The Birth Of The Clinic Action Medics In New Orleans Roger B

The Birth Of The Clinic: Action Medics In New Orleans
Roger Benham

Since the height of the antiglobalization movement in 2001, I've been involved with a loose affiliation of political activists with first aid training known as "action medical." Its roots go back to the civil rights movement of the early 1960s, when medical and nursing students provided emergency care to marchers attacked by police on the road to Selma. Carrying basic supplies, trained by peers, and working within well-defined skill limits, action medics have cared for activists suffering medical emergencies, injuries, and illness on city streets and in forest defense camps. Drawing heavily from the protocols of wilderness medicine, action medics work within areas that may be inaccessible to standard emergency medical services, using makeshift materials and assuring patients of their anonymity and privacy. In many places, emergency medical services have rules against entering areas that are "unsecured" by the police. When a group of people are being attacked by the police, or are holding an intersection or a blockade against the orders of the police, that area is definitely "unsecured." In such situations, action medics can work where an ambulance cannot enter.

Action medics are explicitly political and partisan. Rather than offering care unconditionally and acquiescing to police orders, we act as advocates to our patients, and, in my view, as active support networks. We treat illness and injury so that our patients can accomplish their goals; we exist to enable direct actions to succeed.

During the course of my work as an action medic, I've pursued additional training and experience, becoming certified as a wilderness emergency medical technician and a first aid instructor, and volunteering with the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees, a nongovernmental organization in the West Bank. In the summer of 2005, my wife, Heather, and I took extended leaves from our jobs in New England and worked with Mountain Justice Summer, a campaign in Southern Appalachia against mountaintop-removal coal mining. For two months, we lived in rural West Virginia and in East Tennessee, organizing and treating campaigners injuries and sicknesses. At the end of August, we returned to New England, just before Hurricane Katrina Swept ashore from the Gulf. As the levees crumbled and New Orleans was abandoned, as the racism of the governmental response became obvious to even the corporate media, Heather and I sat by our radio, amazed. If only we had stayed in the South, perhaps we could have been part of relief operations in some small way.

Five days after the storm, Ryan, an anarchist musician whom I'd worked with before, called me. He was organizing benefit concerts for action medics going to the Gulf Coast. Was I going to go? he asked. A Food Not Bombs (FNB) bus would be leafing from Hartford. A national network committed to feeding the homeless healthy vegetarian foods in public places, Food Not Bombs activists were experienced in making do with recycled materials and found objects. The Hartford folks had collected a ton of donated food and clothing in a few short days, from people from around the area who ached to help in some way. They carried on the bus a mobile field kitchen with the capability of cooking several hundred meals a day.

On September 6, I jumped on the FNB bus with a backpack of medical supplies and several hundred dollars that had been donated to me by friends and neighbors. On the road, I called Noah Morris and Scott Mechanic, action medics and old friends. They were driving southward with Jamie "Bork" Loughner, an activist from Washington, DC, and had been in contact with Malik Rahim.

Malik, a New Orleans native, lives with his partner, Sharon Johnson, in the neighborhood of Algiers, and had stayed throughout Katrina. A perennial Green Party candidate for city council and former Black Panther, Malik had broadcast his phone number and a call for help over a number of progressive radio networks. Algiers was under an advisory evacuation, not the manditory one in place in the rest of the city. Most residents had fled, but some remained, mainly elderly and poor. The National Guard had been abusive, power was out, and white vigilantes roamed the streets, hunting "looters." No medical aid had arrived.

Working their own contacts, my companions from Food Not Bombs learned that a Veterans for Peace convoy, traveling eastward at the end of August from Camp Casey, the anti-war protest outside George Bush's ranch in Texas, had been caught by Katrina in Covington, Louisiana, just across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans. They'd been feeding survivors all over southeast Louisiana since then, having established a relief center before the Red Cross ever deployed.

In the early morning hours of September 8, the Hartford bus rendezvoused with Noah, Scott, and Bork at a Nashville rest stop. Their van was loaded with donations from DC and medical supplies from Mountain Justice Summer they'd picked up along the way. Late that night, the bus and the van pulled into the Veterans for Peace camp in Covington. They'd driven one vanload of supplies to Malik and Sharon that day, and Noah, Bork, Scott, and I made plans to convoy in the morning. After a few hours' sleep, we got moving. We passed through a military checkpoint and crossed Lake Pontchartrain on the 22-mile long causeway. Because the city was encouraging everyone to leave, we were very apprehensive about being able to get in. We were careful to hide any sign that we were encouraging people to stay and rebuild; our story was that we were going in to render emergency assistance to a few friends, not that we planned on staying and helping residents to also render emergency services as well. Across the waters of the lake, Chinook helecopters hauled slings of sand for patching the levees, and the skyscrapers of New Orleans' central business district stood above the water. Stretching away to the east and west were the lakeshore and miles of drowned houses.

