Street Medics?—Keeping Our Movements Healthy and Safe

Cross-posted from Medium

by Patrick Young

This is the third segment in the Lawyers, Lockboxes and Money series, a project that explores the role shared social movement infrastructure has played in social movement uprisings and how this infrastructure has evolved over time, moving across issue areas and geographies to knit together a shared fabric of progressive social movements.

Over the past decade, people across the US and around the world have taken to the streets in wave after wave of popular uprising. They have camped out in city centers and remote construction sites through hot summers and cold winters. They’ve faced down militarized police forces with their chemical weapons, fire hoses, tasers, clubs, and rubber bullets. And in each of these uprisings, teams of medics have mobilized alongside protestors, warriors and protectors, to keep our movements health and safe and in the streets.

DC Medic Collective

Medics don’t run and medics don’t lead.
Others are happy to rush forward while medics are busy trying to make sure everyone gets there alive.
Medics see what our movements collective mistakes and loses look like and have to wash it of our clothes some days. Yet still we strive to not lead we won’t tell warriors and protectors to stop and go back to camp, to pray more, that is not our role.
We say, ‘those goggles suck for pepper spray, here take these.’
We strive for informed consent in all our interactions, so we strive to train people to be ready for the worst as we train to be ready for the worst.
We say, ‘hey look a trap, let’s go they’ll need help.’
We walk at your back and to your side so you know your bravery and willingness to risk yourself is not without support.
We want to help build the world we want with y’all so we strive to demonstrate that a better world is possible every time we set up a clinic out of nothing or gather to provide the best care to those typically denied.
We literally will run ourselves down to nothing till we are burnt out and sick and will still strive to take care of others first.
But still…
We stand with our brothers, with our sisters, with our family of all genders and orientations for the land, for the people and for the water.

— Noah Morris

Television footage of street medics in protests often invokes images of medics flushing protests’ eyes after they have been exposed to chemical weapons or providing trauma care to protesters struck by rubber bullets or police batons. Certainly, this is an important aspect of providing medical care in social movements, but the vast majority of medical issues that arise during mobilizations are the much less dramatic issues that often arise when large groups of people are together for long periods of time: dehydration, fainting from low blood sugar, trips and falls, heat stroke, and frostbite.

Medical workers have been mobilizing to participate in contentious politics since at least the Spanish Civil War. American doctors and nurses mobilized alongside the Abraham Lincoln Brigades to provide medical support for the Republicans. During that war, the doctors and nurses would make significant advances in battlefield surgery and front-line blood transfusions. They also pioneered a tradition of medical workers mobilizing in their skills in support of contentious politics.[1]

During the civil rights movement, the Medical Committee for Human Rights (MCHR) mobilized doctors, nurses, dentists, psychologists, and social works to travel to the deep south to provide medical care in poor Black communities and support civil rights workers. A brochure that the MCHR distributed to doctors emphasized the need for doctors. “An ‘on-the-scene’ medical presence is urgently needed. When a civil rights worker is jailed, the first person to see him is often a Medical Committee physician. Frequent visits by physicians, local and MCHR, help ensure the well-being of the workers.”[2] Importantly, MCHR volunteers also worked to improve access to primary care for Blacks and poor whites in the south developing rural health centers and mobile health units, health education programs, and support for community workers in developing health and medical programs.

Medical Committee for Human Rights

In 1973, two veterans of the MCHR, Ben “Doc” Rosen and Ann Hirschman took what they had learned in the civil rights movement to South Dakota to support the American Indian Movement at Wounded Knee. Rosen stayed with the AIM for the entire 71-day occupation and was shot in the arm by US Marshals. Hirschman traveled in and out of Wounded Knee along with other medical volunteers. During her time there, she operated without anesthesia on a patient who had been shot in the back of the head. She was able to stabilize his airway, keeping him alive for four days until he succumbed to his injuries. [3]

In 1999, Rosen traveled to Seattle to lead street medical trainings for what would become a new generation of street medics. Longtime street medic Noah Morris observed, “after Seattle, there was a recognition that medics were needed in urban organizing… The number of major actions that took place during the global justice movement allowed new medics to develop a lot of skills and experience very quickly.”[4] In the early years of the twenty-first century, street medic collectives emerged in many major cities across the country.

