Dangerous Medicine

For street medics tending to FTAA protesters, neutrality was no match for brutality

The Free Trade Area of the Americas talks have been over for two weeks now, and most of the national media covering the events wrapped it up neatly on Thursday, November 20, the day the meetings ended. Their happy news: The talks were a success and the protests were peaceful except for a few pesky radicals dealt with by vigilant police.

But even as most media were gearing up for All-Jacko-All-the-Time coverage, stories began emerging about police abuses during the talks -- people beaten without provocation, people arrested for no reason, their belongings taken and trashed. Last Tuesday the United Steelworkers of America and the Alliance for Retired Americans called for a congressional investigation into police tactics during an AFL-CIO-led press conference at which Miami's police chief, John Timoney, was accused of breaking an agreement to allow buses carrying retired union members into a rally. On Wednesday a coalition of activists held a press conference denouncing the actions of police during the FTAA summit. The stories of police violence against protesters that had been piling up on activist Websites and in chat rooms began leaching into the mainstream media.

One of the more inflammatory vignettes described a police attack on an ad hoc medical clinic where injured protesters were being treated. Details of the incident surfaced late in the afternoon of November 20, when it was described on protest Websites such as resist.ca and alternative news sites including www.ftaaimc.org and indymedia.org. The first reports came in minute-by-minute posts written by laptop-laden protesters, like this one from www.ftaaimc.org: "11-20-2003 16:54 Wellness Center -- Cops using tear gas indiscriminately, moving close to the wellness center at 5th and N Miami. Outside decontamination spaces at wellness center had to be shut down because tear gas is lingering."

Some volunteer medics claim they were pepper-sprayed by cops while treating injured protesters
Jonathan Postal
Some volunteer medics claim they were pepper-sprayed by cops while treating injured protesters

The center, set up in a rented storefront space at 532 N. Miami Ave. by teams of off-duty emergency medical technicians, physicians, and "street medics" (volunteers carrying first-aid kits and water), was a place for protesters to wash off pepper spray and receive treatment for basic injuries. Those with serious injuries would be stabilized and sent to a hospital. (These types of protest-specific clinics began springing up after medical collectives organized in the wake of Seattle's 1999 violent antiglobalization protests.)

The crowd inside the North Miami Avenue clinic and out on the sidewalk was composed of protesters and medics -- who generally looked like protesters but wore red or black crosses pinned to their jackets and hats. Glass double doors and two bay windows fronted the Wellness Center. A sign with foot-high letters reading "Wellness Center" was prominently displayed in one of the windows.

Travis Rabbit, a street medic in town from Brooklyn for the protests, was on the sidewalk outside the center between 4:00 and 5:00 p.m. on Thursday, about the same time riot police began pursuing protesters from Bayfront Park, pushing north and west. Stragglers from the escalating confrontations were turning up at the center, and Rabbit was washing pepper spray off those who needed it. "A line of police turned the corner from, I think it was Fourth Street, onto North Miami Avenue," he recounts. "They came up the street toward us, and there was a rush for the door. The people inside couldn't let everyone hide in there -- they were treating patients. Plus we didn't want people in there who'd been sprayed but not cleaned."

EMT Liz Highleyman, a member of the Bay Area Radical Health Collective in San Francisco, was also on the sidewalk. "The staff tried to close the doors as the police got to the center," she says, "but they couldn't get them closed because of the people trying to get in. Then a police officer stuck his hand in there and sprayed pepper spray all over the inside of the Wellness Center."

Rabbit was stuck in the melee outside the door. "The police sort of pinned a bunch of us against the walls and doors outside the Wellness Center," he says. "Right before the doors closed, one of the officers stuck a can of pepper spray in and sprayed. Then they started spraying all of us who were outside, and they used batons on those of us in front. I tried to get away and was struck a number of times on my back, my knees, and my stomach. They kept telling us to move on but they wouldn't let us move. I crawled out of the crowd, and I couldn't see."

Eowyn A. Rieke, a physician from Boston and a member of the Boston Area Liberation Medics Squad, was inside the clinic Thursday afternoon. Rieke and about eight other staffers were assessing injuries in a waiting area and treating patients in makeshift rooms created by ceiling-hung tarps. In all there were about 30 patients inside when the cops showed up, Rieke says.

"There was a big rush of people," she recalls, "and we were working really hard. All of a sudden people started yelling, and there was a rush through the door. We saw the police come into view through the door, and right when it was almost closed, one of the police in riot gear stuck his hand through the door." The policeman was wearing brown riot gear, Rieke says; Miami-Dade County Police wore brown gear during the protests. "The place just filled up with pepper spray."

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