They call themselves the USS Enterprise. A group of four self-professed nerds from south Minneapolis who have been friends since high school. Their idea of a fun night is to watch "Star Trek" reruns or play "Magic: The Gathering."
The group, all in their 20s, arrived at the Fifth Precinct police station on a cool Saturday evening to provide medical assistance and to show solidarity with the African-American community following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died after a white police officer knelt on his neck. All four have been through emergency medical training, though only one works in health care.
They watched in peace as indigenous dancers performed to drumming outside the precinct fence, and they listened attentively as victims of police violence delivered speeches. They did not want or seek confrontations with law enforcement.
"We don't consider ourselves social justice warriors," said Jordan von Mandel, a local chef and member of the group. "We are here because we live in this community and we are sick and tired of police brutality."
But events took a violent and chaotic turn shortly after dusk on Saturday, and the volunteer medic unit found themselves in far more demand than they had anticipated. At times, their solidarity would be tested by differences over tactics, clashing personalities and the challenge of watching out for one another and attending to injured protesters.
Often out of breath, they tended to the wounded even as they were barraged with tear gas and projectiles shot by advancing police in riot gear. By nightfall, three members of the group had visible wounds — on their legs, feet and arms — from the raining projectiles. Any exposed skin burned from the tear gas.
The foursome would spend much of the night fleeing the cops and then regrouping again in a chaotic choreography that left them feeling frustrated, confused and exhausted. With every skirmish and strategic retreat, von Mandel and his friends checked the edges of the crowd for anyone injured, screaming "Medical here! Anyone need medical?"
Often their voices could not be heard above the wailing sirens, yelling and shock grenades.
"The biggest thing out here is to keep your eyes up and stay vigilant," Mason Packard said to his friends as they regrouped along Lake Street. "And remember that tear gas blows downwind from the cops — and we're downwind right now."
Each carried backpacks of medical supplies, including bandages, gauze, eye drops, pain medications and homemade saline solution in large spray bottles.
Every few minutes, the team would stop and spray saline solution in a protester's eyes, often as the person was screaming and crying.
Some had been hit with projectiles and needed to have their wounds cleaned and bandaged in just a few minutes to avoid the advancing police line.
There were times the group appeared disoriented, unsure of whether to support the protesters or go in their own direction. At one point, protesters built a giant barricade of street signs and other debris under the Interstate 35W bridge and then lit fires in the street. It was designed to keep the police at bay, but the foursome held back, fearful they might get trapped.
"Guys, hold back! Hold back!" Packard yelled to his team. "Fire under a bridge is not a tactical advantage."
As the night wore on, one of the group's biggest challenges was staying together amid the thick clouds of tear gas and constant fleeing and regrouping.
For Claire Indritz, it was the first time she had ever joined a street protest, and she took special care to make sure her friends did not separate, touching each of them on their shoulders and counting them out — "one, two, three, four!" — after each flight from the tear gas. "Sticking together is critical," Indritz said. "You have more eyes and can spot more people who need help if you're working as a group. If we separate, we lose power."
The unit had its own internal dynamics, including conflicts over when to run and when to hold their ground.
Indritz, who works as a clinician at North Memorial Health Hospital, described herself as a "stand-my-ground kind of girl" and would occasionally insist they help injured protesters before moving on. At one point, she stopped to put bandages on a woman's open wound even as projectiles rained down around them. Her persistence ignited an angry exchange with von Mandel, who had become worried that his closest friend since high school would be shot or injured.
It was time to get out, he yelled, as a long line of cops in riot gear approached.
"No, let's stay. It's a sign of weakness to retreat," Indritz yelled back.
"Claire, that's a great way to get shot in the face," he retorted.
"Jordan, you say that like I actually care about my well-being," she said, annoyed.
"Look, if you don't move then I'm going to pick you up and move you my damn self," he said.
Finally, Indritz relented and the group sprinted down Lake Street — shoulder to shoulder, repeatedly yelling, "Who needs medical?"
By 11 p.m., Indritz had grown frustrated of hours of being chased down smoke-covered streets, and she told the group that she was heading home. She had already made plans, after all, to watch an electronic dance festival online with her friends. Von Mandel walked with Indritz through the darkened streets for protection as they joked about their favorite animé television shows.
"Unfortunately it got beyond showing our stance, which is how the protest should have stayed," Indritz said as she walked toward her duplex in the Bryant neighborhood in Minneapolis, gas mask in hand. "I'm worried that we're losing sight of what this was all about — an innocent man being murdered by a corrupt system."