Judge Asked to Block Portland Police From Assaulting Protest Medics

Federal police fire tear gas, pepper balls and flash bangs at protesters outside the federal courthouse at a protest against police brutality in Portland, Ore., on Tuesday, July 21. (Courthouse News photo/Karina Brown)

PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) — Attorneys in Portland, Oregon, asked a federal judge Tuesday to order police not to beat, pepper-spray or arrest medics who don’t immediately leave when police order a crowd to disperse because they are actively caring for protesters who are injured and can’t move.

Protest medic Chris Wise says he was crouched over an injured protester, providing aid, when police shot him with rubber bullets. Another medic, Jessica Schifflett, says she was trying to carry an injured elderly protester to safety while police beat her with batons.

Medics like Wise and Schifflett are volunteers. Wise is a trained emergency medical technician. Schifflett is a volunteer EMT and a certified medical assistant. Other plaintiffs in the case are medical students.

Wise, Schifflett and others, wearing red tape in crosses on their backs and helmets, are a common sight at Portland’s protests. Every night for nearly 100 consecutive days, volunteer medics have flushed the eyes of protesters temporarily blinded and in pain from tear gas, pressed gauze to bleeding cuts and carried wounded demonstrators away from the front lines of protests.

After suing the city in July, the medics argued Tuesday that the court should grant a temporary restraining order that would allow them to stay behind lines of advancing officers in certain specific circumstances. Police can still clear an area while allowing the medics to tend people who might have been knocked unconscious or have broken bones, the medics say. If granted by U.S. District Judge Karin Immergut, the order would apply only to local police, not to federal defendants U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Marshals Service.

“Our clients wear high-visibility crosses that are visible from all angles,” attorney Nathan Morales said at Tuesday’s hearing. “When police are engaged in things like bull rushes, they are bypassing other protesters and going directly to medics to take them out while they are rendering aid. This shows they are trying to take the medics out to make all the protesters feel unsafe.”

Medics aren’t breaking any laws, Morales said. At most, those who refuse to disperse are engaged in passive resistance, which the Oregon Supreme Court has defined as “noncooperation with police orders.” But either way, he said, beating them amounts to excessive force.

“They weren’t engaged in any criminal activity,” Morales said. “But even if they were, if not immediately complying with dispersal order justifies some use of force, it does not justify the extent of force used.”

But city attorney William Manlove said what the medics are asking for would put police in danger.

“They’re saying it’s only failure to disperse — that that’s not a severe offense. But the question is not about the severity of the offense. It’s the risk to the officers,” Manlove said. “We’re talking about riots in the city streets at night. That creates a safety risk for not only the police but everyone else. The other protesters who are there and the media who is documenting it and everybody else. It’s not simply the severity of the crime, the most important factor is the immediacy of the threat to the police.”

Courtney Peck, another attorney for the medics, said providing first aid is the medics’ method of protest. By preventing them from helping injured protesters, she said, police are infringing on medics’ First Amendment rights.

“Our clients are protesting in a specific way,” Peck told Immergut. “They are doing it in a very tangible way. They are not accepting police violence. Instead, they are stepping in and preventing it so police cannot injure people and thereby prevent people from protesting.”

Manlove countered that, saying a restraining order would allow medics to break the law. Medics are subject to the same dispersal orders as all the other protesters, he argued, because they share the same cause: ending police brutality and systemic racism.

“They are asking for an exception from an Oregon criminal statute — interfering with a police officer,” Manlove said. “The real question is,does the First Amendment give them some kind of exception? Certainly they have a subjective intent to convey some type of message. But if their message is the same as the message of thousands of other protesters, then they don’t have a particularized message.”

But Peck said protest medics provide a necessary service amid widespread violence inflicted by police that police medics rarely respond to.

Court documents show that paramedics embedded with police were not the first to respond when federal officers shot protester Donavan La Bella in the head with a tear gas cannister, Peck said. Instead, Wise and fellow plaintiff Chris Durkee helped La Bella.

“Donovan couldn’t wait five minutes for medical care,” Peck told Immergut. “He just couldn’t. He was choking on his own blood.”

And protest medics were the first to respond on Saturday night when Aaron “Jay” Danielson was fatally shot in the chest. Police are investigating the shooting.

Photos from the scene show protest medic Sierra Boyne kneeling next to Danielson, providing first aid. Moments later, police arrive and shove her aside.

“And so the protest medic was forced to stand there and watch this individual bleed out, without the care he otherwise could have had,” Morales said Tuesday. “Are there other medics around? We don’t know because there’s a lack of information. Are there one or two medics embedded per shift? We don’t know. But what we have seen is the protests medics there, available and ready to give care at a moment’s notice.”

Judge Immergut said she would review the parties’ briefs and declarations before ruling, likely on Wednesday.

“I am hopeful I will be able to issue a decision tomorrow,” Immergut said.

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