How does an American community, a suburb, really, learn overnight how to deal with injuries sustained from tear gas, rubber bullets, pepper spray, and a militarized police force? Using the internet, of course.
Ten days ago, the people of Ferguson, Missouri, had no idea how to help someone who's having a panic attack because they've been pepper sprayed, how to flush a tear gas victim's eyes with a mixture of equal parts Maalox and water, or how to get the lingering effects of tear gas off their clothes.
Now, they're old pros, in part thanks to a network of volunteers and organizations from as far away as Australia and Palestine who have dealt with police brutality and abuse in the past.
"I don't think any community, at least in the US, is equipped to deal with getting tear gassed by the people who are supposed to be helping them," Kalaya'an Mendoza, an activist with Amnesty International who has been in Ferguson for much of the last week, told me. "Palestinians have been emailing and sending tips for dealing with tear gas that they use in their own struggle. When people post on Twitter that they've been tear gassed, people are speaking up and saying 'do this, not that.' It's fascinating to see how fast Twitter has figured out how to help."
— Amanda Wills (@AmandaWills) August 19, 2014
Last night, Mendoza helped a journalist who was having trouble breathing after he'd been tear gassed. In Ferguson, there isn't really a street medicine brigade, with duct-taped red crosses on their shirts, as there were during the civil rights protests of the 1960s and the Occupy protests of a couple years ago.
Instead, the general population has really taken it upon themselves to learn how to treat each others' medical maladies, with the help of Twitter (and people who have learned what to do thanks to Twitter). Mendoza says that if he hadn't been around to help the journalist, someone else likely would have been able to help him eventually.
"Being a street medic has become normalized within the scope of being an activist," he said.
— Shawn Carrié (@shawncarrie) August 18, 2014
That's in part, he says, a testament to the way Ferguson residents have banded together in the last week or so (and an unfortunate consequence of having this protest, and the police response to it, spill over into a second week) but it's also thanks to organizations such as the Melbourne Street Medic Collective, which has been organizing people on the ground from the other side of the world.
The collective, which earned its stripes during the height of Occupy, has been instrumental in developing health material that can be printed out and handed out to residents of the city.
"Over the last few years, we've seen a lot of shit, talked a lot of shit, and learned a lot of shit," a medic with the collective, who goes by the pseudonym John Zoidberg, told me in an email. "We're no stranded to international solidarity and support … even if we can't have a presence on the ground, we can share guides on basic first air techniques."
The Melbourne collective has been tweeting information about how to deal with panic attacks, directing people on the ground to injured people, and are generally helping in any way it can.
"We mightn't be able to do much but if we can take some of the pressure off the medics on the ground so they can focus on the critical tasks then I'd like to think we've done something positive," Zoidberg added.
Social media and ever-present cell phone cameras has allowed the whole world to watch what's happening in Ferguson—but it's also allowed the whole world to offer its support right back.