Toward Compassion: Reflections on NYC, An EMT/Action Medic Returning from Mass Destruction Edit
"You are the real heroes," Sen. Charles Schumer, 12 September, 2001, personal communication.
I don't believe in heroism - in putting a few folks up on a pedestal as somehow braver or stronger than others. I think we should all push our potentials and do what we can both to dream and live a world of compassion. I've heard many stories of people taking brave or loving actions in response to the events of September 11, including my sister caring for two children whose mother did not come out of the World Trade Center buildings; a firefighter whose eyes I flushed who had saved someone from the 51st floor, yet whose partner did not come back out of the building; the Arab-American students who counterprotested the Republican rally for war on my campus...
A week after September 11, a crust of light grey, muddied ash still rimmed the edges of my boots. I remember watching the television images of the World Trade Center buildings falling to the ground. I sat amidst a crowd of people with my friends Ingrid Bauer and Josh Pushkin on the floor of the Cornell University bookstore. On t.v., ash and dust poured from the sky. I commented to Ingrid that it looked like a blizzard, the white dust settling on the cars and the street. The next day I walked through that ash. My friend Brian Dominick and I, both of us recently certified EMTs (Emergency Medical Technicians), had driven all night into the city to see what we could do to help. We ended up at St. Vincent's Hospital, one of the major trauma centers in New York City, working in a decontamination area (Decon). Mostly we, like all of the other medical personel, waited. And waited. Waited in the hopes that the ambulances would bring living people needing treatment out of the rubble to our curbside. In Decon, we treated firefighters and police officers who had been injured at "the Site," what's now being called "Ground Zero," the area where the World Trade Centers once stood.
New York City on My Birthday Edit
I finally got a chance to really talk to my sister Shira a week after September 11. She works blocks away from where the World Trade Center once stood. Shira described arriving in Manhattan and coming up out of the subway from Brooklyn into a black cloud. She went up into her office building where everyone was going on as if nothing had happened. She was freaking out, she told me, and ran back downstairs and outside, just in time to see the first building crumble to the ground. A week later, on her cell phone from the ongoing vigil at Union Square, she exclaimed over and over, "I was bugging out! I mean I was really freaking out! I didn't know what to do!"
At about the same time on September 11, I was at home working on my computer and half-listening to Democracy Now! (in Exile) hosted by Amy Goodman. I noticed an NPR Morning Edition host's voice on my radio and my anger began to rise. Were they trying to take Democracy Now! off the air again?!? Then George W's voice. I began to hear the unfathomable news. I tried to call my sister - no sound at the end of the line. I tried her apartment - no sound. I emailed her. Luckily, I got an email back within an hour, all caps, skirting hysteria:
I'M OKAY BUT THERE IS TOTAL INSANITY AND CHAOS GOING ON... THERE'S NOWHERE TO GO OR ANY WAY TO GET THERE!
P.S. HAPPY BIRTHDAY?
Yes, September 11 is my birthday. Hers is the 12th.
Part way through the overnight drive into the city Brian commented that we'd now spent both of our birthdays together doing EMT-related things. On his birthday, we took the state written exam, and now on mine we were getting ready to do whatever was put before us. Brian and I have a history together of treating people in the streets as action medics. This means that we go to protests and demonstrations and work with other folks to provide emergency first aid. We're there because EMS (Emergency Medical Services) will not enter situations that are not deemed "secure" by police, which may include situations of protest and civil disobedience. We're there because we believe in and support the right to dissent. We're there because we abhor police brutality. I'm not speaking here for the entire action medical community, although I believe that many of the folks involved would agree with at least these three statements. But I do at least feel confident in saying "we" here about both myself and Brian.
On the evening of September 11, when I checked my voice mail messages from a friend's house where I had gone to watch more news, and heard Brian asking me to come with him to the city, I was flooded by a mixture of emotions: Yes! I could do something to help!; I felt honored to work with Brian and love for him as a friend; I wondered if I was crazy to walk into such an unknown situation; I wondered and hoped for our friend James, who I knew was in the thick of it as a New York City paramedic, and our other action medical friends who I guessed were in the streets doing what they could - I wanted to be a part of those efforts; and, admittedly, I was excited for the adventure. You have to be an adrenaline junkie in at least some respect to walk into the kinds of situations that we repeatedly put ourselves in; we treat trauma. I called Ingrid, my usual medic partner and travel companion, who was instantly overwhelmingly supportive of the idea. I had needed that. My brother told me not to get in the way and excitedly relayed his story of being evacuated from his D.C. area office building. My dad tried to tell me we wouldn't be able to get into the city, and even if we did there would be nothing we could do. I talked to Brian several times on the phone, frantically trying to pack for I didn't even know what kind of situation or how long we would be there and hyperactive from the adrenaline rush mixed with trying not to wonder too much what I was getting myself into. This is what I had trained for: to treat people, mostly in traumatic situations.
Brian and I met midway between Syracuse and Ithaca where our friends dropped him off and gave me clothes to match his. We were going in uniform: a white button-down shirt with New York State EMT patches belted into navy blue pocketed pants. This uniform and our credentials would get us into the city hours later, waved through police blockades onto streets where few other vehicles drove that were not EMS, firefighters or police.