Algiers is on the west bank of the Mississippi, directly across the river from the French Quarter and the Ninth Ward. We tried the most direct route first, which would have taken us through downtown, but we were stopped at another checkpoint on the Orleans Parish line. There was no arguing our way through here, cover story or not. The military was allowing no one into the still-flooded areas of the east bank.

Turned back, we circled around the city to the west, crossed the river, and approached Algiers along the west bank. We made it through this route's checkpoint with a minimum of trouble. Though, the day before at the same checkpoint, a convoy of black medical professionals from Georgia was turned back.

We pulled up in front of Malik and Sharon's house at noon. Malik had gotten permission to set up a clinic in Masjid Bilal, the mosque he once attended. The streets were covered with shingles, fallen trees, and downed utility lines. Abandoned dogs, many of them pit bulls, hungry and mean, foraged in piles of rubble. A decomposed human body lay in front of the neighborhood's community center. Dozens of helecopters filled the sky. The tower and flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima loomed above the levee, moored in the middle of the river, as if in a combat zone. Infantry squads patrolled the streets, assault rifles at the ready.

At the mosque, Malik and I laid tarps over the floor of the musalla, the sanctuary where you'd normally have to remove your shoes. Rfuah and Ilonda, two activists from the neighborhood, helped us unload and organize our meager supplies. They told us what it had been like, how their houses had sustained roof damage and all their posessions had gotten soaked by Katrina's driving rains. They and their families, who ran a community center and were longtime activists, had been managing the best they could through it all, helping their neighbors, walking around the National Guard and the white vigilantes who were lording it over the remaining Algerines without any oversight or outside contact. They had been working to hold their shattered neighborhood together, without any help. And now they were exhausted.

Curfew came at 4 p.m. The streets were patrolled by infantry in trucks and Humvees. We slept on the floor of the mosque.

We opened the doors the next morning at 7 a.m. I shouldered a bag of medical supplies and walked down the street with Ilonda looking for people she knew or suspected were still around, mainly elders with no means to evacuate. Many were suffering the effects of poverty and oppression. Diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and other diseases related to or exacerbated by substandard health care, lack of access to healthy foods, and toxins in the environment afflicted far too many residents of Algiers. These were conditions that predated the hurricane.

Walking back to the mosque, I met a squad of soldiers talking to Noah, Scott, and Bork. The soldiers wanted to know how I was getting into peoples' houses. Under orders to conduct a census of survivors, they were frustrated by peoples' hiding from them. Well, we explained, we were invited by people from the neighborhood. We didn't carry weapons, and we weren't trying to get people to evacuate. "We're anarchists," Bork said, and the soldiers' eyebrows went up. I cringed — we hadn't agreed among ourselves how we would present ourselves to the authorities. However, we never experienced any negative effects from making our political affiliations public. Unlike experiences we'd all had with police forces, who usually treated anarchists as terrorists, or at least as terror suspects, most of our interactions with the uniformed military in New Orleans were remarkably cordial. There was some real anger among the regular army troops about what happened to New Orleans. The New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) was another story. Corrupt and brutal before the storm, when they showed up again on the streets of Algiers about September 16, they were abrupt, angry, and threatening, waving riot shotguns around and menacing people.

We didn't want uniformed men with guns — friendly or hostile — around a first aid station, so we scrawled a large sign and hung it by the door: No Weapons, Including Police and Military.

A steady stream of people had been coming into the mosque that first morning. Some needed first aid for cuts and injuries like broken toes untreated since the storm, but most needed prescription medications. Many were older men, of whom many were veterans and were suffering from high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease. Some had been receiving medications in the mail from the Veterans Administration (VA); others had been getting their healthcare at Charity Hospital in downtown New Orleans. But in the wake of Katrina, the VA and the US postal service were nonexistent, and Charity Hospital had not reopened after the flood. Prescriptions had run out. Blood pressures had risen to levels that were, in some cases, life threatening. These patients should have been taken immediately to a pharmacy or a hospital, but there were none to be taken to. If someone were to have a stroke, diabetic emergency, or heart attack, there was no ambulance to call.

