Street medics prepared for violence at Olympic protest
Megan Stewart, ctvbc.ca
Published Friday, February 12, 2010 1:53PM PST
A band of street medics marching alongside Olympic protesters today will be armed with goggles, helmets and vinegar-soaked cloths to help keep any tear gas in the air out of their lungs. Prepared for violence and even trauma, they are closer to the action than the professional paramedics who wait in police-secured safe zones.
These volunteers have an assortment of training — from industrial first aid and military-grade medical experience to second-hand instruction from the others. In addition to gauze and latex gloves, street medics carry a mantra that teaches them to do no harm, stop from offering treatment beyond their own skill level, and help anyone regardless of politics or position and only with their consent.
Stepping into a crowd of activists to access a wounded person is not something ambulance paramedics will do.
"They're not going in until a safe zone is created," said B.C. Ambulance Service spokesperson Kristy Hillen. "I'm not sure if the level of care that street medics can provide is the same. This is not something we've previously worked with in Vancouver."
The protocol off the BCAS prevents paramedics from treating patients outside of these established safe zones. Instead, anyone with an injury is brought to a safe zone or the paramedics will wait until the area police secure the area around a wounded person.
"Basically, what we need to do is ensure the safety of our paramedics because if we get hurt, we're not any help to anyone. We look to relocate to those safe zones," Killen told ctvbc.ca.
"Paramedics don't want to make themselves the patient."
But street medics take this risk. In fact, they say time spent waiting for police to clear the street and establish a safe area around an injured and anxious person is time wasted.
Preparing for the unexpected
Standing at a table in the room that will serve as a temporary street clinic inside the First United Church at the corner of Gore and East Hastings, Grace Grant sorts latex gloves by size.
She says she works as a private contractor but today marks the first of many as a volunteer at the clinic, which will serve as ground zero for street medics. Grant is organizing supplies as others decide where they can set up an intake reception and if there is room enough for an acupuncturist.
"We have sterile supplies, bandages for wounds, solution for flushing wounds," says Grant, moving equipment into piles. "We have IV equipment that I can't imagine and I pray to God that we won't have to use tomorrow."
Putting up maps of Vancouver is Chris Shaw, Olympic opponent and author of Five Ring Circus. Also a military-trained engineer with industrial medical training, Shaw was thrown into the deep end of street medicine in 2001 at an international economic summit in Quebec City.
"That's when I got tired of seeing people get hurt," he says, remembering clashes. He wrapped a person's head that had been hit with a plastic bullet and also splintered a fractured foot.
Although they may share political sympathies or anti-Olympic sentiment, medics say they play an important and distinct role from protesters. Following Hurricane Katrina, street medics reached isolated New Orleans residents before state authorities and are credited with helping keep people calm.
"I definitely believe in what they're doing this for," said Caitlin Ffrench, who will work as one of more than 40 medics during today's demonstration and march from the Vancouver Art Gallery. "But I know that we need medics. We need people looking out for others."
As the Olympic torch winds through downtown Vancouver and protesters attempt to march a parallel route to BC Place from the art gallery, Shaw hopes he won't be called on to act. He's ready for blisters, bruises, scrapes, pepper spray, broken bones and even worse — but Shaw says his preference is for a peaceful, non-violent march and no aggression from either activists or police.
It's a case of preparing for everything in the hope he's needed for nothing.
At the 2007 North American leaders' conference in Montebello, Ont., outside Ottawa, three undercover provincial police were outed because they wore the same boots as the officers garbed in full riot gear.
Wearing bandanas over their faces and dressed in black, one of the three plain-clothed officers held a rock in his hand. In a YouTube video another one can be seen pushing demonstrators pleading for non-violence. Accused of inciting protestors to confront riot police, the three are defended by Quebec's police force, the Sûreté du Québec, which insists the law was not broken.
More than two years after these events, Quebec's independent police ethics committee will determine if the officers breached their professional code by using obscene language, concealing their identify and prompting violent behaviour in others.
The threat of an agent provocateur worries Shaw.
"We are never going out without medics," he says, believing the presence of any agent provocateur will deliberately and immediately cause police tactics to change and, consequently, increase the vulnerability of protesters and the risk to medics.
Shaw, a UBC neuroscientists and professor as well as Olympic critic, credits the Integrated Security Unit with contributing to there being no injuries at protests in Victoria on the first day of the torch relay in October. He puts the onus on the ISU and the Vancouver Police Department to contribute to a similarly successful tone today and throughout the Games.
According to public affairs official Cpl. Darren Anderson, the ISU will not interact with protesters unless a demonstration threatens to enter a secure venue such as a competition or celebration site, including the route taken by the torch relay. He said medics will not receive preferential treatment if they are part of a disruptive crowd.
"Basically, the action of the police are dictated on the actions of the protesters," Anderson told ctvbc.ca.
"For the ISU, our actions are directly going to be based on the actions of the protestors. Problems arise when they try to interrupt the torch or disrupt the relay or act in a criminal manner."
While police and demonstration organizers have always called for non-violent, peaceful protests, both concede there are unpredictable elements that can turn the tone of the day for the worse.
Ffrench and Shaw say they run extra risk by brandishing red crosses on their clothing and identifying themselves as emergency street medics.
"Traditionally in protests, medics get targeted by the authorities because it lowers the moral of the rest of the marchers," she said, citing an anecdote from a political convention in the U.S. where a street medic yelled the instructions, "Take off your badges." Medics were being singled out, she said.
Shaw said he will be at on the front lines where he could potentially be exposed to deterrent like tear gas or rubber bullets directed at marchers. He reserves special concern for skip rounds, a kind of bullet shot off the ground and aimed to bounce up at people's knees.
"If I'm on the ground, attending to someone's wound, then those rounds are coming right at the level of my face," he said.
In an email to ctvbc.ca, VPD public affairs liaison Anne Longley said police are "not there to inflame the situation," and will not be targeting medics.
"Our primary concern at demonstrations and protests is public safety for everyone involved, whether the public, protesters or police members. This would also include street medics," she said.