On the ground: Street medics and the 2013 Walk for our Grandchildren

This past summer, Asheville resident Patricia Johnson participated in the 2013 Walk for Our Grandchildren — a 100-mile protest march that aimed to draw attention to fossil fuels and the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline. Johnson writes about what it was like to be a “street medic” for the walk, in which many area residents trekked from outside Camp David to the White House.

Standing by the edge of the campground, the portable “Street Medic” tent looked nondescript to say the least. No signs gave directions, but several folks were busy setting up a first aid station when I arrived at Riley’s Lock Road campground in Poolesville, Md., to join the “2013 Walk for our Grandchildren”. 

As you may or may not know, “Street Medic” refers to volunteers with varying degrees of medical training who attend protests and demonstrations to provide first aid and medical care for simple problems. Street medics first began during the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-war movement of the 1960s and were also involved in free clinics developed by the groups they supported.

On that hot July 24 day, I had joined the street medics for the Walk for Our Grandchildren that began on July 19 with twenty-five walkers at Camp David, Md.  By July 22 when walkers left Harper’s Ferry, W. Va., about seventy-five elders, youth and all ages in between were on the Walk. The Walk ended with a rally July 27 in Lafayette Park across from the White House.  Many inspiring speakers of all ages energized us to find ways to keep most fossil fuels in the ground.  In a very moving ritual, around 200 folks pledged to help our planet become independent of fossil fuel.

Due to a family reunion in Burlington, N.C., I did not start the Walk at the beginning as I would like to have done.  In keeping with the purpose of my journey, I left my car parked at my relatives’ house and took the Megabus from Durham, N.C., to DC and then got on the Metro to Rockville where my neighbor’s sister-in-law picked me up to drive me to the campground along the Chesapeake and Ohio (C and O) Canal. 

My first task upon arrival was to find the Street Medics, which it turns out was not difficult. Someone pointed to the nondescript tent, saying “they’re all hanging out over there”.  As a Physician Assistant, I volunteered to join the Medic Team when I decided to participate in this Walk.  So I went over and was immediately introduced and welcomed by everyone.  Our leader, Noah Morris, is an EMT but became a “Street Medic” in the aftermath of Katrina and eventually set up and ran a free clinic in New Orleans.  In addition, he currently provides the 20-hr training for new Street Medics.

Steve Norris, Kendal Hale and others originated the idea of the 2013 Walk for our Grandchildren here in Asheville.  It was and is a call toward a future free of fossil fuels.  Our Earth’s climate cannot endure further exploitation of fossil fuels and our grandchildren depend on us to be responsible to them and all generations.  The 100-mile Walk was a demonstration of how strongly we oppose the Keystone XL Pipeline and further use of fossil fuels.  Some walkers joined a “Summer Heat” action sponsored by 350.org. at Environmental Resources Management (ERM). (Summer Heat is a series of actions all over the country to address fossil fuel extraction.)  The civil disobedience at ERM on I Street resulted in fifty-four of the participants being arrested. 

On the walk itself, our first aid station opened each morning and evening to offer whatever help was needed.  Many had blisters or hot spots and welcomed a good foot soak in warm water and oils.  Now it’s standard procedure not to open a blister.  However, if it appeared the blister would break open on its own, we sterilized a safety pin with a lighter flame, them wiped it with alcohol and pierced the blister to drain it.  Clearly the many folks who planned to keep walking even with their blisters needed to have them drained.  Next we cut a center hole in moleskin making what’s called a jelly doughnut to protect the blister and the skin around it.  Lastly we wrapped it in sterile gauze and a final layer of Duct Tape.  Yes Duct Tape is good for everything and in this case, it let the shoe rub against the tape rather than the blister.  Medics also lead some stretching exercises for those with tight or aching hip or knee joints and muscles.  Occasionally we dispensed Tylenol or Ibuprofen if the person had tolerated it well in the past.

During the day the Medic team walked in pairs near the front, about a third of the way back, about two thirds of the way back and near the end of the line of walkers.  Folks were singing and talking with others they met on the tow path.  Even with so many elders, there were no emergencies and no major health issues.  Had there been real emergencies, we would have simply called 911 since we were never very far from hospitals.  The whole walk was so well organized that support, food and water was readily available whenever needed.  I am so grateful for this opportunity to meet and walk with such loving, respectful and compassionate individuals.  Never let it be said that these elders and youth are sitting in their rockers or just strung out on drugs.  We are active, engaged and determined to leave most fossil fuels in the ground.  Why not join us and help make Asheville the next city free of coal-fired power plants?

Patricia Johnson is a physician assistant who lives in West Asheville.

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