Health Ensurance At The 1999 Seattle WTO Protests DAN Medic Team and MASHH

Seattle, Nov 1999 — The medical team in Seattle for the WTO shutdown covered three primary functions. We provided a free health clinic during the 10 day convergence, trained activists in basic first aid, and coordinated field medics to work with affinity groups and autonomously on the streets of downtown Seattle during the week of the WTO ministerial conference. Additionally, we provided a limited number of first aid kits to affinity groups, the Independent Media Center, and other collectives doing autonomous actions. Our goals included empowering people to care for themselves so they could remain in the streets despite the cops' dispersal attempts, and minimizing the need for hospital visits which are prohibitively expensive, often disempowering, and not safe for those doing arrestable actions (as arrests can take place in hospitals).

Pre-protest prep

A few months before the convergence I sought people who I thought might be interested in doing medical work — contacted nursing schools and a naturopathic school, massage students, and friends of mine that are health care providers and politically active. I also contacted the American Red Cross (a dead end), and Physicians for Social Responsibility (never heard back from them). As it turned out, many of the initial folks I contacted did not work directly with the team, but they were on the streets autonomously. Eventually I was given the names of two activist medics who were coming to Seattle, and after several phone conversations we became the core of the medic organizing team.

We published some basic health care information in the action packet (which was widely distributed at the convergence center) and also suggested that each affinity group have at least one member trained in first aid. We offered five trainings at the convergence, which were demonstration-specific (ie. focused on most probable scenarios and most easily acquirable skills). We provided printed information about chemical weapons and taught decontamination in our trainings. We made nightly announcements at the spokescouncil meetings about the free clinic and trainings. These announcements were crucial — people gained confidence from knowing that there would be first aid on the streets. Knowledge of the clinic spread well beyond the convergence center, as evidenced by the large numbers of residents of the Capitol Hill neighborhood who came in for treatment.

In the future I think that printing little cards with some basic information about chemical weapons and a website address and/or phone number for post-action information and care would be incredibly helpful. These could be distributed at the future convergence centers as well as in the street. Before an action people are less excited to learn about detox and long term care, but if they know in advance that the information will be available, it's more likely that they will seek it out. These cards may or may not contain the location of the clinic. At the 2001 Quebec City actions around A20 the clinic was difficult to find. Although there were many excellent medics on the streets, few of them were able to tell me exactly where the clinic was. This may have been a security decision, which then highlights the importance of having clinic security, as hiding the clinic somewhat defeats the purpose of providing care in the first place.

The clinic

The clinic in Seattle was located at the primary convergence site. It was within walking distance of the action site, ans wa in the neighborhood where police herded people at night after the curfew and continued beating, gassing and pepper-spraying. During the convergence, the clinic operated 12 hours a day, providing basic first aid as well as immune support, stress reduction and energy boosting with bodywork and herbal medicine. Another key role of ours was to support the health of organizers — we tracked them down, reminded them to eat and drink water, and gave them herbs, massage, and acupuncture.

It is crucial that the clinic be well-organized. In Seattle we had a shelf for basic first aid, and the rest was organized by body system — biomedical, herbal, naturopathic, etc. remedies were clustered together around what they treated. For example, under "stomach" was Pepto Bismol, neutralizing cordial, Nux vomica and ginger extract. This enabled practitioners of different modalities to easily find unfamiliar remedies requested by "clients." We kept more expensive and some specialty remedies (essential oils, most homeopathics) in a separate cabinet to prevent their theft or misuse. At the end of each day, a quick reorganizing and reshelving process was invaluable as well. Another organizational method might be to separate the over-the-counter pharmaceutical remedies from the others. Whatever is done, it must be consistent and comprehensible to any care provider who shows up to volunteer.

Our team was loosely split into clinic staff and field workers, though many of us did both. The clinic was primarily staffed by herbalists, a naturopathic doctor, massage therapists, and acupuncturists. Those working in the field were all of the above and RNs, EMTs, PAs, and more. Two medical doctors worked in the clinic and the field, and there were two MDs on call. There were at least two affinity groups doing first aid which were extremely effective — in retrospect, I would have encouraged more of these.

