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Meet Colorado's activist medics, a rogue band of good Samaritans

Zoe Williams joined Colorado Street Medics as a preteen — and heads the group today.
Mark Manger

When she saw the gas masks, she realized she'd need help. Denver squad cars had blocked off Broadway, and soon police officers — more than a hundred of them — were pulling black body armor, batons, clear plastic face masks and those gas masks from their trunks. Trouble was coming, and Zoe Williams was the only street medic in Civic Center Park.

A Denver Health EMS team was on its way through downtown but had not yet arrived. Even then, though, the city workers would be prohibited from moving through the crowd until the police confirmed that the area was secure. And that wouldn't be for a while.

So the 26-year-old Williams reached for her cell phone, called for backup and hastily steered her five-foot-one-inch frame toward the Occupy Denver protesters. They'd erected tents in the trees and on the grass, but a month and a half of history indicated that those structures would not be allowed to last for long, and the demonstrators wouldn't let them come down without a fight. Williams pulled her respirator out of her bag and tied it to her neck, letting it hang a few inches from her face on top of a cold metal stethoscope. As head of the Colorado Street Medics, she knew the rules: Cover your face too early, and protesters start to panic; wait until too late, and you're of no use to anyone.

Keep your cool, and you can try to help everyone.

By the time the police action was over on October 29, the most violent day of Occupy Denver, Williams and one other medic had treated 45 people in an hour, for everything from chemical-induced tears to bloody cuts to quarter-sized dents caused by pepper balls.

******

In the fall of 2011, the international street-medic community — a widespread group of mobile collectives — experienced a resurgence at a series of trial-by-fire actions connected to Occupy Wall Street.

The street-medic concept got its start in June 1964. As the civil-rights movement gained speed, the Medical Committee for Human Rights created the Medical Presence Project, enlisting American doctors, nurses and med students to care for activists participating in Freedom Summer in Mississippi. Back then, segregated hospitals could not always be counted on to treat protesters fairly, if at all. The medical volunteers continued to come together in the years that followed, organizing coverage whenever activism was accompanied by the threat of violence — whether the action was over civil rights or the Vietnam War. But there were rarely enough professionals to handle the work, so they began teaching protesters the skills even as they treated them. Here, do this. Never, ever do that. Pull it tighter. Pay attention.

Organizers crafted courses at which laypeople could learn rough medical triage tactics in just two to three days, or roughly twenty hours. The lessons were adapted depending on the police response. If the cops brought in a shipment of batons, the instruction covered surface wounds. If someone spotted a canister, chemicals. Videotapes of the lessons traveled from state to state, though they were often confiscated by local authorities. (In 2008, one of the tapes resurfaced in Vietnam Vets Against the War records that were made public when John Kerry ran for president.)

Ann Hirschman, now 65, was a nurse in New York when she started offering classes to everyone from members of the National Lawyers Guild to the Black Panther Defense Committee. One day a loud-talking, kung-fu-fighting acupuncturist named Ron Rosen, who taught self-defense for activists at a studio he named Woo Ping Wuen Kwoon, or Peaceful Harmonious Fist School, signed up for one of Hirschman's training sessions, offering to teach her his moves in exchange. It was Rosen, who went by the name "Doc," who introduced "street medics," and he and Hirschman would continue to work together on the front lines at various actions for decades.

Scruffy and irreverent, Rosen was larger than life — if not his oversized ego. He'd been raised by his grandfather, Joseph Greenstein, or "The Mighty Atom," a strongman of such mythical proportions that he once dragged an airplane by his hair. In 1963, Rosen helped organize the March on Washington, and he joined the Medical Committee for Human Rights in Selma in 1965. Rosen would perform magic tricks for children, pulling endless handkerchiefs and tiny foam rabbits out of his kit and blowing bubbles for them while their parents marched. His personality made him easy to relate to, if occasionally tough to tolerate, and the utilitarian hierarchy he created for his street medics offended more radically open volunteers. "Structure was extremely important to him, because without one he felt like he had no control in a world already out of control," says his widow, Carol Garlington. "Any behavior that was inefficient or could place someone in danger really upset him. Stupidity drove him crazy."