We asked soldiers what could be done to help these men, how we could fill their prescriptions. The only answer the army had was to evacuate them — to take them to the infamous Ernest N. Morial Convention Center across the river, then to the airport, and fly them out, dispersed across the country, to where the already discredited FEMA process happened to send them, with no idea of when or if they'd be able to return.

We needed nurses, doctors, and drugs. We needed to create a real clinic, and fast, or New Orleans would lose more people, people it could not afford to lose. we were not just providing medical relief; we were starting to provide basic health care to a community that had been historically underserved, so that people could save their homes and neighborhoods from extinction. With the East Bank of the city under manditory evacuation, Algiers, on the West Bank, could be a progressive beachead for reclaiming New Orleans for its people, and a point of resistance against gentrification and ethnic cleansing. Having evolved as a support network for those seeking social change, action medics had to adapt to becoming a support network for those fighting to preserve their community.

Under the state of emergency declared just before Katrina, Physicians from out of state were given authorization to treat people in Louisiana. Doctors from around the country who were involved in antiwar work were pouring into the Veterans for Peace encampment in Covington. On September 10, the clinic's second day, we began to phone in pharmaceutical needs to these doctors from patients' empty bottles, and they organized a full vanload of refills. We waited, rendering aid.

Several hours later, Homeland Security called Noah. They asked some very strange questions about our drug shipment. Had that remark about us being anarchists already been passed along the chain of command? Were we being constantly monitored, and might we be getting a visit from them soon? Since many of our anarchist comrades had had just such visits under "normal" American conditions, we had good reason to think it might happen to us.

The actual reason for the call was something different, yet equally outrageous. The driver bringing our supplies — a licensed practical nurse from Texas, who had been working with Veterans for Peace and the Red Cross for two weeks — was detained by police for 12 hours. The driver was eventually released, but the drugs disappeared. People in New Orleans would have to wait another two days to get their meds.

In emergency response trainings, I've been taught never to self-deploy (to act on one's own initiative, without orders from the established chain of command) to the site of a disater, that self-deployed first responders endanger survivors and hinder relief. Yet time and again in Louisiana, we saw official relief efforts hinder direct, possibly lifesaving care and never witnessed the reverse.

Malik and Sharon had some bicycles neighbors had given them. We taped handmade signs with the mosque's address on the back and canvassed the neighborhood, checking in with people sitting on their front porches. Constantly, we were stopped by the military. Sometimes it was a new unit asking who we were; sometimes they would refer us to people who needed medical care. The idea of EMTs on bicycles was initially a shock to the GIs with their trucks and Humvees. I wondered what their morning briefings were like, after Bork and I had handed them literature about gentrification and capitalist redevelopment plans. They soon were referring to us as "the panther clinic" or "the anarchist clinic."

Without advanced certifications or drugs, we administered herbal treatments. The use of herbs, traditional Chinese medicine, homeopathy, acupuncture, and other non-Western methods of healing has always been a basic part of action medical philosophy, alongside the best standards of what Americans think of as "regular" health care. We also distributed large quantities of donated vitamins, personal hygeine products, and condoms. More arrived every day, driven to Algiers by progressive activists from across the country, and beyond.

On September 11, we were called by members of a French relief group, Secours Populaire. They had heard about us at a meeting of activists in Baton Rouge they had attended. "We're not affiliated with any government or Red Cross work," I emphasized. "We're activists."

"We know that you are, and that's why we want to come help you," they replied.

Several hours later, Anna, Pierre, and Monique, a physician from Paris, arrived in a truck full of supplies. To our surprise, they told us that no one else was doing work like our anywhere in south Louisiana. There were many distribution centers, run by the Red Cross and various faith-based groups, the army was doing some health care out of mobile clinics, and some local residents with training had preformed phenomenal work in the first weeks after the storm, but no one was staying put in one place, actively bringing other volunteers into the area to provide primary health care on an indefinate basis. As they accompanied me on house calls, they were amazed at peoples' poor health. Chronic illnesses, old untreated injuries, and results of neglect had only been exacerbated by Katrina, not created by it.