On our drive down to the city, the closer we got and the more we got waved on by police officers. Crossing the police line boundary to what for us is usually the other side, our excitement built. Eventually, we were stopped at a final checkpoint going into Manhattan. A police officer leaned into my passenger-side window. He saw two white-skinned, young, eager uniformed EMTs. I looked perhaps even more eager wearing a borrowed bright red ballcap that said advanced first aid: young, smiling, pony-tailed.
"Where are you going?" the officer asked.
"We're EMTs going to the city," Brian repeated the line that had gotten us to where we now sat, in the middle of an empty intersection lit by flares.
"Yeah, but where are you going?" the officer asked.
Brian shrugged. "We're not really sure."
"You don't know where you're going?" the officer asked, incredulous, weary.
"Well, they told us just to drive down 87 into the city and we'd figure it out from there," Brian responded in a you-know- how-it-goes tone. Who knows who "they" were. But somehow we, too, were subject to hierarchy. The officer kind of shook his head at us and repeated his question, now rhetorical. "Maybe you can tell us where the best place for us to go would be," I offered. We were there to help, and had the credentials to offer it. He walked over to the other officers and came back telling us to go to Jacob Javitz Center.
For once, we were on "their side," working for the same goals, hoping to help anyone that came out of the rubble.
Laughter and Tears: Grief, Joy, Outrage Edit
A week and a half after September 11, I attended a formal academic dinner. Someone commented on the intensity of reading Brian's account of our travels. I don't remember what he said, but I laughed in response. "How can you laugh?!?" he reacted, shocked, maybe even appalled. I considered this as I sat down at a different table.
I have laughed a lot since September 11. And I have cried. And I have raged. And these emotional responses haven't always been at the "appropriate" moments or the "appropriate" targets.
Actually, I laughed a lot while I was in New York City. At times Brian was there with me, giggling; at other times my giggles seemed to grate on him. The longer we were there, the grim reality seemed to seep into his body through the dust in the air.
We had gotten to St. Vincent's at around 4 a.m. and found the guy who had been dispatching the paramedics. He looked bad - worn, exhausted, grief-struck. He told us that the rescue efforts would resume at 5 a.m., so we should expect folks to be brought in around 45 minutes later than that. At around five a group of perky, young college students was let in to help organize and hand out the food that had been donated. A young woman, who looked like she was at a slumber party in her pig-tails and fleecy sweatshirt, walked up to groups of medical personnel, firefighters and police officers. "Can I get you some coffee?" she asked cheerily. It was endearing, her energy and enthusiasm, and thinking of her now reminds me of the whole spirit of the folks I encountered in New York City. People wanted to help each other; they weren't looking for rationale to go out and attack others. It was a place of giving, of listening, of shared looks of sorrow. I think of her and start to cry.
By 7a.m. Brian and I continued waiting. Dawn had passed, though it seemed astonishing that another day would start. As the sky lightened I looked toward "The Site" and saw the still rising smoke. It didn't feel or look like New York City. Though the sun was coming up, the air was still chilly, and we clung to our cups of coffee, huddled in the ambulance bay. We watched suited men and women talk to the groups of reporters across the street. A small group of suits headed our way. "Pataki's coming, right for us," Brian said. We shook our heads at each other, grinning at the unlikelihood of our situation, and sat watching him approach.
Pataki came straight for Brian and shook his hand. "God bless," Pataki said, looking into Brian's eyes, hand on his shoulder. "Govnuh," Brian replied, nodding his head. Pataki turned to me and held out his hand, which I shook with both hands. "God bless," he repeated. "God bless you too," I offered.
Pataki moved inside. Juveneile as it might be, I burst into giggles. This was too weird. I joked about how I might have yelled, "Drop the Rock!," referring to the Rockefeller Drug laws aiming to incarcerate more people, particularly of color, disproportionately women, for non-violent drug offenses. The joke being that this would have been completely inappropriate given the time and place. But our one opportunity for words with Pataki had passed. I was giddy with sleeplessness, coffee-drinking, and nervous energy.
Our day at St. Vincent's involved a lot of sitting around, chatting, waiting, eating free food that came in all day. Once we had been positioned at Decon with another woman, June, we did treat a few folks. Brian and I laughed at the irony of us doing eyeflushes. That had been one of most frequent treatments when we had medic-ed in Quebec City in April for the protests against the Summit of Americas, where tens of thousands of people were subjected to tear gas. "This is our area of expertise!" we told June, showing her a better way to hold someone's eye open. We bagged and organized gear that had come off of firefighters on their way into the hospital. Even the amount of dust that caked their jackets and pants burned my throat. Once, I returned a bag to a firefighter on his way out of the emergency room. I was led to an African-American man hunched over onto crutches. He had a brace on each foot. What do you say to someone who's come out of such tragedy? I looked him in the eyes and thanked him for having been there to help people. His eyes welled up with tears. I hurried back to Decon.
By mid-afternoon Brian and I were exhausted and decided to head uptown to our action medic friend Meredith's for a break and some much needed sleep. I had already taken brief naps, first seated on the curb where the ambulances would have come in and later seated upright in a wheelchair on the sidewalk.
