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Police restrict medics ahead of Richard Spencer protest at University of Florida

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Student organizers at the University of Florida have worked with local organizations to provide a team of street medics for an October 19 protest of Richard Spencer, but the uniformed command — the many law enforcement officials coordinating to provide security — says the medics can’t bring any supplies.

On a website set up specifically to answer questions about the accommodations and restrictions for the speech, the university listed several prohibited items including water bottles and bags of any kind. A student representative for No Nazis at UF, a student-led coalition of local and national organizations founded when Spencer’s speech was first announced in August, called the policy “ridiculous,” and lamented that “medics can’t even carry supplies in order to help anyone.”

Street medics — who wear the red cross on a shirt, armband or backpack — train regularly to carry injured protesters away from danger and administer first aid for ailments ranging from broken bones to heat exhaustion. One medic, who asked to be referred to as Jane, completed the initial 20-hour street medic training in August only to treat head wounds in Charlottesville later that month. “I can’t imagine Charlottesville without medics,” Jane said. “Whether we’re dealing with injuries, chemical agents, or just making sure people stay hydrated, there’s always something to do.”

Another medic, who asked to be referred to as Bo, said he has mostly seen cuts, burns and concussions over the past year of helping out in the streets. Bo has been an Emergency Medical Service, or EMS, for the past eight years and used his training to treat these injuries, as well as diabetic emergencies, heat stroke, and “penetrating trauma” caused by stabs and gunshot wounds.

To prepare for a protest, street medics need to be able to carry equipment to treat injured protesters. Jane packs what is needed for any given protest, ranging from some snacks, gauze, tape, gloves and salts for peaceful rallies to flashlights, fold-up splints, hot and cold packs, and menstrual pads for more intense protests.

At the top of the priority list for Gainesville is water and cold packs. “Florida’s hot and people are at risk for dehydration and heat stroke,” Jane said. “If people get arrested, they’re likely to be denied water in jail, and under stressful circumstances, bodies need proper electrolytes and good hydration. Bringing hundreds of protesters to the infirmary is going to be expensive and dangerous.” No Nazis at UF says it has alerted the University of Florida police of their safety concerns and is investigating legal action against the uniformed command’s restrictions.

Bo has experienced being stripped of his ability to provide care before. At a protest in Virginia, a state trooper actively prevented him from performing CPR on a patient in critical condition. “As a professional,” he said, “I feel best equipped to serve in a caregiver role.”

The restrictions in place by the uniformed command will prevent street medics from being able to treat common protest injuries. They will have no water to flush eyes of chemical spray and will only have as much gauze as they can carry in their pockets — assuming the police don’t confiscate it anyway. At the end of the prohibited items list is, “Any other items that campus police determine pose a risk to safety or a disruption of classes or vehicular or pedestrian traffic.”

So far, the university plans to spend over $500,000 with other agencies to neutralize the protests both on campus and around the city of Gainesville. To No Nazis at UF, this is a hefty price tag to protect an uninvited lecture from a widely acknowledged crackpot who paid $10,564 to reserve a university auditorium to pontificate on biological and psychological theories roundly rejected by the scientific community.

On the group’s Twitter account, No Nazis at UF proposed a shortlist of items this security tab could have funded at the university, including additional full time professors, minority outreach and retention programs, and departments for African American and Latinx Studies.

They were critical of the president’s emailed statement to the university which encouraged students to attend alternative events or stay home. He also tweeted, “Not only is UF paying for Spencer’s platform, they are actively encouraging students not to protest.”

On Monday, student and faculty protesters held a press conference that turned into an impromptu march to the university president’s house. Nicole Long, a University of Florida grad student and organizer with National Women’s Liberation, said the marchers developed a list of three successive demands, asking him to cancel the event or, failing that, roll back the prohibited items list. Failing these first two demands, protesters demanded that the president, “Resign so we can get someone in leadership who will actually stand up for our students.”

While the university has closed numerous buildings including the main wellness center, classes are otherwise not cancelled. According to the university website, students are expected to request to be excused by their instructors. Faculty who want to cancel their classes may only do so with the permission of their deans.

“The proposed Richard Spencer visit,” said Paul Ortiz, a history professor and vice president of the United Faculty of Florida union, “is a violation of our collective bargaining agreement, because it is a violation of worker’s safety. When Richard Spencer comes here with his acolytes it makes the staff unsafe; it makes our students unsafe; it makes our faculty unsafe. So we believe the proposed Richard Spencer visit is a violation of not only federal labor law, but a violation of our collective bargaining agreement.”

Union officials have reported hate crimes at the African American Studies department as well as nooses left in the classrooms of black faculty members. The union has circulated a petition demanding the president and board of trustees cancel the event and is exploring legal options. While the university is coercing its faculty to work in such a hostile environment, it is simultaneously cutting the hours of staff who work in the shuttered buildings.

The event had originally been scheduled for a month prior, before public outcry shortly after the attack on Charlottesville antifascist protesters by a member of the white nationalist Vanguard America that left one dead and 19 injured. Vanguard America was one of the groups that teamed up with Richard Spencer to hold the Charlottesville rally.

In an open letter from August on the United Faculty of Florida website, UFF chapter president Steven Kim exposed credible threats of violence to student and faculty protesters from the far right on various blog posts and forums in response to the original announcement. The event was cancelled amid security concerns, but the university capitulated to Spencer when he threatened legal action last month.

According to the university website, the event was merely postponed to allow for significant security arrangements. Malini Johar Schueller, an English professor for over 30 years at the University of Florida, was skeptical that more heavily armed police would make anyone safer. “A lot of violent tragic things happen when the police are trained,” she said, pointing to a video documenting the shooting of University of Florida doctoral student Kofi Adu-Brempong by the campus police in 2010. In response to a noise complaint from a neighbor, campus police arrived in SWAT gear, kicked down the door of Adu-Brempong’s apartment, and shot him with bean bag rounds, a taser and an M4 rifle.

Schueller estimates the $500,000 security budget would be better spent on financial aid and graduate assistantships for the student population the university is intended to serve. “The disruption it’s causing is totally ridiculous,” she said.