If you’re anything like me, and how fortunate for you if you are, you think that words like “brilliant” and “genius” are tossed around entirely too much.
The popular media tend to describe anybody who can wangle a guest spot on The Daily Show, or who gets really, really mad about social injustice, as brilliant. And anybody with a new reason to hate Western culture or a song on Billboard’s Top 40 is automatically labeled a genius. Indeed, it seems to be a point of faith that any mook who can horn their way into the national dialogue must by default have something of towering importance to say, and the rest of us slow-witted gum-snappers must accept the Gospel as it is handed down to us or risk being branded bumpkins. Alas, the facts do not support those perceptions.
Facts are, truly brilliant people are typically duller than ditchwater concerning matters not directly associated with their specific area of brilliance, and those geniuses who don’t simply give themselves the title are generally awarded it by virtue of a single flash thereof. Put another way, strong opinions don’t automatically make you smart, and access to a bully pulpit doesn’t automatically make you right.
And yet, in the infinite and poorly organized parade that is human progress, there emerge at long intervals people who display authentic brilliance, and ideas that are genuinely ingenious, and if those words are to ever regain their fundamental meaning it is essential that we recognize those people and those ideas, and hold them up as glittering examples of the soaring intellectual heights to which each of us, if we don’t slouch, and faithfully listen to NPR, and have our teeth professionally whitened, may aspire.
It is my strong opinion that Zoe Williams is a truly brilliant person, and that the idea behind “street medics” is pure genious.
I tumbled to the under-appreciated street medic phenomenon in the pages of Denver’s funky free weekly, Westword, which contained a thoroughly over-blown feature article starring Zoe Williams on the tiresome occasion of Occupy Denver’s protracted 15 minutes of ill fame. Turns out Zoe is really, really mad about social injustice. She’s also really, really mad about Western culture ,and abhors the very sight of anything symbolic of American patriotism or the nation’s White, Anglo-European roots.
Zoe is a devoted anarchist who manages an alternative-press outlet dedicated to “radical politics”. And although you wouldn’t know it to look at her, Zoe’s not actually a woman, but rather a “female-bodied person” who wears her political correctness the way an 8-year-old, er, female-bodied person wears her mom’s makeup, because last, but by no means least, Zoe is a card-carrying member of that common class of self-dramatizing 20-something that simply can’t be happy unless everyone they meet knows exactly how much they despise just about everything others admire, and why.
Now you’d think that a female-bodied person equipped with Zoe’s strong opinions and formidable counter-cultural arsenal would exist in a constant state of scolding bliss, and lately that does seems to be her enviable situation. But in times past, and for far too long, poor Zoe found her sharp corrective tongue and desperate need for perpetual validation stifled by a shameful personal history. It seems the spiky-haired firebrand is, sadly, the product of middle-class suburban plenty, raised by White capitalist exploiters and afforded all the intolerable advantages unjustly deriving therefrom. It was a serious handicap for someone of her stern passions, but one that she courageously overcame by hitching her wagon to a self-glorifying band of all-purpose revolutionaries calling themselves “street medics.”
In theory, street medics are guardian angels (an unfortunate symbol of Christian cultural tyranny) who shadow the righteous wherever they rally in protest of whichever political/social/cultural/economic/taxonomic/bionomic injustice is most likely to attract television cameras. Armed with cautious zeal and formal emergency medical training ranging from slim-ish to none-ish, they hover on the wings of the fray, ready at any moment to swoop in and address the carnage wrought by The Man and his vicious pack of jack-booted attack-dogs. To her credit, Zoe has actually undergone nurse training, giving her useful real-world skills she uses to train other street medics and which, alas, are not much use on the protest trail.
Westword was on hand as Zoe suited up for an Occupy Denver march in Civic Center Park. A borrowed camo belt held up her black EMS pants, deep pockets stuffed with stuff like glucose tablets, white flower oil and an aromatic selection of soothing herbs. Her black shoulder bag bulged with a poncho, a heating blanket and bottled water. No fewer than three hip-bags were needed to tote her lifesaving freight of Band-Aids, gauze and Sharpies. Topped off with a black ballcap hand-stenciled with one of the few symbols Zoe can tolerate – the black cross of the street-medic support organization, Denver Anarchists Black Cross – she was the very picture of sober purpose, a sort of Value Village warrior sauntering out to watch others wage war.
As usual, the war was pretty tame, and Zoe and her compatriots tended about 45 boo-booed marchers on that not-so-terrible day, ranking it among their most glorious encounters. Fact is, not counting the temporary irritation caused by police pepper spray, most of the protesters’ injuries were self-inflicted, the predictable results of over-stimulation, poor hygiene and an excess of institutional disapproval.
But lest anyone think the selfless street medic does nothing more than dispense aspirin and Kleenex, consider that their borrowed code, “first do no harm”, encompasses potential emotional injuries that may result from inadvertantly giving affront to those you’re helping. When racing to aid a stricken protester not fluent in the language of oppression, for example, Zoe follows a strict, feelings-saving protocol. Reported Westword, “…Williams introduces herself and first gives the patient permission to use female gender pronouns before asking his or her own preference.”
And if the street medic’s expedient code of conduct forbids actually mixing it up with government thugs, dire dangers still lurk in unexpected places. At the Denver event, some aberrant marcher had the effrontery to string an American flag above the motley stream of protesters. Zoe was, naturally, aghast. “There is no way I’m marching underneath that,” she pronounced.
Now, there may be bodied people of whatever type who deem street medics nothing more than a yipping litter of self-aggrandizing cowards who build their own radical credentials upon the unwashed backs of others. After all, having conveniently prohibited themselves from personally engaging the enemy, and being prudently uniformed as non-participating participants, their danger of assault or arrest is virtually non-existant. What’s more, having cast themselves as benevolent protectors, they effectively assume – at least in their own minds – roles of even greater honor and nobility than those who actually face down the thuggish regime du jour. Perhaps most egregiously, because litigation-leery governments provide ample professional emergency resources to incidents of public disquiet, street medics are not saddled with actual distracting and potentially distasteful medical responsibilities. They claim their acclaim by the simple act of showing up.
And that’s the genius of it.
Street medics have created for themselves the perfect way to live out their self-indulgent paramilitary fantasies without risk, to drape themselves in the rainbow-hued mantles of public champions without sacrifice, and to seize what they deem the highest moral ground without committing anything of substance to its defense.
Best of all, the street medic needn’t confine his/her/itself to a particular source of outrage. From Wall Street to The Whales, and from reparations to the rain forests, the beef is where they can find it. From coast to coast and beyond the seas, wherever the disgruntled assemble, there is Zoe’s bully pulpit, a bottle of Bactine in her hand and hyper-judgemental activism in her heart, basking in the admiration – real or imagined – of the Little People who do the yeoman’s work of protest.
I’d salute her, but I don’t think she’d like it.