Medics in the field

Our strategy for the action was to saturate downtown with medics. We provided referrals to enable affinity groups and medics to link up, and encouraged every affinity group to either send someone to a training or to hook up with already-trained people. We did our best to coordinate the dispersal of medics throughout the zone in which we were focusing the demonstrations, particularly in "hot spots" such as the hotels where delegates were staying. We provided a limited number of first aid kits to each region of the zone.

We had a large number of roving medics working in pairs or teams. They followed the clouds of tear gas and the cries of "Medic!" A number of businesses invited us to set up temporary clinics inside. These first aid stations allowed medics to work indoors when they needed a break from following and being chased by police. Unfortunately we were unable to publicize these first aid stations widely — only through word-of-mouth — as the business owners only offered in the heat of the moment. We found that before the convergence the attitude of most business owners was hostile to the idea of WTO protesters — the police had saturated downtown Seattle with propaganda warning against vandalism and sales loss. However, once it became clear who was really provoking the violence, many business owners had a rapid change of heart and became quite helpful.

Medics were heavily targeted by the police to the extent that most removed their red cross insignia. Even that didn't prevent police from interrupting medical treatment to remove irrigation solution from the hands of medics and then pepper-spraying them, or from confiscating medical supplies and destroying them, shooting medics with plastic and wooden bullets, confiscating medics' gas masks (thereby exposing the medics to several hours of carcinogenic propellants and irritating chemicals), preventing access by medics to injured people, and generally interfering with treatment in every way imaginable.


One of the medic affinity groups autonomously set up an independent communication system of UHF radios. There was a dispatch person at the convergence center and people on the street went through her to call for reinforcements. This worked extremely well. In retrospect, we should have had more radio coordination. However, those of us without radios were easily able to find where we were needed, and we caution against being too reliant on a system that is so easily sabotaged.

I inadvertently learned about communications in Los Angeles, having gone to the 2000 Democratic National Convention protests in hopes of doing more health care and less organizing than I did in Seattle. A strained muscle prevented me from going out in the streets, so I ended up working closely with the comm team and now have a much broader view of how comms can work for medics — an area that was seriously lacking in Seattle.

The comm team in LA was very clear that medical was a high priority. We implemented a plan that would have allowed for us to successfully handle the scale of police violence that we saw in Seattle. Fortunately that level of violence did not occur in LA. A person with some medical skills dispatched to the street medics from the general comm center where information came in to the legal, tactical and other teams from many parts of the action. This way, any information coming in about police activity was available to relay to the medics — which would have allowed for a speedy response if needed.

In the planning stages for Seattle we were asked frequently how many medics we would need and what quantity of supplies. It is still difficult to answer these questions. We have no idea what the medic-to-protester ratio was. It was overwhelming to see how may folks were out providing basic care and well-stocked with supplies. There were at least 75 medics already trained with whom we coordinated, and then we trained around 300 people. We were supported by some small businesses (particularly in Pike Place Market, where a first aid station was established; the farmers donated limes, water and snacks as well as their time and first aid skills). We were joined by many medics of all training backgrounds who came downtown after seeing the graphic news coverage.


During the action, we were minimally staffed in the clinic during the day because we focused our attention on the streets. From around sundown until midnight we focused our attention on the clinic, where we decontaminated and provided care for vast numbers of people suffering from police abuses. The convergence center was restructured, so that the front half was devoted entirely to medical and legal teams. The legal teams were taking statements of police brutality. Entrance to the front half was limited to those with injuries or chemical weapon exposure only.

One of the biggest challenges was decontaminating those who were heavily dosed with tear gas / pepper spray in order to minomize contamination of the clinic and ourselves. To that end, we bagged and sealed the outer layer of clothing of those heavily sprayed before they were admitted to our triage area. We also rigged a makeshift shower and assisted our often temporarily-blinded clients with washing. This was done quite haphazardly, as there were frequently emergency situations that did not allow for time lost removing clothing, and our shower conditions were primitive and cold.