While many roles in social movements require few specialized skills, providing medical care safely and effectively requires training and there are massive differences in training levels and capabilities of medical workers. Today, medic collectives and networks of medics take different approaches to the work depending on their local circumstances, but there are some widely shared norms among the street medic community. Generally, medic collectives require volunteers to have at least 20 hours of training (these courses are typically offered over three days) to ensure that everyone offering medical assistance has a reasonable base of knowledge. Medical professionals who have much more extensive training in their field are generally expected to participate in an eight-hour “bridge training” to learn the common norms and shared practices used by street medic collectives and learn how to effectively provide medical care during street protests.[5] The Paper Revolution Collective publishes a relatively comprehensive and regularly-updated street medic guide that can augment this in-person training.

Street Medic Wiki

These basic levels of training, however, cannot equip medic volunteers for all situations. Noah Morris observed that when medics with limited training go into challenging situations, they can create more on support structures. “We’ve got to be realistic about what we can offer. Twenty hours of training isn’t going to help much in a desert.” Before inviting volunteers to join medic teams or healer councils, organizers typically go through a process of vetting potential volunteers to assess their skills and check in with movement references who can vouch for their trustworthiness.

Today there are as many as 44 action medical collectives operating in the US, but as almost entirely volunteer-based organizations, the capacity and consistency of these collectives and clinics varies drastically, ranging from well-established and high-functioning collectives with years of experience to smaller, loosely-formed networks with just a handful of volunteers with limited skills. Unions of healthcare workers have also organized workers with specific skill sets to support social movements. In October of 2016, National Nurses United deployed a team of registered nurses through its Registered Nurse Response Unit, a national network of volunteer direct-care RNs to North Dakota to support the Standing Rock Medic and Healer Council.[6]

Responding to Disasters?—?and Everyday Disasters

Organizing to provide medical support for social movements fighting for environmental, economic, and racial justice during periods of mobilization quite naturally illuminates the ongoing crisis facing the millions of people who lack every day medical care in their communities. While advocating for access to quality healthcare within the existing healthcare system, many medics are taking direct action to provide the care that their communities need.

In Chicago the all-Black Ujimaa Medic Collective came together in 2014 after a young person suffering from a gunshot wound died on the way to the hospital on the other side of town. “The fact that he was shot just a few blocks from one of the biggest and best hospitals in the country, and died on the way to another on the other side of town seemed to add grievous insult to grave injury.”[7] Since 2014, Umedics has offered more than 100 trainings in urban emergency first response to more than 1,000 people. They also offer trainings on preventing and responding to asthma attacks.

Another important approach to continuing and expanding the work of developing social movement infrastructure is deploying social movement infrastructure to provide disaster relief. In New Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina, the Common Ground Collective mobilized social movement infrastructure organizations and networks to provide food and medical support in the 9th Ward long before federal officials were on the ground. In the months following the storm, Common Ground established a medical clinic, a legal clinic, a food distribution operation, and recruited volunteers to gut hundreds of houses to allow residents to return.[8] In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Occupy Sandy deployed much of the infrastructure that had been developed to support the Occupy Wallstreet movement to mount a massive relief effort well before FEMA or the Red Cross made it into the communities hardest hit by the storm.[9]

The Mutual Aid Disaster Relief (MADR) network has emerged as an important space for promoting and supporting this work.[10] Founded by veterans of Common Ground, Occupy Sandy and other relief efforts MADR has organized trainings for new relief workers, helped to coordinate mutual-aid based relief programs in the wake of dozens of storms and other disasters, and developed a clear political analysis around the role of mutual aid disaster relief in the face of the climate crisis.

As the frequency and severity of superstorms increases, more and more communities are likely to experience catastrophic disasters. When the state struggles to respond, democratic and horizontally organized movement infrastructure can fill that gap and support communities as they respond to those disasters. Deploying the infrastructure created by social movements to support communities in helping themselves and each other can provide much needed relief, dramatically improving?—?or saving?—?peoples’ lives while at the same time filling the vacuum left by the state’s failure to respond with systems and practices that are directly democratic and rooted in commitments to mutual aid, sustainability, and collective liberation.

[1] Richard Rhodes, Hell and Good Company: The Spanish Civil War and the World It Made, Reprint edition (Simon & Schuster, 2016).