"You either loved Doc or hated Doc," says Hirschman, who loved him, "but nobody was ever neutral about Doc."

In 1973, Rosen traveled to South Dakota, where hundreds of supporters of the American Indian Movement took over the town of Wounded Knee from February to May. For 71 days, United States marshals traded fire with the Oglala Lakota — and Rosen was there the entire time. Other street medics, including Hirschman, rotated in and out. In the most challenging case of her career, Hirschman had to operate on an unconscious patient without anesthesia, stabilizing the airway of a man whose skull had been partially destroyed by a bullet to the back of the head. He survived for four days.

After Rosen was shot in the arm at Wounded Knee, both the Lakota Sioux and AIM adopted him as one of their own. "He risked his life on a daily basis for seventy days at Wounded Knee to protect the Lakotas and see their dignity and pride acknowledged," says Glenn Morris, a member of the Colorado American Indian Movement's leadership council. "In the indigenous nation, talk is cheap, but what's important is how you live your life. The greatest contribution someone can make to a community is a willingness to risk your life for the survival of the community. People don't forget that."

But once back in New York, Rosen continued to struggle with what he'd seen at Wounded Knee. Unsettled, he decided to move west, to Denver, where he formed a collective called Colorado Street Medics. Rosen's goal was simple, if also ambitious: "Traditionally in every tribal society, medicine sprang from and was the property of the tribe and the people as a whole," he wrote in a notebook. Through his work, he hoped to "return medicine to the hands of the people from which it sprang."

He set up an acupuncture practice — he became the first registered acupuncturist in Colorado, No. 001 — and continued to work as a street medic over the next three decades, even as other collectives disbanded. In 1999, he took sixteen medics to the World Trade Organization Ministerial — better known as the Battle of Seattle — where Colorado Street Medics worked with the Direct Action Network. Their efforts helped resuscitate the street-medic tradition around the country, merging Rosen's stricter structure with the Washington group's more haphazard politics. "There was a sort of wedding of these two mentalities, which gives us that history," says Grace Keller, a longtime medic who works with Stepping Stones to Community Health in Chicago and created the Medics Wiki page that continues to document the movement. "The Colorado Street Medics are a really interesting group, because it's the first modern street-medic collective, in many ways. It's hard to talk about street-medic history without name-dropping it every few minutes."

Today, five years after Rosen's death, Colorado Street Medics remains legendary...and active.

Street medics from this state have traveled to Washington, Scotland, Africa, England, New York, Kansas, Oregon, California, the Netherlands and many other spots around the globe to provide street-style education in first aid, herbalism, Chinese medicine and disaster relief. They've helped out after natural disasters — sent money to Haiti, traveled to Louisiana in the wake of Katrina — and unnatural horrors, including the aftermath of the World Trade Center bombings. And they've mended bodies at political actions in Seattle in 1999, Quebec City in 2001, and outside just about every Republican National Convention and Democratic National Convention over the past forty years.

Although propelled by their own beliefs, they function as a rogue band of good Samaritans. The single most important organizing principle of any street-medic collective is "Do no harm." In Colorado, that's bolstered by another motto: "We give solidarity, not charity."

******

As she prepares for the latest Occupy Denver action in six months, Zoe Williams's politics give her pause. Protesters have attached an American flag and two handmade peace signs to sticks that they hold above the crowd. "There is no way I'm marching underneath that," she says. The only symbol she's comfortable with is the one displayed on her body in at least five places: The Star of Life, sometimes called the Star of Rescue, the international sign of the street medic, marks her hips, back and shoulders.

Williams is one of several medics who are also members of Denver Anarchist Black Cross, a collective that firmly supports the work of Colorado Street Medics, and the obvious patriotism in the symbols before her ignites her ire. Tuesday through Saturday, she manages the P&L Press Infoshop next door, where she sells books on radical politics and lets rowdy kids hide from the cops while reading free zines.

