guardsmen and police are using things like tear gas and pepper spray in light of the fact that we’re in a pandemic, and that those exposures could increase the risk of getting Covid-19,” said Dominique Earland, a first-year medical and Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota, who has been working as a street medic in Minneapolis. “It’s especially concerning to me, as a black woman, to know that the black community was disproportionately impacted by Covid before, and then they didn’t really have any equitable responses.”
Mr. Owda shares Ms. Earland’s concerns. “Obviously Covid is an incredible disaster,” he said. “But in so many ways in my day-to-day life police violence is a bigger threat to me than Covid.”
There have been documented instances of the police destroying street-medic supplies, and Ms. Abdulkadir and Ms. Earland said that on May 30, they had to flee a triage tent where they were helping protesters, because police officers started firing rubber bullets near them. “I cannot confirm that,” said John Elder, a spokesman for the Minneapolis Police Department. “I have no knowledge of it.”