When we returned that evening, the hospital had been sealed up because of electrical fire smoke in the air. All of the stretchers and wheelchairs that had been hopefully lined up outside during the day were no longer there. The garage that had housed Decon was closed. We were told there was nothing we could do. By midnight ,after verification at "The Site" where we had gone with Meredith to try to offer relief to some of the folks working down there, we understood that there was nothing we could do.
"This is a recovery mission only now. We're sending people home," we were told, thanked for coming, and again welcomed to help ourselves to some of the free food and coffee. We left the city by midnight and drove upstate. After leaving Brian in Syracuse, I cried all the way home as I listened on the radio to the stories of family and friends of the victims. I cried thinking of what it meant that there was nothing we could do, that it wasn't us in our skill-level or our political leanings that could do nothing, but that nothing could be done for those people still underneath the rubble.
There Is Something We Can Do Edit
A week after being in New York City, I finally put my boots back on in preparation for a training that Ingrid and I were co-facilitating on "Health and Safety at Protests." I noticed the grey mud, and thought about how I hadn't touched my boots since I took them off when I returned home at 5:30 a.m. on Thursday. I didn't want to wipe them off a week later. It was like a touch of reality amidst the world to which I had returned. One where hate and racism are seen as patriotic and supportive of democracy? One where war, not critical reflection on the role of the US in global politics, is seen as an appropriate response? One where my brown-skinned friends are afraid to walk the streets even in our "most enlightened" town for fear of being accosted, beaten or worse based on their skin color and/or suspected religion? One where I'm wondering what is it that I'm actually doing to fight all of this?
At our "Health and Safety" training, I felt an even greater urgency in talking about taking care of oneself and one's friends in the streets at protests. Over the past few years there has already been an increasing risk of state-sanctioned violence against mass demonstration, including the types of policing (mass police violence) that went on in Quebec City last April or Genoa this summer. The intensity has been heightened by the push for increased surveillance and infiltration. To preserve democracy? Who are these people kidding? At the "Health and Safety" training, a young woman, maybe eighteen years old, who's never been to any big demonstration before, asked us in one of our calls for questions: "What will the riot police do?" Ingrid and I tried to put that question aside, saying that we would cover some of those things as the training went on, but we did not satisfy her because at the end of the workshop she repeated the question: "What will the riot police do?"
Yes, that's an important question I think we should all be asking. What will the riot police do? What will we allow policing to become in these times? What rights are we going to allow to be stripped from us? And I can tell you, having been strip-searched before, that there may be a point when we're so weary that we don't even care anymore, when after a series of humiliations, stripping becomes almost inconsequential in the face of wanting something even as basic as a shower. I don't want to reach that place again. What violence will we let this nation sanction? What civil liberties will we allow stripped away by a government headed by a non-democratically posted figurehead for corporate elites?
Now I'm preparing to put my boots back on, ready to provide medic support for the Anti-War and Anti-Racism rallies to be held this weekend in Washington, D.C. When I've told people about being an action medic at protests, I've often been asked if we're given some kind of special treatment by police, because we're medics. I have had to break it to them that it's not uncommon for action medics to be targetted by police at protests. I'm used to the them vs. us dichotomy.
Yet it's part of my positions of privilege that I'm able to walk between worlds when I choose, like I did on September 11 and 12, mostly because of my white skin, but also because I can put on a uniform, display credentials which include not just EMT certification but, often more highly regarded (though requiring less practical skills), an Ivy League education. I have the class background to play the game and not stick too far out, if at all. Cynical as this might sound, Brian and I were let into New York City not just for our compassion and our desire to help, but mostly for being able to play the part. This weekend, it seems we'll be back on the other side.
Last weekend, in another uniform, business casual, I met the head of a high-level, lefty anti-globalization NGO. In a group introduction he emphasized that he was for policy change and wanted to differentiate himself from "those anarchists who throw chairs through windows and engage in other forms of property destruction." I later introduced myself to him; "I'm an anarchist," I told him (I bet he didn't expect to be among one of those at Cornell University), "and I engage in emergency first aid!" I urged him to rethink his corporate-media produced stereotypes of just who's out there on the streets. As I would urge others to challenge the stereotypes we hold: of who's a "terrorist," of who's "violent."
Regardless of your political beliefs and what you think you know of mine just by virtue of my using that word, "anarchist," I urge you to consider what kind of world you're creating. Because we're all involved in creation. And I want to live in a world of compassion, not hate; a world where people are appreciated for what they offer, not some abstract notion of citizenship; a world of mutual support and care-giving.
These are the lessons I learned on my birthday this year.
Written by Rachel Szego, 24 September, 2001
Rachel Szego was an action medic affilitated with NorthEast Action Medics Association (NEAMA), Ithaca Street Medics, and Radical Emergency Squad (RESQ). She was also an activist with the Ithaca Coalition for Global Justice (a.k.a., Ithaca Sharks) and a PhD student studying Development Sociology at Cornell University.
With thanks to Brian Dominick, Ingrid Bauer, Justin Dewyea, and Meredith.