But today she is Zoe the medic (which happens to be her Gmail name), not Zoe the radical. To prepare for protests, the petite Williams stuffs twenty pounds of equipment into three hip bags, one backpack and the pockets of her black EMS pants without appearing noticeably larger. Bags full of glucose tablets, white flower oil and its herb partners, gauze, bubbles, Sharpies, Band-Aids, a poncho, a heat blanket, water bottles and backup materials are held together by her boyfriend's drastically oversized camo belt. (She refers to him as her "partner" and refers to herself as "female-bodied" rather than "female"; labels do not factor positively into her world.) While many street medics prefer a fishing vest, she has yet to find one small enough to fit and still be practical. (Children's fishing vests are not great for storing hemostats.) She owns multiple pairs of black, rhinestone-bedazzled and slightly cat-eyed glasses, and she saves the crappiest one for protests; the possibility of pepper spray strongly discourages contacts. Her hair is platinum, almost white, and artfully shaped into a flared pixie cut. From the neck up, she looks like Tinkerbell. From the neck down, she's all business.

Her preparations began the day before this march, when she evaluated hourly weather forecasts and the event's expected turnout. Because so much of their work is dependent on what they can carry, medics carefully assess a protest group's demographics. "If what you packed isn't what you need, you're kind of screwed," says Williams, who often makes do, using protest signs and poles to make splints. "All you have is your bag."

And your beliefs.

Born in Englewood on Valentine's Day, Williams had earned the nickname "Mother Teresa" by age four, both because her middle name is Theresa and because of her strong belief system. When asked what she wanted to do when she grew up, Williams answered that she wanted to give to the poor. When that didn't prove feasible, she rotated through a string of aspirations: marine biologist, art therapist, regular therapist. In an ill-fated response to her favorite childhood TV show, ER, she briefly landed on actress. And when that didn't work out, she opted for ER tech.

Williams's blunt conversational style reflects that of her parents, a retired postal worker and a self-employed contractor who spoke honestly with Williams and her older sister early on — as long as they promised not to share the conversations with their classmates. During dinner, with the TV turned firmly off, the family discussed politics, religion and racism. In second grade, Williams was accidentally allowed to see Dead Man Walking, and the concept of death row horrified her. "I talked to my mom about what people do when they want to stop something bad from happening," Williams remembers, "and she said they make petitions." For months, Williams circulated a handwritten petition opposing capital punishment during breaks at her elementary school.

Williams had just turned twelve and was headed for what she thought was a poetry reading at the Mercury Café when she instead stumbled into one of Rosen's three-day medic trainings, during which he ran students through proper procedures for questioning, assessing and treating their patients. Rosen took one look at the preteen and asked, "Are you here for the street-medic training?"

"I am now," Williams hesitated, "but I'm just a kid. Am I allowed?"

"I'd rather have most kids I know give me medical help than most adults," Rosen assured her. "Have a seat."

Over the next two days, Williams timidly cemented her status as the youngest trainee in the collective. During the final test, when Rosen's friends and fellow medics donned fake blood and pretended to suffer unknown ailments, Williams chose the victim farthest from Rosen. This was a mistake: Her patient, claiming symptoms of head trauma and internal bleeding, developed into the toughest case. But by the time she had whispered a treatment and pretended to call EMS, she'd learned the first lesson of the street medic: confidence.

In her teen years, Williams rotated through the political punk-show circuit, where her pink, black, red and then blue hair slammed to bands like Bikini Kill, Anti-Flag, Crass and Good Riddance. She'd found fliers for the shows at Food Not Bombs, the anarchist outreach group she and her friends worked with. Each time she left the house, her parents smiled and warned her not to get arrested.

"We told her we couldn't take her out to nice restaurants, but we knew she was just expressing herself," says her mother, Valerie Williams. "She didn't fit in here in Englewood and got bullied a lot, but only because she ran for student council and didn't get elected because she didn't want to work on prom. She wanted to service the underserved."

