Between January 9-13, I taught an ethics course called “Resilience and Resistance” at Starr King School for the Ministry, a member school of the Graduate Theological Union. Eleven faith leaders of multiple religious traditions explored life stressors, historical trauma, and health in the context of oppression, white supremacy and social movements. Through rigorous study, dialogue and spiritual reflection, the students analyzed and interrogated the historical and cultural dynamics of stress and resilience, hoping to identify contextual factors and healthy strategies and promote cultures of resistance in their ministries and activism. Course readings, guest presentations, and class discussion drew heavily from the scholarship from and lessons learned through movements led by people of color and poor/working class people. A website designed for the course will make available to the public some of the student’s final projects and begin a collection of web resources designed by seminarians for faith leaders involved seeking social justice.

Opportunities for praxis (reflection-and-action as an emancipatory component of education) were crucial to the course. One Phoenix-based Master of Divinity student, Nastasha Ostrom, spent her time applying her street medic skills and interest in resilience/resistance to Occupy Oakland. Her reflections show a piece of what self-care looks like in the context of protest, state violence, and community activism. As Occupy Oakland experienced yet another wave of police brutality, and arrests, as well as solidarity from various other cities’ demonstrations this past weekend, Ostrom’s insights seem increasingly relevant in the public dialogue about caring for each other in the faith-full struggle for social justice.

Lessons Learned About Resilience & Resistance from the Occupy Oakland Street Medics

by Nastasha Ostrom

“Work done with love sustains.”

“Resistance and Resilience are necessary for life. Know the friends you can go to when you are heartbroken.”

The above two quotes are from fellow students in “Resilience and Resistance“, a one-week Winter Intersession course I took this month at Starr King School for the Ministry. I spent sixteen days in Berkeley CA, where I took this and three other classes and visited and volunteered as a street medic during marches for Occupy Oakland and Occupy San Francisco.

You could say that I learned a valuable lesson or two about resilience and resistance both in class and out in the streets.

On Saturday, January 14th, while many of my classmates were attending a daylong Womanist Symposium, I went down to Oscar Grant Plaza to make contact with Occupy Oakland and feel out their need for more medical volunteers for that evening’s march. With security culture in the Bay area being what it is, I was a little concerned that I – an unknown walk-up volunteer – might not be particularly welcome or trusted, but as soon as I announced that I was a street medic visiting from Occupy Phoenix I was immediately introduced to one of the on-site medics and invited to the street medic training that would be taking place in a few hours. He did a great job of helping orient me to Occupy Oakland’s very, very different protest context.

For those who are only familiar with the protest scene in Phoenix, or only with the protest scene in Oakland, here is a quick breakdown of the differences between the two:

  • In Occupy Phoenix medics are able to communicate fairly well with the police, who will work with us occasionally if needed; we are sometimes even allowed to cross riot lines. Medics in Oakland do not share these privileges; in fact, medics in Oakland are regularly targeted by police and I did not talk to a single medic who had not been injured or attacked at least once by the Oakland PD.
  • While it is true that Occupy Phoenix has seen some police brutality – everyone pepper-sprayed during the First Friday march following the ALEC protests can testify to that fact – it is nowhere near as common as it is in Oakland. I know more people in Occupy Phoenix who have never been victims of police brutality than people who have. In Occupy Oakland nearly every person I spoke to has been injured or attacked by the police at some point or another since their protest started.
  • There is a major difference between the types of police brutality seen in Occupy Phoenix compared to that seen in Occupy Oakland. In Phoenix, as already stated, we’ve been pepper-sprayed as well as kicked by the police and denied medications in jail. In Oakland they’re being shot with bean bags and flash-bangs, hit with batons, and tear-gassed.

I already knew some of this just from watching the LiveStreams and YouTube videos and reading news articles and blogs, but after taking “Resilience and Resistance” I wanted to know how people have been able to keep protesting despite these hostile circumstances. The heart-wrenching reality is that many of the folks in Occupy Oakland could very easily end up becoming the next Scott Olsens.

Yet they keep on protesting, and the ways they protest are surprisingly nonviolent, disciplined and organized despite countless reasons for them to be outraged, terrified or completely out-of-control. How do they do it?

The first thing I think they’re doing is being utterly realistic about their situation, about the danger they’re in and the willingness of the officers to hurt every single person who gets involved in these protests. They come prepared to withstand violence, both in terms of the equipment they carry as well as the strategies they employ to protect themselves and one another. They even teach one another ways to keep calm and avoid panic during actions.

Even so, many of them have been hurt despite the efforts they have made to come prepared to and protect themselves during actions. I met one man who had been hit with a bean bag the week before and three young women – all medics – who had each in separate incidents been hit with a bean bag, hit with a baton, or thrown roughly to the ground by the police. Their accounts of their abuse suggest that medics are most likely to be attacked when they are treating patients; as a result, two of the young women admitted that since sustaining their injuries, they have been extremely frightened or “re-triggered” during subsequent protests. I walked with one during the beginning of the march; she was not volunteering that day because she did not yet feel ready to serve as a medic, and she soon began to hyperventilate and had to return to the plaza and sit the march out. However she volunteered as a medic the following week and was able to stay the entire march. The other young woman had taken a few weeks off after being assaulted and was gently reintroducing herself to the protest scene; at that evening’s march she participated as a medic for the first time in weeks.

I think the willingness of both women to practice self-care, and the support of their fellow medics, were both incredibly important in helping them be resilient despite the trauma they had suffered and continue resisting despite the continued threat of police brutality. The Occupy Oakland Medic Collective’s network of care and emphasis on self-care, within Occupy Oakland’s larger context of preparation, discipline and protection, appears to have contributed greatly to the perseverance of these protesters and this protest in the face of constant state violence.

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