Protesters block the passage of a prisoner transport bus in Philadelphia on May 30, 2020

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Editor’s note: This account was written by a Philly native doctor who lives in the city and has been practicing medicine in the region for seven years. During the first three days of citywide Black Lives Matter protests in Philadelphia, he was off duty at the ER and instead went out to help heal injuries in the streets. To protect his job, family and home, he wishes to remain anonymous.

Saturday, May 30: Visceral, violent, disorganized

I grabbed my bike and headed down to the Art Museum to participate in the Black Lives Matter protest that was forming.

Crowds migrated down the Ben Franklin Parkway to City Hall, and I followed as they moved toward I-676, where protestors were blocked from the on ramp. The tense scene escalated, with a state trooper vehicle set on fire.

At Broad and Race, I saw protesters block the passage of a sheriff transport bus en route to the flames. By sitting down peacefully in the vehicles’ path, people forced the police buses to back up. They probably protected several others from mass arrests, I thought.

For the first time that week, I cried.

I began circling the scene, speaking with multiple protesters, and also asking a few police officers, firefighters and medics about their thoughts on what was going on. After a couple of hours, I went home.

Once home, I felt unsettled. I decided I needed to help support the protesters in the best way I knew how: medically. Putting on scrubs, I wrote out phone numbers for my girlfriend and legal support and taped them to my sleeve in case I got arrested.

I also put on a protective face shield and eye goggles, precautions I internalized after months isolating from most family and friends.

Biking back to Broad and Vine where the state trooper vehicle had been on fire a few hours earlier, I discovered a garbage truck barricade. I went up to police officers and medics, asking if there were any injured on scene. They directed me to different fires downtown. Before leaving, I asked them to reflect on how massive a moment in American history this was.

At that point in the night, most of the protesters had dispersed. As I biked around and tried to have a few more conversations, I was struck by the lack of communication among law enforcement.

I would bring up how the blaze by the CVS had been upgraded to a 4-alarm fire, for example, or that there was a police officer who’d suffered multiple broken bones when hit by a car — and it was clear to me a lot of the officers and medics didn’t know any of this. There seemed to be little clear communication across the departments about what was going on.

Seeing the scene downtown that night was visceral, it was violent, it was disorganized. People were getting hurt, I thought, and this was surely going to continue.

A burned up police car after the protests on May 30 Credit: Provided by author

Sunday, May 31: Firefighters get tear-gassed

On the second day, I took more time to organize, filling my pack with appropriate, accessible supplies. I kept hearing West Philadelphia had heavy amounts of protests, so that’s where I went.

After speaking with several officers and medics near 52nd Street, they allowed me through their blockades to provide medical assistance. A police vehicle was parked up on the curb against the door of the Foot Locker, which crowds proceeded to destroy. As people used the car to ram into the store, tear gas and rubber bullets were shot at them…shot at us.

As I was treating people’s tear-gassed eyes with sterile water, I saw someone run around the corner with a t-shirt held to their head. Blood was pouring down their face. I introduced myself as a doctor, washed out the rubber bullet wound, and applied a pressure dressing to control the bleeding. Nearby firefighters got medics to load them onto a stretcher.

I retreated back to the corner to re-organize supplies and ran into a firefighter who offered me hand sanitizer. As I cleaned my hands, the entire block was tear gassed again. The firefighters doused their faces with water from the pump on the side of the firetruck while cursing about getting caught in the mix.

I won’t forget that image. The firefighters were there to help put out fires and transport injured, and they ended up tear-gassed by law enforcement like everyone else.

Continuing on in West Philly, I encountered a number of other nurses and doctors providing aid outside a Sun Ray Pharmacy that was being set on fire. I felt profound comfort in knowing that there were others doing this.

More tear gas and rubber bullets sent us running with the crowds. A block away, we were able to wash out the eyes of protestors and bandage wounds of those shot with rubber bullets. Most people declined any further medical attention, including an approximately 12-year-old boy screaming in pain — he just ran away. After a few more rounds of this on different blocks, the largest groups had dispersed and we decided to go home.

That night, I could hear explosions and see large plumes of smoke a few blocks from my house. The distinct smell of tear gas seeped through my windows.

Credit: Provided by author

Monday, June 1: ‘We don’t need no doctor’

The next morning, I decided to join my girlfriend in doing wound care for the homeless population in Kensington, where she works for a nonprofit.

Under the El, most businesses were either closed, destroyed or actively on fire. After dividing up medical supplies and food into individual bags, we went around Kensington Avenue handing them out until I left to head home for a work meeting.

My girlfriend then encountered a crew of police officers chasing a person and purposely hitting him with their car, sending him flying to the ground.

I wasn’t there, but I later watched a video of the event taken by a nearby social worker. More than a dozen officers attempted to pin the man down to arrest him. At the same time, they were using intimidation tactics to control the uproar of the community members, who had gathered to ensure the safety of the individual during the arrest process.

Certainly, I didn’t know the details, but I couldn’t help but wonder, is this the norm? Do many arrests happen like this? Was anyone worried about his airway, or assessing possible injuries from him being hit by a car?

Later we went back out on our bikes. In Center City, we stumbled upon a tent with first aid supplies, bottled water and hand sanitizer. It had been set up by volunteers, and my girlfriend knew one of them from nursing school. We were soon added to a text chain coordinating plans with the goal of providing BIPOC health care professionals at each protest event around the city. More people like me. More people like us.

We departed the tent and headed north. At Spring Garden Street, we encountered a car protest — just before it was broken up by police using tear gas and rubber bullets. We treated as many people as we could before turning around to head home.

As we were leaving, what looked like military police came around the corner. “Go home!” they shouted through a megaphone, while aiming their guns at us. We yelled back that we were indeed headed home: “We live that way!”

They shot rubber bullets between our bikes and continued yelling at us. “We don’t need no doctor, we don’t need no nurse, go home!”

Making it back to Fishtown, we ran into the tail end of a tense standoff. We learned on social media that a group with bats in hand had decided to “protect” the police precinct from a peaceful protest that had been scheduled for 5 p.m.

By the time we arrived on scene at 8:30, the police were lined up in the middle of the street, separating the protesters on one side of Girard from the anti-protesters on the other. The groups eventually began breaking up, but as I started biking away, somebody yelled out “Doctor!” I turned back and was brought over to somebody who had just been assaulted by the guys with bats. He was standing and spitting blood.

None of the officers on scene were trying to get him to sit down or attend to him medically. Are they not trained to? No one attempted to take a statement from him regarding the assailants. I was able to wash out some of his wounds and gave the medics that later arrived a full rundown on his injuries.

Then I went home, and tried to sleep.

Police divide two groups facing off in Fishtown Credit: Provided to Billy Penn

My role in all of this

As a second generation American from a Southeast Asian immigrant family, I often struggle with identity and my role in a country that has such a history of racial divide and bias.

I’ve assimilated — and now I’m ashamed. The treatment of Black Americans in this country is shameful and requires deep, intentional work to undo hundreds of years of repression.

People protesting for the rights of Black Americans are getting hurt at these events and I have the skill set to help support them in a specific way. I’ve found a way that I can help and every day I’m finding new ways to continue the support: a book club with coworkers to help facilitate conversations around race among the medical community; support of local nonprofits that support underserved communities; support of Black-owned businesses.

I hope to continue to learn and grow in my practice of humanity and healing. I hope for the safety of everyone involved. And most of all, I hope that these protests have caused such a disruption in our usual lifestyles and practices that we can reflect, reprioritize and acknowledge what really matters.