At age fifteen, she quit high school, earned her GED and enrolled at Metro State as a political-science major. During a class on environmental politics, she learned that she was an anarchist. Long before she graduated and continued to pursue medical studies, she was already an official street medic.

At marches, medics run either marked (covered in insignia) or as anonymous backup, depending on their skill and comfort levels. They walk in the buddy system, with medics facing opposite directions but connected at the shoulders as they survey the scene. They keep to the outside of the action and close to the exits. "To run marked is to take extra responsibility, but it's all up to you," Williams says. "We trust you when you're ready, but we also put the fear of God into you. Someone might come up to you with a stab wound and need you to help while an ambulance is on the way — and you had better be prepared for that."

The Colorado Street Medics roster has fluctuated wildly over the years, with the sharpest rises during particularly mainstream moments of political unrest. Since Occupy Denver moved onto Broadway in late September, the group has trained 88 new medics, though only thirty regularly participate. During two sessions, each two long days, Williams and other medics instructed their students in increasingly difficult aspects of the first-aid system: how to dress, what gear to pack, what questions to ask, when to call EMS, how to determine consciousness, breathing, circulation and disabilities. They taught them how to help road rash, and never to use hydrogen peroxide. They practiced controlling bleeding, examined the three degrees of flesh burns, and checked for sprains, strains and fractures.

The training sessions frequently draw what Williams calls "crazy wingnuts who want to fight the government in a shack in the woods." Each class includes at least one extremist who is attracted by the mention of "chemical warfare," she says, and it's not terribly uncommon for the group to kick out would-be medics. As a collective, Colorado Street Medics operates under a consensus-approved standard of practice, and tolerance is a big factor.

"There's always someone who comes in with camo pants tucked into their knee-high boots and is like, 'What do I do with the nerve gas?'" Williams laughs. "They're real. So many uninformed people want to join, and it's like, if you're part of We Are Change, you're not anti-racist. We're anti-racist and anti-supremacy, and we tell those people that we don't think this is the right space for them."

The members of Colorado Street Medics take their work seriously, and they defend it against anyone who might damage their reputation — which includes wannabe medics and infiltrators. When Williams notices someone with duct-tape crosses all over his outfit, she'll approach and ask about his past training. There aren't many trainers, and within a few links — Doc or Zoe or Grace or Pavlos or Petros or Iris — real street medics will find they share some connection.

Although Williams has worked as an EMT tech and intends to study Chinese medicine, most of her fellow medics do not pursue medicine professionally. Connor McFarland, a nineteen-year-old peace and justice studies major, joined after working with medics at Midwest Rising, a protest in his home town of St. Louis; before he became a medic, he was a member of Occupy. The same goes for Liz Kitchen and Bobby Guerrero, both septum-pierced anarchists who became disillusioned with the local movement and "wanted to be more than an obnoxious body," Guerrero says. Mano Cockrum, a professional nanny, was afraid of needles and got sick at the sight of blood when she joined the collective in 2005 to work at the Transform Columbus Day Alliance protest. While the anti-Columbus rallies attracted varying degrees of police attention every year, Cockrum noticed that there were always minor health risks — activists cut themselves accidentally or forgot water or sunscreen — and she realized she could do more for the cause helping them.

Two months after she started medic training seven years ago, Cockrum was at a Tacos Junior at 2 a.m. when a bloody and confused man, badly beaten, ran into the restaurant and collapsed on top of Cockrum, the only diner prepared to catch him. While waiting for paramedics to arrive, she used what she could from her training manual. "I remember thinking that if this had happened a few months earlier, I would not have been prepared," Cockrum says. "Ever since, I always am." And ever since, she's had her medical kit at the ready: "Being a medic isn't just something you do at protests."

The members of Colorado Street Medics are not fashionable; they never have been. Reflecting Rosen's influence, they wear trucker hats and long sleeves and sunscreen. At the 2008 Democratic National Convention, when approximately fifty medics from across the country converged on Denver, the Coloradans could be easily identified by their practical but unimpressive duds.

