Portland Protest Medics Lose Bid to Stay When Police Disperse Crowds

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) — Allowing protest medics to keep treating injured protesters as police clear away crowds using tear gas and rubber bullets would be “unworkable” due to the chaos of protests, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.

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.

Four of them sued the city of Portland and the Department of Homeland Security in July, claiming police and federal agents target them with assault and arrest as a way to weaken and intimidate protesters.

The medics say providing mutual aid is a specific form of protest, and when police forcibly clear streets, shoving protesters out of their way, often beating or pepper-spraying those who don’t comply, the medics come to the aid of those demonstrators. Police then violently remove the medics as they are assisting protesters — and the medics say that’s a violation of their First Amendment rights.

U.S. District Judge Karin Immergut rejected the medics’ request for a temporary restraining order that would have allowed them to remain when police disperse crowds of demonstrators — only in the limited instances when a medic is actively assisting a wounded protester.

“Although plaintiffs’ goal of providing aid to protesters is undoubtedly admirable, this court has found no legal authority for affording protest medics, as defined by plaintiffs, unique recognition under the First Amendment beyond that afforded any individual who attends a protest,” Immergut wrote. “Protest medics may continue to protest and provide medical aid during the protests. They simply have no unique status under the First Amendment that allows them to disregard lawful orders.”

The medics claim police used crowd-control munitions like tear gas and pepper bullets indiscriminately and also targeted such weapons at them, despite the red crosses taped or painted onto their clothing, often accompanied by the word “medic” in red. But Immergut found those markings don’t provide adequate visibility.

“This lack of uniformity cuts against the proposition that protest medics are readily identifiable, especially when considering the chaotic situations where officers must distinguish between protest medics and other protesters through split-second judgments,” Immergut wrote.

And the judge questioned the idea that police are specifically targeting medics, noting that in several instances where medics say police assaulted them, they weren’t actively providing medical care. Instead, she found the medics were often assaulted while remaining in an area police were trying to clear.

“It is well established that protected speech can be regulated,” Immergut wrote, citing precedent. “Regulation of speech is justified ‘if it furthers an important or substantial governmental interest; if the governmental interest is unrelated to the suppression of free expression; and if the incidental restriction on alleged First Amendment freedoms is no greater than is essential to the furtherance of that interest.’

“As previously noted, under Oregon law, Portland police have authority to disperse unlawful or riotous assemblies and arrest those who do not immediately comply. Portland police are entitled to use some level of reasonable force under the circumstances to effectuate the dispersal.”

She added: “This court acknowledges the significance of this moment in our nation’s history, and the crucial role of peaceful assembly in preserving American democracy. However, there is also a strong public interest in maintaining order and public safety.”

Attorney Rian Peck of Perkins Coie LLP, counsel for the ACLU of Oregon, had a different take:

“Deliberately attacking a medic is usually considered a war crime,” Peck said in a statement. “Our clients have been shot, arrested, pepper-sprayed, Maced, tackled, and beaten while they were clearly marked as volunteer medics. Just like our clients continue to fight in support of Black lives, this is just the beginning of our fight for protest medics in Portland.”

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