[2] “The Medical Committee for Human Rights” (Medical Committee on Human Rights, 1965),

[3] Kelsey Whipple, “Meet Colorado’s Activist Medics, a Rogue Band of Good Samaritans | Westword,” Westword, April 17, 2012,

[4] Noah Morris, Interview with author, April 2, 2019.

[5] Paper Revolution Collective, “Street Medic Guide” (Paper Revolution Collective, 2018),

[6] “Registered Nurse Response Network Sends Nurse Volunteers to Assist with First Aid at Standing Rock,” National Nurses United, October 10, 2016, /press/registered-nurse-response-network-sends-nurse-volunteers-assist-first-aid-standing-rock.

[7] “ABOUT US,” Ujimaa Medics (blog), accessed June 15, 2019,

[8] scott crow and Kathleen Cleaver, Black Flags and Windmills: Hope, Anarchy, and the Common Ground Collective, 2nd ed. (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2014).

[9] Alan Feuer, “Where FEMA Fell Short, Occupy Sandy Was There,” The New York Times, November 9, 2012, sec. N.Y. / Region,

[10] Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, “About Us,” Mutual Aid Disaster Relief (blog), accessed May 13, 2019,

Kitchen Crews Fueling the Movement

Cross-posted from Medium

by Patrick Young

— Part II of the Lawyers, Lockboxes and Money series

Every mobilization, every blockade, every march depends on a complex network of movement infrastructure that will likely never make it to the front page of the papers. To make all of these things possible, hundreds of people prepared and served food, organized legal support, set up medical clinics, designed websites, facilitated trainings, organized transportation, secured meeting spaces, maintained databases, and took on dozens of logistical tasks that allowed movements to operate.

The Lawyers, Lockboxes and Money series is a project that explores the role shared social movement infrastructure has played in social movement uprisings and how this infrastructure has evolved over time, moving across issue areas and geographies to knit together a shared fabric of progressive social movements. In this segment we look at the networks and organizations that provide one of the most basic infrastructural tasks movements need to take on?—?feeding people.

Fueling the Movement

Feeding people during mobilizations, particularly for activities lasting more than a few hours, is one of the most basic infrastructural needs to be encountered by social movements. All over the world, the practice of preparing and sharing food plays an important role in displaying hospitality, sharing culture and cultivating relationships. It is not surprising, then, that the organizations and networks that provide food for social movements share a rich legacy and history.

Many of the kitchen collectives currently organizing providing food for social movement mobilizations can trace their histories to two long-standing (and often intertwined) institutions?—?Food Not Bombs (FNB) and Seeds of Peace?—?both of which emerged from the anti-nuclear movement of the 1980s.

Photo Credit: Occupy Eugene

Food Not Bombs is a network of all-volunteer collectives that serve vegetarian and vegan meals for free in public squares and parks in cities around the world. It was started by Keith McHenry and C. T. Butler, two activists who had been deeply involved in the movement against the construction of the Seabrook Nuclear Power Station in New Hampshire. In 1981 the two helped to organize a protest at the annual shareholder meeting of First National Bank, one of the major financial backers of the Seabrook Power Station. In their history of the Food Not Bombs movement, McHenry and Butler laid out their plan for the action. “As nuclear-power protesters, we wanted to do street theater that would remind people of a 1930s-style soup kitchen, to highlight the waste of valuable resources on capital-intensive projects such as nuclear power while many people in this country went hungry and homeless.”[1]

The two initially planned to recruit actors to fill out the soup line but then they realized they could recruit people who were actually hungry and homeless to participate. McHenry and Butler collected day-old bread and salvaged produce from the local food coop and cooked a large bowl of soup. During the shareholder meeting over 100 people turned out for the meal. The event was an incredible success. The Food Not Bombs frame proved to be so salient that serving free salvaged food in public places as a protest of the massive spending on nuclear infrastructure became a staple in the anti-nuclear movement’s repertoire of contention.[2]

Michael Maher Photography

By 1988, Food Not Bombs groups had spread to Boston, San Francisco and Washington, DC. In May of that year, the San Francisco chapter decoupled their food servings from other actions and started holding weekly servings in Golden Gate Park, offering free healthy food for poor and hungry people. While this fulfilled the charitable function of feeding hungry people, Heynen observed that these food servings also acted “to expose poverty to the glare of those who do not want it to exist.”[3]