"At the DNC, I was really jealous of all these medics in tank tops and jean skirts and booty shorts with their hair down and their makeup on," Williams says. "Maybe I can sew some medic pockets into a skirt and make this work."

During the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City, though, her clothes made Williams's time in jail more comfortable. As police officers attempted to clear the streets of protesters, they used tall orange nets, one of which trapped an eighteen-year-old Williams, who was charged with parading without a permit and disobeying a lawful order. Those charges were later dropped, but they continue to earn her money: Every few months, Williams opens an envelope and finds a check from one of a handful of class-action lawsuits she joined after the RNC action.

When Colorado medics traveled to Dulac, Louisiana, after hurricanes Gustave and Ike, they found boxes of Mary Kate & Ashley hats donated to the town instead of medical supplies. They wore the hats and called themselves the Rubber Boots Medic Collective as they worked on pallets that frequently sank into the swamp mud.

But the medics don't take every request for help. When asked to travel outside of the state, they usually stay home unless the mission is long enough to make a significant dent. After the earthquake in Haiti, for example, they opted to send donations instead of attempt a visit.

"There's ethical tourism, and I believe that's just a way to make yourself feel better about your exotic vacation," Williams says, touching her index finger to her lips to make a point. This is a gesture she borrowed from Rosen. "I feel pretentious going to Egypt and saying, 'Here's how you rebel. This is how revolution works.' But it's really easy to say 'Oh, look at that stupid white person' when you're being stupid, too."

Colorado Street Medics also turn down requests here at home, usually because the members of a certain cause are all white or religious, or their action doesn't fit within the medics' standards of practice. But the group remains the go-to care provider for the state's American Indian Movement chapter and one of the first collectives to provide Spanish-language care. Although a handful of medics studied or are currently taking Spanish classes, those who are unfamiliar with the language bring bilingual pamphlets to protests and point to lines such as "Where does it hurt?" And when she's approaching an injured party who speaks English, Williams introduces herself and first gives the patient permission to use female gender pronouns before asking his or her own preference.

"You have to challenge your Great White Savior complex," Williams says. "Because we are so focused on consent, we have got to step outside of ourselves to connect with these communities. Before we accept any call for medics, we ask ourselves if we're actually wanted."

And that holds with Occupy Denver, too, which has resulted in more than physical bruises. Some members of the collective, offended by the group's gender politics and past decisions, no longer respond to its calls for medics, while others are disappointed that their supplies have been squandered. Each medic purchases his or her own materials, sometimes with added funds coming from training fees (an optional donation of $5 to $50) and the group's WePay account. Williams and fellow medic Mel Van Nice estimate they spent $5,000 on supplies in the first two months of the occupation, and most of those were later lost or trashed during altercations.

When Colorado Street Medics first visited Occupy Denver during its second week in Lincoln Park, when the group decided to take on a support role, there was already a "medic station." But Williams places the phrase in air quotes: What Occupy actually had was a tote bag filled with a haphazard mix of Walgreens medical supplies, condoms and bleach; protesters shared a single tube of toothpaste labeled "Don't touch this to toothbrush." The original medical committee included a veterinary technician and a woman who claimed to work at a hospital that doesn't exist; one man carried five blood-pressure cuffs but didn't know how to use them. As actions escalated into violent skirmishes, many of the original volunteers left and never returned, leaving Colorado Street Medics to do the brunt of the work.

But they keep working at Occupy, dedicating as much time to preventing injury as to healing hurt. Among the mistaken notions that Williams has had to discourage are the beliefs that protesters should lie down in front of police horses and also cover themselves in egg whites and toothpaste to help fight pepper spray. Good Samaritan laws prevent street medics from being prosecuted for any mishap that results from their efforts, but common sense is equally important on both sides. "They can't come after you for doing the best you could," says Marschall Smith, program director for the Colorado Medical Board at the Department of Regulatory Agencies. "That's important in order to encourage people to do the right thing." But at the same time, he says, citizens should be aware of what they are choosing when they elect to be treated by a medic without a license.

