“Medic! MEDIC!” people yell. There’s a young man being carried on what looks like a tarp away from protesters in Downtown Kenosha on Tuesday, Aug. 25. The man is clearly dazed and may be bleeding.
Sam Sansudsavat, a former Army medic now living in Racine, runs over. His apparel is adorned with a red cross and there’s a “medic” patch on his backpack, clearly identifying him as someone there to treat the wounded. He’s trained in combat scenarios. He knows what to do.
Sansudsavat and another man whose apparel is covered in the iconic red cross symbols associated with medics check the man over and then move him further away from the ruckus in Civic Center Park where he can be treated.
That’s what “street medics,” the unofficial designation taken on by those who volunteer to treat injured people at protests over the past four months since George Floyd’s death, are here for: to tend the wounded.
On the night of Aug. 25, the only deadly night of protests in Kenosha, street medics were busy. They had been busy for several nights in a row.
For days, locals had been comparing Uptown and Downtown to a war zone as smoke hung in the air due to law enforcement’s use of tear gas and some demonstrators firing back with fireworks following fires that were set throughout Kenosha’s Uptown and Downtown.
“We’re trying to keep everyone safe,” said Madison Taft, a Kenoshan trained in first aid who volunteered as a street medic last month.
“We’ll treat anybody: police, protester, anybody,” added Marque Jones, another local volunteering as a medic.
Some of the volunteer medics were just people from the community — like Taft and Jones — who aren’t trained in the medical field but wanted to be there to help. They did things like treating scrapes and bruises, sharing water and snacks, and washing demonstrators’ pepper-sprayed eyes with saline solution.
“We just want to make sure everyone in our community is OK,” said Taft, who could barely talk on Aug. 25; her voice had grown hoarse after days of protests following the shooting of Jacob Blake.
But others, like Sansudsavat and retired Navy medic Erica Gordon of Indianapolis, are trained to do this. They help people dealing with serious injuries, like a woman bleeding from the head after being hit by less-lethal munitions fired by police.
Kenosha’s professional emergency medical technicians were staying away throughout demonstrations. That’s been typical nationwide, as EMTs haven’t been in virtually any area where riots and protests have been held this summer, largely because it has been deemed too dangerous to move emergency vehicles and personnel within protest zones.
On Aug. 24, when a toppled lamppost fell on a man, he was bleeding so severely that “if street medics weren’t there, he would have died,” Gordon said. “This is why street medics are so important.”
Gordon doesn’t hide her political leanings. She named herself “the white trash socialist” on Twitter, is the communications director for the progressive Our United Left initiative and is a member of LeftFlankVets, an organization of anti-war veterans.
On Aug. 25, Sansudsavat said he had friends in Kenosha who asked if he could be there as they predicted violence, and thus injuries, to continue after the numerous injuries that came the day before.
“This is probably the most cliché thing a medic can do. Everybody is trying to help each other,” Sansudsavat said early in the evening of Aug. 25, just as demonstrators started to take over Civic Center Park but before law enforcement was out in force. “As a medic you should be always willing to use your skills to help.”
Sansudavat was quickly putting his Army training to use. Within a couple hours, he treated several people who had suffered head wounds, at least one of whom had been hit in the head by a rubber bullet fired by law enforcement.
On Aug. 24, another young man had taken a blow to the hand that almost took off his ring finger. As Gordon and another street medic were trying to treat him, a gas canister exploded next to them, forcing the medics to relocate to finish their work. Several of the medics felt like they were being targeted by law enforcement despite their peaceful work, although they did remain in the middle of the fray each night.
“Is attacking medics during war a war crime? Yes. Do you think the police department who shot a black man 7 times in the back in front of his children care? No,” Gordon tweeted afterward.
In other communities, law enforcement have targeted and destroyed street medic outposts. In one high profile case in Asheville, N.C., where the destruction was caught on video, the police chief later apologized.
Gordon said she also was pepper-sprayed once and struck with a baton, leading to a doctor’s visit to make sure there wasn’t permanent damage to her back. She said that Aug. 24 was “exceptionally bad” in terms of injuries to demonstrators, even considering the protests she’d been at in Minneapolis, Detroit and Virginia Beach.
Gordon thinks one of the reasons that Aug. 24 was so bad is that officers were out in riot gear in the early evening, before any violence was reported. Police pre-emptively showing force, according to The Marshall Project, “can turn a peaceful protest violent.” The next night started more slowly, with only a handful of officers out when curfew hit and only pouring out from inside the courthouse after some demonstrators tried to tip the metal fence.
After hearing about all of the injuries in Kenosha, Seattle-based Chaz EMS (a team of certified nursing assistants and EMTs serving at protests) sent its entire crew to southeastern Wisconsin for a few days. A couple Milwaukee-based street medics raised more than $48,000 via GoFundMe “to aid the Black Lives Matter cause.”
Gordon was in the Navy for six years. In 2015 and 2016, she served with the Truman Strike Group to the Middle East, off the coast of Yemen, serving aboard the destroyer USS Gonzalez.
Two days after George Floyd died, Gordon was medically discharged from the military. She suffers from PTSD, having gone “through a lot of traumatic incidents in the military,” she said.
She says that, for other ex-military medics like herself, using her expertise to serve civilians taking to the streets in pursuit of societal change “helps us (veterans) repair ourselves in a way. We have a lot of guilt for what we did.”
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