When the Kenosha verdict dropped in November 2021, the 2020 uprising in my city was still limping along. The actions were led by the same thirty or so people and attended by the same hundredish. The call to protest the verdict was shared widely on social media but the animating rage of summer 2020 had long since given way to a dimmer sense of betrayal.
Throughout the summer I had attended the protests as a medic, doing basic heat exhaustion prevention and care, peppered in with tear gas mitigation and tending to vicious brutality injuries inflicted on others and my own self. As the energy faded so did my medic-ing. Those who were still participating were well-practiced and did the heat exhaustion care themselves. The tear gas ceased, and the police brutality was targeted toward arrests, so people who needed care were swept away before I could try to step in. Fascist counter-protesters filled the brutality gap. So the vibrancy of the summer became something more hardened and hopeless—the kicked dogs who refused to die.
The protest was a last minute, reactionary event: low turnout. Organized by students: they were hurting. In response to the verdict: fascists would be giddy and eager to rub the victory in our faces.
Over the year-and-change the violence had mutated from the rhythmic police brutality to the unpredictable fascist attacks from men in cars and on foot. They had driven a motorcycle into a group of protesters, they had marched through my neighborhood with guns, they had filmed me and followed me. So I was thinking about them as I packed my med kit. I packed water, saline, cold packs, lots of gauze, rock climbing tape (better than medical tape), and a tourniquet. I put on a mask and a bandana over the mask and a hat and my running shoes that I only wore for medic events in case anyone took a picture. I even feared being identified by my shoes. Preparing the kit makes a stillness descend over the psyche. I paused with my hand on the doorknob.
I decided before I left to leave a note with my laptop. I wrote down the master password for my password manager, and my sister’s phone number. Just in case. After all, the court had decided it was permissible to slaughter rebels in defense of fascism and white supremacy.
It wasn’t duty that led me out there despite the looming sense of apocalypse but fear that I might be the only one feeling that risk in a way that was not ignited by rage. The rage was the purview of the students, and I feared their rage without numbers would lead to an altercation with a fascist who would strike back with a bullet. Or maybe they would just mow us down with a car. Or shoot us from the top of a parking garage as the cops had threatened. I understood the allure of violence. I understood the desire to tousle physically with the enemy to get a taste of immediate revenge. So I couldn’t blame the students for their hunger, but I doubted the accuracy of their risk assessment. If something bad happened, I wanted to be there. I was a street medic and an EMT – I knew my skills might be necessary.
Selfishly the risk felt comforting. There is a darker side of all that alluring violence. I wanted to go out swinging.
If something happened at that event I wanted the students to survive. I wanted them to see organic, anarchist, on-the-ground support of their rage. I don’t have access to rage like that anymore. I don’t want them to lose it. When the state hurts you someone can be there to help you stand it. Sometimes that is the primary role of the street medic. I wanted to witness them standing it. I wanted to be there to keep them alive physically, and to keep them alive emotionally—I wanted to witness the pain to jump start the healing process. Experiencing violence doesn’t have to be inherently traumatic, in the buzzwordy way trauma is often deployed. We have strategies for standing it, to integrate the experience as it happens to reduce PTSD. Sometimes that’s as simple as being calm and witnessing the experience and giving the person space and time to recover in the moment. So the medic does that. And sometimes the medic can prevent numbing, like the numbing I got.
But also when I put the note on my laptop I really thought I might not come back. In that moment I felt a wash of relief. It was similar to walking across the threshold of your home after a long trip and setting your suitcase down. I thought maybe I might not have to do this again. It was a kind of passive suicidality, the kind my comrades are familiar with. What if it just stopped? I wouldn’t make it stop myself, but if something happened and then it stopped and also become a galvanizing force in the community, then I wouldn’t have to keep going to events and watching hopelessly as things got worse. Maybe that would be kind of nice. And there was also an element of pride. I remembered to leave my password. My sister would know that I had known this was a possibility. She would know I saw death on the horizon and went anyway, and I had made dealing with the aftermath much easier by providing the password. Not martyrdom, but the simple childish delight of being right.
The Kenosha action was tense and frightening and the fascists did intimidate us from their cars and the cops did kettle us in their ridiculous armored golf carts and we did dissipate like roaches in the light. I made it back to my apartment and threw away the note.
After Roe was overturned I packed my kit and took my bike downtown to the event. This time I didn’t leave a note. I didn’t even write the lawyer’s guild number on my skin. There was no rage-fueled ferocity. There were no destructive urges, no need to attack the complacency within our own city which had allowed fascist violence to flare up like fireworks. The rally marched in a circle on the sidewalks and protesters thanked the cops and the DSA took email addresses and the people brought their dogs and took pictures of their pithy signs for Instagram.
When you are getting shot at by cops and fascists it feels like what you are doing matters. They want you to stop so badly they will kill you to ensure you stop.
When I went out to the Kenosha action I thought of the two white race traitors the gunman had slaughtered, Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber, and the medic he had injured, Gaige Grosskreutz, and how that violence had been mirrored in smaller doses on my own body. I had been in a strange distant way ready to die if it meant those rage filled desperate hurt students would still be full of rage, If it would somehow derail the inexorable march of fascism and white supremacy. In that way there was a lightness to the suicidality, a purpose. There was an ease to the self-sacrifice. I missed the stakes. The Roe protest felt stakeless, bloviating, self-congratulating. I wanted to hurt someone and be hurt. I wanted to make the emotional pain real.
It’s exhausting to think about the continuity of uprising – exhausting to consider I may have to go through this over and over. I miss that relieving suicidality. I want to put the weight down. At the same time I miss the intensity of the 2020 uprising. The stakes. I miss the feeling of making an immediate difference, of holding a stranger’s hands and talking them down from a panic attack. The suicidality is relieving because it is a reflection of purpose – it’s acceptable to die in this context because this context represents what matters most in my life.
I can only hope that under the humorous handwritten signs and Instagram posts there is an ember of animating rage. I can only hope that despair doesn’t overcome it. The street medic can be the first line of defense for emotional steadiness in the face of incomprehensible violence. That includes holding the ember in one’s palm and blowing.