The next summer solidified a major shift in the political nature of Food Not Bombs. In 1989, after a decade of austerity and at the peak of urban disinvestment, people experiencing homelessness organized major tent cities in urban centers around the country to protest the crisis of homelessness. Food Not Bombs chapters in New York and San Francisco offered mass food servings at these camps and became deeply involved in organizing in support of them. By this time, Food Not Bombs had developed a robust political analysis around poverty, hunger, food security, and public space.[4]

In less than a decade a group of anti-nuclear activists that had initially planned to recruit actors to participate in a soup line as a street theater action developed into an organization that was organizing around homelessness and regularly risking arrest while serving food in public parks. In 1992 Food Not Bombs held its first international gathering with representatives from 30 active groups in the US and Canada.[5] At the meeting, Food Not Bombs established its three foundational principles: “1. Always vegan or vegetarian and free to everyone. 2. Each chapter is independent and autonomous and makes decisions using the consensus process. 3. Food Not Bombs is not a charity and is dedicated to non-violent social change.”[6]

Throughout the 1990s, Food Not Bombs chapters continued to form around the US and worldwide. In addition to serving free food in public parks, Food Not Bombs chapters often contribute to social movement infrastructure by providing food during actions and movement events. In 1999 when the global justice movement burst onto the scene during the protests of the World Trade Organization summit in Seattle, Washington, members of different Food Not Bombs chapters, primarily from the US and Canada traveled to Seattle to gather, cook and serve food to the thousands of people who took to the streets during the multi-day mobilization.

The other principal nucleus of social movement institutions providing food at mobilizations is Seeds of Peace. Seeds also traces its history to the anti-nuclear movement, emerging out of the Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament in 1986?—?a nine-month, 3,700-mile march from Los Angeles to Washington, DC to raise awareness about the growing dangers of nuclear proliferation. The group of activists that came together to provided food, water, medical support and other logistics for the march recognized the important role that this type of logistical infrastructure could play in social movements and decided to form a permanent collective.[7]

Continuing its anti-nuclear work, Seeds developed a relationship with the Newe (Western Shoshone) who were demanding an end to nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site and the return of their historic homelands. Later, Seeds organized food and other support for the Dineh (Navajo) elders in their fight against forced relocation and became deeply involved in Earth First! forest defense campaigns.

While Food Not Bombs established a network of chapters organized regular food servings in their communities and could be mobilized in support of actions, from the start, Seeds was much more focused on building infrastructure to support mobilizations. In addition to food, Seeds of Peace organized to provide medical and logistical support and direct action trainings in support of mobilizations, campaigns, and action camps, often building out the logistical core of movements and mobilizations. During Redwood Summer in 1990, a three-month mobilization in northern California to protect old-growth redwood trees from logging, Seeds of Peace organized nearly all of the core infrastructure for the campaign. That summer, when labor and environmental organizer Judi Bari’s car was bombed, she was on her way to the Seeds of Peace house in Oakland.[8]

When Hurricane Katrina hit the gulf coast in 2005, scott crow, a co-founder of the Common Ground Collective published a national call to action inviting volunteers to come to New Orleans to provide relief where the government would not. Food Not Bombs organizers were among the first to answer that call. crow writes, “a Food Not Bombs chapter from Hartford took the initial risk to get hot food into people still stranded in the waters across the river in the Seventh and Ninth Wards. The Red Cross would not go there. We knew people on the other side needed water, food, and medical attention immediately.”[9] Over the next several months, dozens of Food Not Bombs and Seeds of Peace activists traveled to Common Ground to participate in the relief efforts.

Common Ground Collective

In the first two decades of the twenty-first century, Seeds of Peace, Food Not Bombs and a wide range of similarly structured kitchen collectives would provide food support for mobilizations and other movement events around the country in a wide range of different organizational formations. While these organized collectives could deploy mobile kitchen equipment and experience in feeding thousands of people thousands of people in mass mobilizations settings, they would generally integrate large numbers of local activists to provide the labor to actually prepare meals.

