On the Front Lines at the FTAA Protests
Ahronheim, Sara, The Humanist
Throughout the event, police appeared to target medics: wherever my partner Leigh and I were treating people, tear gas canisters landed right beside us. Some medics were hit by rubber bullets. On those front lines we treated a lot of people through clouds of tear gas.
Friday, April 20, was a particularly volatile day. My friend Sean was kneeling amidst a tear gas cloud as he treated a patient when a canister fell right under his face and exploded. After inhaling so much tear gas there, he tried to stumble to his feet--only to narrowly miss getting hit in the head by another canister. Still another impacted the wall behind him, bounced, and hit him in the back, knocking him flat to the ground. A final canister rolled by his face again and exploded. He was rescued by another medic team and spent the next two days recuperating in the medic clinic on Cote d'Abraham.
We kept having to retreat more and more to avoid the gas. At one point a canister exploded right next to me. I can't begin to describe the agony induced by tear gas; it suffocates you. I began to walk very quickly, barely restraining the panic, as I coughed and choked. I thought I would die; I feared that at any minute my asthma would kick in. Everywhere we turned there were more riot police, more gas, and no safe space to calm down and decompress. My eyes were okay, sealed behind swimming goggles, but my skin burned as if on fire. Finally we managed to find a corner without gas and I got my breath back.
However, fear had set in. I was scared to go anywhere near the police. But I was there to provide a service--to treat injured people in pain. Now that I knew what that pain was like, I had to return to the fray.
As we reentered the chaos, we came upon a girl who had been hit by a canister of gas, which exploded all over her body. Medics were treating her by stripping off her clothing and pouring liquids all over her. She was crying and screaming in so much pain. Around us were clouds and clouds of gas --and police advancing
on all sides. The cops proceeded to project canisters high into the air, into the back of the crowd where we were. There were only peaceful protesters in our area. We weren't near the perimeter fence, and we weren't involved in black bloc activities (more aggressive actions by groups of reactionary, militant protesters which form spontaneously at demonstrations). Our space was full of individuals being treated for various injuries and trying to recuperate. Yet still we were bombarded by dozens of gas canisters! We had to keep watch on the sky, hoping the canisters wouldn't land on us. We had to continually stand in the center of the action, yelling at people to walk, walk, walk to avoid a mob scene and tramplings. It is so hard to stand still or walk slowly while projectiles the temperature of boiling water are raining down upon you. I broke down emotionally so many times during the fracas. I feared I was either going to die or be incapacitated or arrested.
Once we were in the middle of a city block when a fire truck came through and the protesters attacked it. At the time I couldn't understand why they would attack firefighters. Later it was explained that the firetruck was going to be used by the authorities as a water cannon against the protesters and that was why people tried to trash it. Finally the truck went through--but not before all of its water was emptied and equipment taken.
Later a row of riot police formed at one intersection and lobbed gas canisters to seal off the end of the block. There was no escape route for my partner and me or the dozen or so protesters still in the area. Again I began to choke and almost panic, but we ducked into a driveway. When I saw the pain of the injured, my adrenaline kicked in and I began to treat them. I didn't even think about my own state once I saw people who needed my help. We eventually managed to escape through backyards onto another block. …