Protesting can be a dangerous business for the human body. Scores of demonstrators who took to the streets this past week can attest to the awful effectiveness of tear gas and pepper spray, and there's more banal health hazards to worry about, such as cold weather and dehydration.
For street medics like Andrea Schmidt, the ongoing confrontations between protesters and police means she may spend one night pouring antacid-and-water solution into the eyes of the recently tear-gassed, and the next night distributing hand warmers and cough drops.
"We do preventative care, and then I've helped probably 30-plus people for tear gas, pepper spray, mace, those types of things," says Schmidt on a recent night while standing on the sidewalk opposite the Ferguson Police Department. A nursing student at University of Missouri-St. Louis and member of the group Gateway Region Action Medics, Schmidt's black sweatshirt bears a large red cross made of two strips of heavy-duty red tape. She is joined by several others medics who wear their own taped red crosses on shirts and backpacks.
Though her work is largely directed at minor injuries, on occasion the rhythm of these Ferguson-inspired protests is punctuated by pressing medical emergencies.
For instance, Schmidt was present during the raucous protests outside the Ferguson Police Department the night of November 25, shortly after St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch announced that a grand jury would not indict Ferguson officer Darren Wilson for the August 9 shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown.
At one point that night, Schmidt says, a woman in the back of the crowd reported she was having trouble breathing, and then began fading in and out of consciousness. People around her, possibly family members and acquaintances, attempted to bring the woman to the front of the protest line, and some shouted that the woman was suffering a heart attack.
"People were trying to help her by rushing her to police line. They thought she would get treatment, and I think police saw that as antagonizing, so they responded by shooting a bunch of tear gas canisters at us," Schmidt says. The incident, which was caught on video, was also reported in the Los Angeles Times.
"Being out here, for myself, it's important to keep things in perspective and to take a deep breath," says Schmidt, describing her mindset in the field. "It's not always possible to not be scared when there are scary things going on."
Maintaining a cool head means being ready for the next crisis, and on Sunday afternoon Schmidt and three colleagues accompanied the several dozen protesters marching from Kiener Plaza to the Edward Jones Dome downtown. When the protesters looped back toward the plaza, they were pursued by a column of officers in black riot gear who rushed and arrested two individuals. In the scrum, a woman collapsed and began suffering an apparent seizure.
The emergency seemed to calm the clashing between protesters and police, and Schmidt and other medics were able to attend to the woman on the ground. Both the police and protesters soon cleared the area and an ambulance arrived a few minutes later. The ailing woman was treated by paramedics and returned to the street.
Daily RFT has observed street medics like Schmidt around St. Louis-area protests since the first days of unrest, but until now they appeared to operate independently or in small groups.
Last month, however, Schimdt and other St. Louis street medics decided to tie their efforts into a collective group built on the idea of "horizontally organized healthcare." Lacking a leader of a traditional hierarchy, the new group, the Gateway Region Action Medics, or GRAM, is patterned after volunteer collectives of street medics in other cities that train, supply and connect "members" and educate the public on the best ways to protect themselves during protests. Schmidt says the group will start offering first-aid training in St. Louis in the near future.
According to Schmidt, the group currently boasts about a dozen members. Another street medic, who introduced himself only as Thomas, tells Daily RFT he knows of about twenty street medics with various levels of training who are serving protests in the St. Louis area.
"It's got characteristics of an anarchistic collective," Thomas says of the street medic movement. "I and most other street medics, once the verdict came down, we just got into gear."