Police Arrest, Allegedly Target Medics at Twin Cities Protests

Sheila Mulrooney Eldred

June 04, 2020

MINNEAPOLIS — When police surrounded a group of volunteer medics after curfew ended a protest on Sunday night in St. Paul, Mary Roach was mystified. As a cop zip-tied her, she asked why she was being arrested and reminded him that medics were exempt from the curfew.

"We had been kneeling there and talking to the National Guard when some flash-bangs went off fairly close," Roach said. So she and her group of medics and friends stood up to see if anyone was hurt.

One of their members was wearing scrubs and a stethoscope. Roach had red-cross patches prominently displayed. Still, she said, "the riot cops ran out and surrounded us," arresting the three medics and detaining them for hours. (Roach has detailed her experience in an extended Twitter thread.)

https://twitter.com/maryeroach_/status/1267460336564699137

Medics are exempted from curfew — the exemption is explicitly mandated in the official proclamation. And yet, repeatedly, over the course of many evenings, police in the Twin Cities appeared to be going against decades of precedent and actively ignoring the exemption with arrests and violence. While some of the attacks on medics appeared to be accidental, in other cases police appeared to specifically target the helpers.

On Saturday night, for example, police fired rubber bullets and tear gas into a makeshift medical tent near the Fifth Precinct in Minneapolis, despite volunteers showing they were medical workers and displaying red crosses. Many medical supplies and food items were ruined, according to one of the medics, Mike, who was there. (Mike, like other medics interviewed for this story, asked to be identified by first name only for fear of retaliation.)

A Minneapolis police spokesperson said he couldn't immediately respond to Medscape due to thousands of media requests. A spokesperson for the St. Paul Police Department, Steve Linders, said that police are enforcing the curfew "as it was developed by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety." But that rule explicitly states curfew exemptions for "fire and medical personnel," in addition to journalists and law enforcement.

"We should be exempt," said Jason, a certified first responder and aspiring EMT who was arrested with Roach on Sunday. In preceding nights, he'd treated countless lacerations in people hit by canisters and rubber pellets, some fractured ribs, and a major face contusion in someone shot with a tear gas canister.

"We have every right to be out there and help people and use our experience to help people get home safely," he said. "We're not part of the riots. We're making sure people are safe. It gets chaotic in riots. That's why we're out there. We had medic stations set up and medics on patrol. Medics were attacked."

He and the other arrested medics were released after a few hours, though they had to return for their possessions the next day. The booking report states they had all been arrested for unlawful assembly. (The National Lawyers Guild is providing free legal help and jail support to medical workers who were arrested while assisting at the protests.)

Citizen medics help a protester clear her eyes in Minneapolis, Minnesota, as police moved in aggressively with tear gas to clear a group of protesters.

Also on Sunday night, across the river in Minneapolis, Iola Kostrzewski helped a victim who was stabbed near the Third Precinct. While Kostrzewski, a licensed EMT, packed the victim's wound with gauze, police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at the protective circle people had formed around the victim. Then police directed her and the victim to get in the trunk of a squad car.

"I don't know how, but we went one to two miles [inside the trunk] with the hatchback trunk open," she said. "My biggest concern was that the car would stop really fast and we'd fall out." When they reached a quieter spot, police transferred the victim to an ambulance. They never explained their actions to Kostrzewski.

Complicating matters for medics who want to help, some outside groups have disguised themselves and their vehicles with red-cross symbols. On Monday, Linders said, officers found a van labeled as a medic vehicle that contained jugs of milk, helmets, and a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire.

The deception has made some medics reluctant to wear red-cross badges. It's also made them think twice before heading out past curfew: Jason said that any arrest could jeopardize his plans to become a paramedic and affect his job prospects, since some states consider criminal records before issuing licenses. Roach said she may avoid nighttime protests and bring water and supplies to daytime rallies. Most, however, said they felt ethically compelled to keep helping.

"As long as there are armored vehicles in my neighborhood and cops in riot gear, I have to go out there," Roach said.

Mike, an EMT who has been providing aid to protestors in Minneapolis and St. Paul since George Floyd's homicide last week, plans to continue going out until the riots end. He has taken to wearing a fluorescent vest with a work badge identifying him as a medical worker. And he counted Monday night as a win: It was the first night police didn't shoot at him with rubber bullets while he was providing care.

"Healthcare is a basic human right and everyone deserves to be treated compassionately," he said. "That's what our community needs, period."

Sheila Mulrooney Eldred is a freelance health journalist in Minneapolis. Find her on Twitter @MilepostMedia.

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