"If someone is taking care of you and washing your eyes out or cleaning the split scalp you just got from a nightstick, you're not asking, 'Excuse me, are you an M.D.?'" Williams says. "'Are you board-certified?' We care about you, we train ourselves to help you, and you will forget all the alphabet soup that comes after our names." Street medics have what they can carry around their waists, and they have their judgment. That has to be enough.

"At Occupy Denver, it took weeks for them to realize that there is a reason to have trained medics," she remembers. "They thought anyone could do this, which is true — anyone can learn the skills — but you have to learn them first."

******

When "Doc" Rosen died, he had no health insurance. A longtime believer in working outside of for-profit medicine, he suffered a heart attack in July 2007.

While he was in the ICU at Saint Joseph Hospital, drummers from the American Indian Movement visited him, alongside Jewish religious leaders and medics from across the country. Hospital employees moved the gathering to the Catholic chapel when it would no longer fit in Rosen's room. Williams, true to form, distributed water bottles and granola bars she'd purchased from the gift store. "Are you street-medic-ing this event?" other medics asked.

A brain hemorrhage ultimately killed Rosen, and he was buried in a space reserved for veterans of Wounded Knee in South Dakota, where his tombstone bears his real name, as well as "Doc," his Hebrew name and his Lakota name, Wanble Tokahe, or First Eagle.

A month after Rosen died, Williams had the shen, the Chinese symbol of his long-time acupuncture practice, tattooed on her left forearm. It balanced her right arm's image of a Littmann Cardiology III stethoscope, which she calls the best model in medicine. And for many more months, she taught herself Rosen's magic tricks out of books that she bought on eBay, learning how to poke a needle through a balloon and brandish a magic wand.

By then, Williams had taken over as leader of the collective. That year's Columbus Day protest was the first large event she was responsible for; the next year came the Democratic National Convention. In the days since Rosen ran the group, the rigid structure has softened somewhat: Itemized lists of what to pack, which used to include trash bags and three types of jerky, slimmed down as medics embraced their own instincts. Today the collective reaches all of its decisions through consensus.

"There are these moments of self-doubt when it's like, 'Am I doing the right thing?'" Williams says. "It took a lot of affirmation to go from decades of experience to this young punk-rock girl who's a crazy feminist."

Rosen's memory remains a unifying force in the Colorado community, and the collective plans to commemorate his life as a way of educating others on the history of street medicine. His wife and children have donated several boxes of history that now line the walls of a space inside Denver's 27 Social Centre, a spot that Williams is transforming into the Street Medic Museum — the first such display in the world. Along with her own medical books are Wounded Knee patches, a Sundance insignia, a WTO protest call, a guidebook Rosen wrote on acupuncture, and Velcro armbands marked with the Star of Life.

Williams picks up a few. They are plain, with the word "MEDIC" scrawled in all caps in Rosen's hand, and they are detachable. In the early days of the movement, when law enforcement targeted medics, they fashioned insignia that could be easily removed if the need to escape anonymously should arise. The theory was that if officials wanted to get protesters to leave a space, they needed to get rid of the people who made them comfortable in that space — even if that meant hauling medics off to jail. Although Williams hopes those days are gone, they're a part of the community's history. And that era belongs in the museum.

Maybe in the future, Occupy Denver will hold a space in the museum, but it won't be through flags or peace signs. Williams jokes that she might include the shared toothpaste tube, complete with its handwritten note.

But when Occupy Wall Street is done — if it is ever done — there will be another battle cry to answer. As members of Colorado Street Medics often say, street medics are military medics without the military to protect them. "I sort of see the Colorado Street Medics as being this stable torch-bearer," Keller says. "They're a real piece of living history, an organization that has roots deeper than most other collectives. They're this crazy thing of their own, and they always have been. Who knows what's coming for them?"


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