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June 4, 2018 by

This Radical Medical Collective Ministers to Protesters

Almost a decade ago, a group of healthcare activists in Portland, Oregon, formed the Rosehip Medic Collective, with the original intent of providing emergency medical care to people attending progressive political events, protests and direct actions. As part of this work, they’ve offered intensive trainings––a 20-hour immersion in advanced first aid––so that people who either lack the resources to obtain medical attention or who feel unsafe in traditional medical settings might have access to basic information, advocacy, and support.

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The collective’s members—many of them Jewish and most LGBTQ—include Emergency Medical Technicians, registered nurses, wilderness first-responders, herbalists, naturopaths, acupuncturists, and teachers. This diversity of experience has led them to a range of Portland events. Individual members also provide care to people living on the street, to IV drug users in harm-reduction settings, and in free clinics.  And some Collective members were present at the 2017 Standing Rock encampment formed by North Dakota’s native community in opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Rosehip Medic Collective member Eva Irwin spoke to Eleanor J. Bader by phone in early May about the group’s work and evolution.

Eleanor J. Bader: Let’s start with some history. How, when, and why did the Collective form?

Eva Irwin: We basically coalesced as a Collective in the aftermath of the Republican and Democratic conventions of 2008. At both conventions, protesters met tremendous repression. The police violence served as a crucible for us as individuals.

From the beginning—we incorporated in 2008—we’ve included people with and without medical certifications and licenses. Early on, we were EMT heavy, and many of us had gone to wilderness first-responder trainings.  Some of us knew a lot about acupuncture and herbs; others were experts in naturopathic medicine. A few of us had been street medics before, with an earlier incarnation of Rosehip called Portland Street Medics, so we came into the Collective with a variety of backgrounds.  

The idea was that we wanted to do action/activist medicine. We understood that many communities have to create their own medical infrastructure, taking care of themselves, because of racism, sexism, homophobia, or transphobia.  Many of us in the collective have not felt safe accessing conventional emergency medical services (EMS). This led us to do a research project on tried-and-existing alternatives to EMS.  One group we profiled was Hatzolah—a global Jewish volunteer ambulance organization which basically recognized that specific communities with specific needs do not always get their needs met by the larger society. Hatzolah was a response to this, a community-created service to care for community members, broadly speaking.

There were other motivations for forming. We were aware that when the police show up at events, they typically bring their own medical units. These “tactical medics” take orders from the police force. I, myself, became an EMT in 2010–before I returned to school to become a registered nurse–so I know that the first thing that police and EMTs do is secure scene safety. What this actually means depends on what the police say, and if the police say that a scene—say a protest resisting capitalism—is unsafe, EMTs won’t go in. But we will–and do!

EJB: Tell me a little about yourself. Why were you drawn to this work?

EI: Early on, I focused on education, teaching. But after attending a street medic training I became interested in direct care as a kind of political activism. I asked myself, ‘How can I best contribute?’ After a while, I recognized that care work suited me. My inclination is to help people and I am comfortable working through crises. My first training was as a wilderness first responder—an industry training for guides and camp counselors. Later, I became an EMT and eventually, a registered nurse.

I now not only work with Rosehip but am involved with the Portland People’s Outreach Project, which provides clean syringes, Naloxone, meth pipes, and other harm-reduction supplies to I.V. drug users. It’s gratifying to help people through all kinds of baseline difficulties. My R.N. work is on the medical/surgical floor of a private Portland hospital.

EJB: Can you talk about your harm reduction model?

EI: We understand that healthcare is inaccessible to many people who experience homelessness, are queer or trans, people of color, use illicit drugs, are disabled, or are alienated in other ways. People repeatedly tell us that they won’t call 911, will not request an ambulance, because it is not worth the loss of control to go to a hospital. This is why Rosehip is so invested in education. We believe that each person can benefit from learning about how their body works, how to treat minor problems themselves, and recognize when they need more help.

Our focus is on minimizing harm, so we always suggest that if a person absolutely has to go to the hospital, they should try to bring someone along to advocate for them. Furthermore, we try to help people understand medical language so they can take some power back when dealing with the healthcare system.

I also want to stress that we try to be realistic about what we’re capable of. For example, during Occupy Portland, October 2011 to March 2012, we intentionally did not try to run the medical care unit that was provided. We did not want to be responsible for coordinating everything, but we did as much as we could.

EJB: Who attends the trainings, and how often does the Collective offer them?

EI: There is a huge demand for our trainings and because we know how important the information is, we offer a 20-hour intensive training three times a year, on average. We train only a small number of people at a time, 16 to 22. And trainings vary; we try to tailor each one to topics and themes that make sense for particular participants.

It’s hard. We’re not a large collective; all of us have jobs, some of us have kids, and we all have other commitments and responsibilities. Nonetheless, it is exciting to us to build new connections, and we always prioritize work with communities of color, immigrants, other queer and trans people, people who live on the streets, and others on the frontlines of police violence, health inequality, and other kinds of oppression.

At the same time, we can’t be at every event or mobilization—and even if we could we aren’t always the best people to provide the medic care that is needed.  This is part of what makes training a variety of people so critically important. We try to show up at large protests where there is likely to be a big police presence and to support other trained medics in building up their comfort and capacity level. At some of these demonstrations, we’ve been able to give short, 20-minute, presentations about reducing harm, including how to flush your eyes if you’re pepper sprayed.

Many of us work with other groups, sometimes as a group and sometimes individually. We’ve presented workshops at Earth First gatherings and Occupy groups. We’ve sent people to volunteer with International Solidarity Movement, No More Deaths, Standing Rock in North Dakota.

Our ‘zines—among them Home Remedies for Common Maladies; Alternatives to EMS; and Traveling Companions—provide folks with a mix of concrete guidance and ways of rethinking community care. Overall, our message is pretty simple. As one of our buttons says, “Take Care/ Give Care” and that’s precisely what we try to do for ourselves and the people we interact with.

EJB: Why do you think Rosehip is heavily Jewish and LGBTQ?

EI: Queer and trans people are definitely disproportionally represented among street medics, generally. Part of it is social networking and part of it is our training approach. When we discuss our anti-oppression ideology, we do it in a way where there’s a feminist appreciation for bodily autonomy. We’re still mostly white, though, and we’re committed to supporting and working with more medics of color.

I was thinking about my own identity as a queer-identified Jewish healer and know that I’m one of many Jews in resistance and equity movements. But I don’t feel prepared to explain why this happens.

EJB: How has Rosehip evolved and changed since 2008?

EI: In the last several years, we’ve both dabbled with and shifting away from protests and trained a lot of new people to be street medics. Our focus is increasingly on community wellness and helping people navigate the lack of healthcare and chronic health issues in low-income and disenfranchised communities.

We’ve also begun paying attention to disaster preparedness. We believe that how we ready ourselves for acute disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes, and mass power outages Is intimately connected to ways many of us survive chronic disasters like homelessness, capitalism, colonialism, and the drug war.

EJB: How did the Collective choose its name?

EI: When we re-formed our network into a collective, we obviously needed a name. We did not want it to be solely about street medic work, or solely about Portland, and we agreed that we wanted our name to be connected to an herb. Portland’s nickname is The Rose City, so Rosehip seemed like a good fit.

EJB: How does the Rosehip Medic Collective fund its work? Do you get contributions and grants?

EI: We mostly self-fund, but every once in a while we get donations. When we’re asked to do presentations at colleges or universities, we always ask for an honorarium. We also sell our buttons and ‘zines which raises a bit of money. Maybe some Lilith readers will order some!