Nurses: Protesters are our patients. Stop attacking them

Alison Krebs Glorioso

Registered nurse Asantewaa Boykin was volunteering as a medic in Sacramento, Calif. Cesar Chavez plaza during a recent protest, when people who had begun to march out of the plaza — came running right back. They were fleeing from tear gas that had been fired at them by the Sacramento police. Boykin, who has been a social justice advocate longer than she has worked in the emergency department at Sacramento’s UC Davis Medical Center, soon found herself overcome by tear gas, as well.

“I think hyper awareness that our lives are literally on the line definitely drew people into the streets,” Boykin said of protesters standing up for an end to police violence — only to be subjected to police violence themselves. As a protest medic, Boykin said she has seen everything from a protester’s skull fractured by a police projectile, to abrasions on protesters who have fallen down, while running to avoid being shot or gassed.

National Nurses United (NNU) is the largest union of registered nurses in the country, representing Boykin and 150,000 other nurses, and these protesters are our patients. It’s our duty to advocate for their health safety, and that means standing up for racial justice and saying, “Enough!” to the weapons of war used on people protesting the police violence that has killed George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others.

Take tear gas, for example. This chemical weapon has proven fatal in documented cases and is banned in actual warfare, yet it is used liberally by police departments across the country on protesters. It can cause symptoms including vomiting, blurred vision, shortness of breath, tearing, difficulty swallowing, temporary blindness, pain — and coughing and sneezing. I’ll say that again for those in the back: It can cause coughing and sneezing during a pandemic when it’s critical not to spread the virus causing COVID-19.

In addition, to tear gas, militarized police across the country have shown up to recent protests for racial justice and an end to police violence with flashbangs (also known as stun grenades). These weapons have heat exceeding 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit and a blast of 175 decibels and can cause burns, hearing loss, temporary blindness, injuries from shrapnel, and death. Police have also fired rubber bullets, which often have a metal core, and are responsible for deaths, often from the head, neck, and torso trauma — and internal bleeding, organ damage, and bruising

This is all not to mention other forms of police violence, including kicking, pushing, beating, and kettling protesters, leaving them with no way to escape police violence.

Nurses have seen these violent police tactics before, including during deployments of NNU’s Registered Nurse Response Network (RNRN) to Occupy Wall Street, to Standing Rock, and to the U.S.-Mexico border. At Standing Rock in 2016, nurses met water protector Vanessa Dundon, whose eye was shot out by a tear gas canister fired by police — just as Brandon Saenz’s eye was recently shot out with “less lethal ammunition” at a May 30 Dallas protest, and freelance photographer Linda Tirado’s eye was shot out by a foam bullet at a May 29 Minneapolis protest.

As we connect the lines, nurses can see that police violence against protesters spans calendar years, locations, and protest issues; it is ubiquitous. As advocates for public health and safety, we call for an end to this violence.

“What the police are doing is perpetuating a cycle of trauma and abuse that not only costs lives, but it can also … further perpetuate inequalities and injustices,” said NNU member Heather Honstein, RN, pointing out that chronic stress alone can cause vast negative health impacts for individuals and communities brutalized by the police.

A cardiovascular surgical ICU nurse at Washington D.C.’s MedStar Washington Hospital, Honstein was among protesters gathered peacefully in Lafayette square near the White House on June 1. She left around 6 p.m., 30 minutes before federal police violently dispersed peaceful crowds, using gas canisters, grenades, and significant force.

Trapped in her house a few miles away, with low-flying helicopters constantly humming overhead as a “fear tactic,” Honstein wished she could go back out and help more seriously in her capacity as a registered nurse. The next day, she sought out the official medics, already working in an organized way to provide medical help for protesters, and she joined them as a volunteer medic.

As nurses, we could never have predicted that we would simultaneously be on the front lines of a pandemic at work, and the front lines of a local battlefield in our free time. But it’s 2020, and here we are. 

Let’s be clear: The only people who come to protests dressed for war are police officers, and their use of force against protesters exercising their constitutional right to assembly is a threat to democracy. It’s also a colossal waste of public resources that would be far better spent on public health and other social programs that are especially essential in the midst of a pandemic and economic crisis. Nurses know what it takes to keep our patients safe, and violence and so-called “less lethal” weapons of force is not it.

Standing up for racial justice and the issues that matter should not be lethal in any amount.

Bonnie Castillo, RN, is the executive director of National Nurses United, the largest union of registered nurses in the United States.


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