Soon Scott Weinstein, an action medic and nurse from Quebec who'd been working out of Baton Rouge with the government relief effort, arrived, hitching a ride on an ambulance. He told us the unarmed ambulance crew had been afraid to drive into Algiers. We were apparently working in a very dangerous combat zone. It was news to us,sitting outside between patients and exchanging jokes and sea stories with Norman, an ex-merchant seaman who lived across the street, and Yogi, the octogenarian World War II vet from around the corner.

On September 13, members of the action medical collective in the Bay Area arrived from California, including one medical doctor, Michael Kozart. Michael was a medical doctor, which enabled us to finally begin prescribing medication on-site. We began keeping patient records and storing them according to confidentiality standards and federal law.

We soon extended our house calls to the other side of the river. Food Not Bombs had established its kitchen at a local activists' home in the Bywater area of the Ninth Ward. They directed us to people they had found who still held out, in the Ninth Ward, in Central City, and in the Seventh Ward. Everywhere, people had formed small groups to get themselves and their neighbors through the storm and its aftermath. We started bringing them water and putting Malik and others in touch with them. We began receiving shipments of vital vaccinations against waterborne and contagious diseases like hepatitis and tetanus. Soon even the New Orleans Fire Department and the Sewage and Levee Board were sending their workers to us. Medical volunteers who had been sitting in Baton Rouge, awaiting official instructions, began showing up to work. Returning New Orleanians became involved, alongside health care volunteers from elsewhere.

As I write this a year later, in August 2006, the first aid station has become the Common Ground Health Clinic, a permanent presence in the Orleans parish health care system, a system still severely damaged.

Mobile clinics have been set up at relief centers throughout southeast Louisiana. The Latino Health Outreach project, a locally initiated spinoff of the Common Ground Health Clinic, services the undocumented workers who began arriving in October in search of work on the reconstruction effort. It offers vaccinations and primary health care and serves as a health and social services advocate. Hundreds of doctors, medical students, nurses, herbalists, acupuncturists, EMTs, and first-aiders from around the world have volunteered. More than 60,000 people have been treated.

The networks, planning, and contacts established through years of hard work in many places enabled up to answer needs neglected by the government. From Mountain Justice Summer and other environmental campaigns, we had contacts throughout the South, a ready source of medical supplies, and an ability to work far from modern infrastructure. From our activist work over the years, we had built a rolodex of progressive media contacts. From longtime community activists, we had local contacts and access to neighborhood resources, like the Masjid Bilal mosque. From Food Not Bombs, we had transportation, supplies, and a resourceful willingness to make do with found materials. From solidarity work in places like Palestine, we had experience interacting with soldiers in war zones. From Veterans for Peace, we had dedicated activists and infrastructure. From action medical, we had the skills, certifications, and experience that made it possible to practice medicine in unsecured areas without guns.

Most of all, from our politics we had the ability to treat the courageous, resourceful survivors of Hurricane Katrina as friends, comrades, and equals.

There have been problems and limitations. No matter how hard we worked or how many donations we received, our efforts could never match the lack of effort on the part of the government. It was sometimes easy to become intoxicated with how much was accomplished with so little, but we should be realistic. We cannot perform helicopter rescues, evacuate large numbers of people, or deal with thousands of hospital patients and nursing home residents, as the official response did in the first days of September, however belatedly or badly. We cannot build levees that can withstand storm surges, or restore wetlands that have been lost, and which would have provided additional protection. These are all larger social functions that require the mobilization of large-scale resources. We cannot, in some separate activist milieu, deal with the national problem or racism that Katrina showed to all of us. Racism is something we are constantly called upon to deal with in our smaller community as well. In the months after the storm, it became a problem that so many predominantly white activists were able to flock to New Orleans to work, while so many black New Orleanians did not have the means to do so and remained stranded in their diaspora. Many community activists from Louisiana became frustrated with the privilege and ignorance exhibited by volunteers who came from outside the state. Some might view our initial response in September as the beginning of this dynamic.

In an age of global climate chaos, imperialist war, and corporate supremacy, New Orleans is only the beginning. Those who value justice, equality, and our planet's future must not only work to change policy at governmental and institutional levels but also prepare to respond to crises where coercive institutions can't or won't. The best preparation is sustained radical activism, before, during, and after catastrophic storms, whether they be named Katrina, racism, capitalism, or fear.


South End Press Collective, What Lies Beneath: Katrina, Race, and the State of the Nation. Cambridge, Massachusetts: South End Press, 2007. Pages 69—79.

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