The blasts seemed to arrive without warning, scattering a dense crowd of protesters who had amassed outside Austin Police Department headquarters Sunday evening.
Some demonstrators ran toward trees, others crouched behind cars or light poles. Countless more, screaming and panicked, sprinted under Interstate 35, desperate to get away from the police officers shooting projectiles into the crowd from their perch atop the highway.
Within a few seconds, it became clear that at least three demonstrators had been shot by police, including one young woman who had been struck in the back of the head. As blood streamed down her neck, staining her white T-shirt dark red, protesters rushed the injured woman to the only refuge available: a rugged medical outpost beneath the highway with first-aid supplies, water, and a loose-knit team of about ten volunteers. Their name: “Street Medics Austin.”
As the woman collapsed in a folding chair, Toby Heidel, a 46-year-old Austin firefighter who helped organize the team, went to work bandaging her head and keeping her conscious and calm. Despite the frenzy of screaming protesters, fireworks, blood, and loud music swirling around him, Heidel looked completely at ease. Several minutes later, the woman, who was unable to walk, was loaded into the back of a friend’s car and taken to the hospital.
“If you work in emergency services you always expect anything,” Heidel said calmly. “Our agenda is helping people, that’s why we’re here.”
As recently as Thursday, Street Medics Austin (SMA) didn’t exist. Several members of the group are close friends as well as “Burners”—people who identify as members of the Burning Man community. At regional Burning Man events in Austin (yes, that’s a thing), group members have provided first aid and safety for the burner community. On Friday night, with protests in Austin scheduled the next day, Heidel and several others decided they’d bring their services to downtown Austin. By Saturday morning, they’d arranged several vehicles packed with medical supplies and folding chairs in a semicircle underneath I-35 across the street from APD headquarters. After putting on masks and placing bright red medical crosses on their clothing using tape, SMA was born.
“Often in a chaotic protest situation it’s not easy for first responders to get to people who need help and so we decided we wanted to try and fill that hole,” Heidel said, noting that they’d received several thousand dollars worth of donated medical supplies from the public. “Hopefully, we can take some of the onus off emergency services, too, so the system isn’t as taxed.”
Within hours of the team’s forming, members found themselves on the front lines of a series of dangerous confrontations between demonstrators and police. By the end of the day, they estimated, ambulances picked up eight protesters from their medical zone. Maredith Drake, a 44-year-old mother and volunteer, said injured people began to pour into the medical area after demonstrators stopped traffic on I-35 and police responded with tear gas and a volley of rubber bullets. When she signed up to help out, Drake had expected she’d be treating heat exhaustion and minor injuries. Instead, she found herself face-to-face with suffering she previously associated with war zones and mass shootings.
“I saw a young man yesterday who had his lower lip blown off and his teeth were shattered,” she said, accusing, like many others on scene, police of targeting black protesters. “He kept saying, ‘I wasn’t even holding a sign, I was just standing there!’ Another kid, maybe eighteen years old, had been shot in the back of the head and his skull was cracked and brain-like material was leaking out.”
“People were throwing water bottles and they responded with bullets,” she added. “I can’t believe this is America.”
Police did not immediately respond to a request for more information about their alleged use of rubber bullets and beanbag rounds, or the allegations that they were targeting people of color, but video of officers firing on protesters was posted on Twitter Sunday night. The area around APD headquarters is also littered with spent shells labeled “Drag Stabilized Bean Bag.”
Steve Arawn, a 43-year-old delivery driver, volunteered to work with SMA alongside his 20-year-old son, Jeremiah “Hoochi-Poo” Arawn. Steve Arawn, a longtime Austin resident, had always assumed he could trust the police department in the laid-back city he calls home. That changed Saturday, he said, when he watched officers spray a hillside filled with demonstrators across the street from I-35 with projectiles. Arawn was at the scene trying to treat a protester, he said, when he was struck in the wrist by one. Not longer after, he said, he was also struck in the thigh, where he still had a red-and-purple bruise 24 hours later.
“The police barraged that whole hillside with rubber bullets,” he said, pointing to a grassy area on East Seventh Street near a parking garage. “What stood out was just this disdain on their faces, followed by joy after someone was hit. I can’t forget it. Seeing that changed my life.”
By Sunday evening, SMA volunteers were emotionally exhausted. They’d grown accustomed to the cracks of police weapons and the surge of panicked protesters carrying injured friends that would immediately follow. But some scenes over the last 48 hours were hard to forget. Despite treating hundreds of people over the weekend, most of them for pepper spray effects, contusions, heat exhaustion, and hematomas, multiple SMA volunteers agreed that the most troubling thing they witnessed was a pregnant black woman being shot with rubber bullets multiple times by police.
“They shot her in the stomach and when she hit the ground they shot her twice in her spine and in her back,” Drake recalled, crouching as she spoke at the sound of another loud bang. “She kept screaming, ‘They killed my baby! They killed my baby!’”
During a live Q&A Monday afternoon, Austin Police Chief Brian Manley said his department is investigating multiple violent incidents involving police harming innocent protesters, including the pregnant woman who “was struck with an impact munition to her belly.”“We are looking into that,” he added.