One result of the indiscriminate use of the chemical weapons was the contamination of the entire convergence space. People who didn't have access to clean clothes, showers or laundry facilities often put contaminated clothes back on or continued wearing contaminated clothes for several days. By the end of December 1, the convergence center was completely toxic and it was difficult to continue to work in that environment. Preparation for decontamination is essential to maintaining a healthy and functional gathering space.

In Los Angeles we had a much better decontamination system. A station was set up outside with a private shower and no one who had been pepper-sprayed or tear gassed was allowed in the building until they had been decontaminated, showered and washed their hair, and changed into clean clothes (which we provided from donations). The comm team contacted the medic onsite at the convergence center as soon as reports of chemical weapons came in. The medic then brought down the box of decontamination supplies, clothes, towels and plastic bags for sealing up contaminated clothing. It worked smoothly, and we were able to prevent the contamination of the building.

It would have been useful in Los Angeles to have made a more concerted effort to inform people ahead of time about the necessity (if exposed) of doing a full decontamination before entering the building. We could have mad regular announcements in spokescouncil meetings and in certain trainings to inform people, and gotten written warnings into the action packet. This was a minor detail, though, and fortunately the security team was able to screen people who were returning to the building.

We implemented a different usage pattern of the convergence space in LA. The first floor was reserved for medical and legal and the front entrance and stairwell were only available to those with medical or legal issues. This worked much better than in Seattle as the shower and decontamination area were just around the corner from the front entrance. The sole disadvantage with doing decontamination outside was occasional interference by the media and gawking by random bystanders. It was essential to have a security person and a media liaison there to keep the area clear of those not needing treatment.

Other things to do differently / lessons learned from Seattle

  • Limit clinic hours. We were open 12-16 hours a day for ten days. This is clearly not sustainable.
    • Have the security team page us for emergencies during off hours, enabling us to have off hours!
  • Have a complete and concise, written set of policies and procedures.
    • Develop a method of volunteer skill assessment before they staff the clinic.
    • Find a volunteer coordinator a few weeks before the clinic opens.
    • Have active security procedures, especially during busy hours.
    • Increase awareness of and consider a policy to protect against potential infiltrators and freaks who may sabotage the clinic, intentionally or otherwise.
    • Have clear contingency plans for decontamination — labeling bags of clothing, having towels available for post-shower, etc.
  • Coordinate more efficient distribution of first aid kits to affinity groups.
  • Print a lot more handouts on chemical weapons — we constantly ran out.
  • Offer more workshops, including a workshop that covers chemical weapon issues and treatment exclusively.
  • Establish in advance and publicize mental health check-ins (one exclusively for medics and another one for all activists) for the evenings of action days. Take post-traumatic stress seriously.
  • Establish a systematic process for documenting injuries at the hands of police which would be thorough enough to use in court.
  • Politicize our work more overtly by providing information on the effects that capitalism and globalization have on health care methods, costs, availability, etc.
  • Make Spanish-language materials available; offer training in Spanish or train with skilled translator.


Published in a slightly different form in the Seattle Logistics Zine (2000), edited by Kim, Mike E., and Gabriel of the Seattle N30 Logistical Crew. View pdf of entire zine online:

This version was contributed by Chris of Black Cross Health Collective and attributed to Jennifer, also of Black Cross; I maintained the attribution as it is the zine until I hear back from Jennifer.

See also

"Health Ensurance," page 14 of the Direct Action Network Action Packet, 1999. Held in the WTO Seattle Collection (#5177-003, Box 1, Folder 6) of the University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections Division. Online at:

Memo to activists under 18 years old from D.A.N., re: kids' experiences and legal rights in direct action, 1999. Held in the WTO Seattle Collection (#5177-003, Box 1, Folder 3) of the University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections Division. Online (in two parts) at: and

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