Seeds of Peace identifies their role as something of a facilitator. “It is our intention to use our skills and equipment, not merely to provide a ‘service,’ but to promote individual empowerment and community solidarity by providing an effective and adaptable framework. As a small collective, we cannot, by ourselves, cook for 5,000 people. But by providing kitchen equipment and a certain level of experience, we can work with and facilitate a group of people to cook, deliver and serve a meal on such a scale.”[10]

Kitchen Crews Emerging Organically

While Seeds of Peace and Food Not Bombs have played an incredibly valuable role in supporting movements and uprisings, movements and communities often organically develop the capacity to provide food as movements emerge. In Ferguson, Missouri, in the aftermath of the murder of Mike Brown, Cathy “Mama Cat” Daniels, a retired grandmother went looking to find a way to help out. “I asked, ‘what can I do?’” she told the Huffington Post. “They said a little home-cooked meal wouldn’t hurt nothing, so I went home, and the next day I came back with spaghetti and salad and garlic bread. After that, every day I fed them. Every day.”[11] Daniels would continue serving food through the weeks of protests and the non-indictment. Later on, volunteers from Seeds of Peace would travel into Ferguson to support Daniels, particularly during the Ferguson October mobilization and the resurgence of activity following the announcement of the non-incitement.

During the mobilization to stop construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock the task of feeding the thousands of water protectors who had converged in North Dakota brought together a wide arrangement of kitchen collectives. There, water protectors organized at least 13 different kitchens across the three main camps to feed the thousands of people who were living at Standing Rock. The main kitchen was coordinated by a vegan chef named from the Netherlands who had worked with a collective of vegan chefs in Greece that cooked meals at refugee camps for 8,000 people a day. Another kitchen was staffed by Seeds of Peace volunteers, yet another was led by Brian Yazzie, a Navajo chef and chef de cuisine at the Sioux Chef, a Minneapolis-based catering company that works to revitalize Native American food culture.

Photo Credit: Brian Yazzie

Elizabeth Hoover from the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance (NAFSA) observed that preparing traditional indigenous foods became culturally and politically important to the movement. “Traditional foods are considered an important tool in, and motivation for, winning this fight against polluting fossil fuels. Getting traditional foods into camp to keep morale up?—?whether that was enough buffalo meat in the stews across camp, or more tribally specific delicacies… was an important focus.”[12]

Stepping Up Stepping In

The participatory aspect of preparing and serving food at mobilizations has acted as a useful tool for absorbing new activists and providing opportunities for people to meaningfully participate in creating the mobilizations they are participating in. Kim Ellis, an organizer with the RAMPS Campaign said, “it’s just easy to plug into this work. It’s a way for people without a lot of experience to get involved… When you are doing something concrete you know you can be useful.”[13]

While some roles in an uprising require complex skill sets and long-term commitments, nearly anyone can help out in a kitchen, washing dishes or chopping vegetables. Involving volunteers in cooking food and washing dishes helps to bridge the gap between the people attending or participating in mobilizations and the people who are organizing them and making them happen. Ellis also observed that the landscape of organizations and collectives organizing to provide food for social movements has expanded. “It’s not just Seeds anymore. There are lots of kitchens being formed. Lots of people are doing this work all over the place.”

[1] C. T. Butler and Keith McHenry, Food Not Bombs, Revised edition (Tucson, Ariz.: See Sharp Press, 2000).

[2] Nik Heynen, “Cooking up Non-Violent Civil-Disobedient Direct Action for the Hungry: ‘Food Not Bombs’ and the Resurgence of Radical Democracy in the US,” ed. Paul Routledge, Urban Studies 47, no. 6 (May 2010): 1225–40,

[3] Heynen.

[4] Butler and McHenry, Food Not Bombs.

[5] McHenry, Keith, “Documenting 30 Years of Food Not Bombs,” accessed May 1, 2019,

[6] “Three Principles of Food Not Bombs,” Food Not Bombs, accessed May 1, 2019,

[7] Seeds of Peace, “About Us.”

[8] Nick Stocks, Interview with author, March 16, 2019.

[9] scott crow and Kathleen Cleaver, Black Flags and Windmills: Hope, Anarchy, and the Common Ground Collective, 2nd ed. (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2014), 120.

[10] Seeds of Peace, “About Us.”

[11] Zeba Blay, “In St. Louis, This Woman Is Making A Change One Meal at A Time,” HuffPost, 54:24 400AD,

[12] Elizabeth Hoover, “Feeding a Movement: The Kitchens of the Standing Rock Camps,” From Garden Warriors to Good Seeds: Indigenizing the Local Food Movement (blog), December 7, 2016,

[13] Ellis, Interview with author.