Guy Burwell
The American Revolution had Molly Pitcher; Northwest activists have the Black Cross Health Collective, a group of medical personnel determined to provide emergency first-aid treatment and education "specific to the radical community." How determined? Recently members of Black Cross doused their eyes and bodies with pepper spray, a burning chemical that has become widely used by police over the past several years to subdue activists. After pepper-spraying themselves--often with excruciating results--they systematically tried out known and rumored treatments. The results of these home experiments have been passed on to other activist organizations and are now being utilized worldwide to treat pepper-sprayed activists.

Following a near week of riots at the WTO Conference in Seattle three years ago, and scuffles between activists and police in Portland two summers ago, a handful of local medical personnel were inspired to form Black Cross. They recognized that at times activists need but lack immediate first-aid. According to Black Cross organizers, many activists with eyes burning from pepper spray or heads bloodied from batons are denied basic medical attention because police purposely keep emergency services from reaching them. Oftentimes, say organizers, activists who stop and help the injured become targets of police attacks themselves.

"Pepper spray was originally developed to stop uncontrollable people from attacking the police," explains Adam, a local brawny nurse, who requested that his last name be withheld. "It is now routinely used against non-violent activists who are sitting down."

"Broken fingers, broken bones, broken arms, these have all happened at demonstrations, peaceful demonstrations," continues Adam. "Police break arms, fingers, they break legs, they bust heads and they pepper spray people. Maybe to their minds, those aren't injuries. But to my eyes, trained as an orthopedic nurse, trained as a neurological nurse, those are injuries. Pepper spray causes pain. That's an injury. To have police charge at you causes psychological injury. There is such a thing as post-traumatic stress. We see it all the time."

Black Cross organizers point to May Day 2000, when police pepper-sprayed dozens of activists, and to recent indictments handed to two off-duty officers who unabashedly brutalized a lone man outside the downtown club Stephano's. There is a lingering distrust of the police and a compelling feeling that the activist community must rely on itself for services like medical attention.

"The May Day Parade this year was unmolested by police, but it wasn't that way two years ago," says Black Cross activist Chas. "It often seems to us like police behavior is completely unpredictable. Things can be placid and everyone is getting along, people are chatting with the police; 10 minutes later, it's complete mayhem. People are screaming, running around, bloody, and on the ground--that kind of scene is really shocking. We don't want people to feel helpless, like they don't know how to care for other people in that kind of situation."

Some volunteers for Black Cross have been recruited after being victims of heavy-handed policing themselves. Last March, 40 police officers stormed a house party in NE Portland and pepper-sprayed many of the partygoers at close range.

"A bunch of them volunteered," one Black Cross member confided, "because they were beaten up by the cops... We treated some of those people. A lot of them wanted to volunteer afterwards. They understand that this is important."

Although the Black Cross has provided trainings around the country, their next session is here in Portland, Saturday, May 18, at Liberty Hall, 311 N Ivy Street, 1-6 pm. Organizers request that participants bring comfortable clothes and "shoes you can run in." The training is free, but donations are accepted. Training will include first-aid kit preparation, decontamination treatments, attending to broken bones, and learning to document police abuse at protests.

Volunteers that wish to participate in the ongoing Black Cross Health Collective pepper spray trials will be accommodated. But be warned: it's going to hurt.