A Medic For The Movement Stacey Burling

Philadelphia, July 29, 2000 — The aging revolutionary took his place in the circle of hard plastic chairs, a slightly rumpled man who pulls what's left of his hair into a ponytail and wears a Che Guevara T-shirt that proclaims, in Spanish: "Life is a struggle and we will struggle forever."

"My name is Doc Rosen," he told the young people around him. "I've been involved in doing movement medical work for the last 35 years."

A diverse group

Rosen had flown in from Denver to teach 12 would-be medics how to care for their fellow protesters if things went bad during demonstrations at the Republican National Convention. His topics during this four-hour class in a dimly lit room of a rambling West Philadelphia house were tear gas and pepper spray.

His class was a diverse group: a man in a Mumia shirt, a "health consumer and Jesus lover" in a simple flowered dress, a medical student, a homeless young man who travels around the country "chasing the revolution," a middle-aged guy who learned about chemical weapons in the military and wouldn't stand out in a crowd of off-duty cops, a 25-year-old woman who wore a plastic alligator snout in her hair and wants to bring creativity to the revolution.

Rosen started by giving an order: "With as much drama as you can stir up in your souls, say the words, 'Oh, my God.' "

Puzzled but game, the members of the class did as told, emitting loud, horrified cries.

"Good," Rosen said. "That's the last time you get to say that. You don't get to say it on the street."

A life of protest

Doc — his real name is Ron — Rosen is not a doctor in the M.D. sense. He is a doctor of Oriental medicine and an acupuncturist who has run a small group called the Colorado Street Medics for 15 years and has been ministering to fellow demonstrators since the 1965 Alabama civil-rights march from Selma to Montgomery. He travels from demonstration to demonstration, training medics.

"He's famous," said Amanda Macomber, who is helping to organize medical care for protesters and heard about Rosen from veterans of demonstrations in Washington, D.C., and Seattle. He volunteered to come to Philadelphia, where Macomber hopes that he and other instructors can train 50 medics.

Rosen's class this night proved to be as much about a life of protest as it was about the medical benefits of vinegar, swim goggles and milk.

In between tips on how to flush tear gas or pepper spray from the eyes, Rosen told war stories — make that antiwar stories — about his life in many of the movements that have shaped American politics over the last 40 years.

He told of diving into a ditch as bullets whizzed by during the American Indian Movement's standoff at Wounded Knee, S.D. He watched in Miami during the 1972 Republican convention as a guy who had been dumb enough to wear shorts and sandals to a demonstration and unlucky enough to have a bursting tear-gas canister land between his legs was hosed off — without his pants.

Rosen's gas mask — one of more than 20 he has lost over the years — was confiscated in Seattle. He met a man during this spring's D.C. demonstrations who remembered him from the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago and said: "Two of your medics saved my life."

His commitment to social causes started when he was young. Rosen, who calls himself an anarcho-socialist, is a "red-diaper baby," raised by socialist, union-organizing parents. Many of his relatives were Holocaust survivors with concentration-camp tattoos.

"I know very well what happens when a good person does nothing," he said.

While many of his generation are buying luxury SUVs and furnishing their mansions, Rosen, at 52, is still driving ancient vehicles and flopping on floors in strange cities to fight for a less corporate, more environmentally friendly world. He spends part of each year training health workers in Guatemala.

His work is far from done.

"I'm not simply involved because of one issue," he said. "I see that there's an entire change in the system that's necessary."

Water and other remedies

The key to relieving the pain of tear gas and pepper spray, Rosen told his class, is water. Ideally, it would be gallons, but they couldn't carry that much. So he taught them how to do quick eye flushes with squirt bottles, using his 16-year-old son, Ari, along for his first "real action," to demonstrate. The members of the class practiced on each other until their T-shirts were streaked with dark, wet splotches.

Then Rosen taught them how to remove police chemicals from the skin, reciting like a mantra "mineral oil followed immediately by alcohol."1 It is not a job for the dainty, he said. It requires speed and force. Otherwise, it makes things worse.

Rosen showed them small plastic bottles: gray for mineral oil, red for alcohol.

"Before anybody says it," he announced, "I bought these at Kmart and Target, two giant corporations, and I don't really care. I don't know of any mom-and-pop stores that sell plastic bottles."

Again, the class would practice.

"Guess what," Rosen said. "In a minute, you're going to have to smear this [mineral oil] on each other."

"Without candles?" a woman asked coquettishly.

Rosen laughed loudly.

"That is the best line I've ever heard," he said.

They practiced smearing and removing, which, like eye-flushing, is a lot harder than it sounds.

For people who have gotten heavy doses of pepper spray, Rosen said, the medics have recently discovered that milk works best.2 That's whole, not skim, and, yes, Rosen knows that this could present a philosophical problem for vegans, who eschew all animal products.

"I don't know where I would have gone with this back when I was a vegan," he said.

Next, he showed the class what he wears to a demonstration. There's the vest, its many pockets stuffed absurdly full with mineral oil and alcohol, gauze, a rain poncho, latex gloves, six pairs of goggles, flashlights and binoculars, a whistle, six bandannas presoaked in vinegar (for filtering tear gas) and packed in resealable plastic bags, a waterproof notebook, an astronaut's pen (it writes in any position), and snacks.

Rosen, who says he has spent up to $200,000 of his own money over the years on medic supplies, carries a two-liter bottle of water attached to a hose on his back. There's a bag for his gas mask, an M17-A1 he is very proud of. And another pack with more first-aid stuff.

The 20-year-old revolution-chaser was impressed.

"You've got to respect the experiences that people have been through," said the young man, who would not give his name. "He's been through more protests than I have.

In my parents' name

"It's important to me to fight for the things I believe in. I hope I'm still doing it at his age."

Class was almost over. Rosen ended it as he said he always does.

"My parents were movement activists," he said. "That's how they met each other. They're both gone now."

By Jewish tradition, continuing to do, in their name, things they would have done adds to their merit, he said.

"So," he added, "I do all these workshops in my parents' name."

He paused to wipe his eyes. Then Rosen, who says he is inspired by the young people he sees at demonstrations nowadays, thanked his class.

"I am very honored to work with you and teach you," he said.

The circle applauded.


Stacey Burling, "A medic for the movement." Philadelphia Inquirer July 29, 2000.
Stacey Burling's e-mail address is moc.swenyllihp|gnilrubs#moc.swenyllihp|gnilrubs

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