Meet the BALM Squad

Election '04

Boston Area Liberation Medic Squad member Sandy McKinley was sitting on the grass near the first aid tent on Boston Common when the text message came through on his Nokia: "March is at FleetCenter. WATER NEEDED."

It was the final day of the Democratic National Convention in Boston, and a raucous parade of about 400 anarchists and Greens had reached the convention center's "soft zone," a blockade of jersey barriers, sand-filled dump trucks and phalanxes of riot cops with batons and compressor rifles. The afternoon was pushing 85 degrees, and the demonstrators were getting thirsty.

Minutes later, I was following McKinley and three others as they toted a five- gallon plastic jug across the Common toward the FleetCenter, about half a mile away. The medics were wearing military-style pants and black t-shirts; all sported red duct tape crosses across their backs or on their courier bags. McKinley, a certified EMT, wore a blue Star of Life emblem with a snake coiled around a raised fist.

Sirens pierced the air, and we stopped to watch as ten school buses filled with riot cops, followed by several empty paddy wagons, raced past them down Beacon Street toward the site of the protest.

"Looks like a shit pond," said a medic who identified himself only as the Captain. "And we're the first ones in the dinghy."

Founded in the summer of 2001, the BALM Squad is part of a nationwide network of activists who provide emergency medical care to protesters. Known as "action medics," these volunteers enter into areas deemed unsafe for ordinary rescue workers and treat those hurt by batons, rubber bullets, pepper spray and other police weapons. During peaceful situations – the norm in Boston during the convention – the medics help protesters stay healthy with sunscreen and water.

Action medics have existed in one form or another since the Vietnam era, but it was the violent police response to the 1999 anti-WTO demonstrations in Seattle – in which dozens of protesters were injured by tear gas, rubber bullets and concussion grenades – that sparked the current movement. Today, there are action medic groups throughout the United States, producing a daunting array of acronyms: In addition to the BALM Squad, there's MANY (Medical Activists of New York), BARHC (Bay Area Radical Health Collective), NEAMA (North East Action Medic Association), TRAM (Three Rivers Action Medics), CAM (Chicago Action Medics), DAMN (DC Action Medical Network), and several others.

Since Seattle, action medics have been present at every large anti-globalization demonstration in North America. For many medics, these protests are an opportunity to reunite, and share gruesome stories. While there have been injuries at nearly every protest, most medics single out the November 2003 Free Trade Area of the Americas summit in Miami as a particularly egregious example of police violence. Human rights groups condemned Miami police for what they regarded as excessive violence – including shooting protesters with rubber bullets at point-blank range and bludgeoning protesters with long batons as they tried to flee. According to Amnesty International, Miami police appear to have deliberately targeted the medics as they were treating the wounded. John Timoney, the Miami chief of police who coordinated security for the FTAA summit, served as a consultant for DNC security.

"I'm not really a single issue person," said Joey Fox, an editor who signed up with the BALM Squad six weeks before the convention. "Being involved with the medics allows me to feel like I have a valuable role at mass mobilizations and demonstrations while at the same time helping the infrastructure of activism."

Fox is also a press contact for the DNC Medic Organizing Group, which coordinated with action medic groups from cities across the country to bring volunteers to Boston for the DNC. At any given time during the convention, she said, there were between 15 and 30 medics on the streets, always in pairs.

"You always run with a buddy," said Fox. "You never run alone."

The group organized an intensive three-day, 24-hour training session in June, where volunteers learned basic street first aid. Trainees were sent into a room filled with people role-playing injured protesters, menacing cops and pushy reporters. "It was very stressful," said Fox. "You don't really get that kind of thing in a normal first aid class."

Instructors emphasized treatment for "chemical weapons" – tear gas and pepper spray – teaching the would-be medics how to flush out eyes with LAW ("liquid antacid and water") and treat inflamed skin with MOFIBA ("mineral oil followed immediately by alcohol").

"It's really been through trial and error that they've come up with the best suggested treatments," said Fox, who added that the first clinical pepper-spray trials were conducted in 1999 by the Black Cross Health Collective, a medic group in Portland, Oregon. "They would spray each other with pepper spray and try to find out ways to make it not hurt anymore."

The medics and I reached the soft zone several minutes behind schedule, after being stopped in the street and searched by six bored-looking state troopers ("Wasn't the first time; won't be the last," said one medic of the search). Protesters, many covering their faces with bandanas, police, reporters and legal observers were swarming around the entrance to the FleetCenter. The air smelled of burnt cardboard.

We were greeted by a half-dozen other medics in army-surplus garb: M1 helmets, fisherman's vests and olive drab canteens, all bearing the duct-tape cross. One medic, who called himself Iggy, had a dual-filter gas mask perched on his head like Mickey Mouse ears. Another medic, called Blue, wore a red and white kaffiyah..

They told us that several members of a group called "Pirates Against Bush," decked out in striped shirts, eye patches and tricorn hats, had torched a twofaced Bush/Kerry effigy and an American flag. Policed moved in and arrested one pirate for possessing a "mock Molotov cocktail" (actually a pirate's hook crudely fashioned out of newspaper) and a scuffle ensued, resulting in two more arrests. Nobody was seriously hurt.

The medics gathered together to decide how to distribute the water. To steel their nerves, some of them passed around a medicine dropper of herbal tincture and sniffed small packets of lavender. Others lit cigarettes.

The BALM Squad is officially non-factional, but, like its counterparts across the country, it is closely associated with the anarchist movement, employing an organization developed by Spanish Federacion Anarquista Iberica in the civil war of the 1930s. There are no leaders, no hierarchy and no central authority. Membership is dependent on a "vouch," or qualified reference, making it difficult for police or media to infiltrate. Rejecting the notion that a majority can bind a minority to its will, street medics operate on consensus. It often takes a long time for a group of medics to reach a decision.

After much deliberation, the medics decided that the best way to deliver the water would be to cut through the "free speech zone," a caged pen under a railroad trestle that was empty save for a dozen or so anti-abortion activists. But as two medics approached the gate with the water, they were stopped by a police officer who told them to set the jug down and step away from it.

"We've had one fire already," said the officer, nodding his head to the jug. "That could be accelerant."

It took nearly fifteen minutes for the four Secret Service agents to arrive. One of them produced a small strip of white paper, which he dipped into the water. He then dropped the strip and backed away from it.

"This is water privatization," said a nearby teenage protester.

After a few minutes, the strip turned green. "It's water," said one of the agents, who then told the police officer guarding the jug to turn it over to the protesters.

"We liberated the water!" cheered one medic.

An hour later, McKinley and the other medics were back at the first aid tent, clearly relieved that they didn't have to put their first-aid skills to use that day. The protest had ended, and most of the demonstrators were now sitting on the Common, listening to a Palestinian speaker talk about her childhood in the occupied territories.

An ambulance rolled by slowly. McKinley noticed that it didn't have any markings. "That's weird," he said, just as the passenger leaned out the window and snapped a photograph of the medics.

McKinley shrugged. "I'm sure they've had a file on me for a long time," he said.

Their talk turned to plans for the evening. Several medics said that they were going to a party.

"Call it a kickoff to the RNC," said McKinley.

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