Devynn Johnson isn’t a doctor or a nurse. In fact, she has no medical training at all.
Yet, the 22-year-old former line cook in Kenosha, Wis., has been on the front lines of protests against police brutality and structural racism since George Floyd was killed in police custody.
She’s also been working as a street medic.
Johnson, who grew up in a family of nurses and emergency medical technicians, is one of the many ad hoc street medics providing first aid to people who have been tear-gassed, hit with rubber bullets, involved in physical altercations or otherwise injured during the protests across major cities and towns in the United States this summer.
“I just saw there was a need for it,” Johnson said. She goes out with two of her friends, who also lack formal medical training. “And we have saved lives.”
Johnson lost her job at the Kenosha Yacht Club because of the pandemic. As someone who identifies as “a quarter Black” — her mother is mixed and her father is White — she said she grew up constantly being educated about racial disparities. Along with her boyfriend, she has been working on integrating anti-bias training into the area schools in recent years.
Johnson first spoke with The Lily on Sept. 1, after President Trump visited Kenosha. She was taking a break at home after organized teams of medics came in from other cities. Her older brother, an EMT, was out at the protest.
“For a long time, I was feeling totally helpless, like I should be in Milwaukee or Chicago where the bigger movements were happening,” she said.
But then everything in Kenosha changed on Aug. 23, she said, when a Black man, Jacob Blake, was shot in the back seven times by police in front of his children. It was yet another example of a Black person being shot by police, but this time it was in Johnson’s own city.
“I knew when I saw that video — I knew that there was going to be rioting in Kenosha. To be out there peacefully protesting day after day since May, and then to see your city burn,” Johnson said, her voice breaking off.
Johnson said she saw a woman who was about 5-foot-3 get shot in the eye with a rubber bullet.
“She was bleeding profusely. There was so much swelling, she couldn’t see in both eyes. We sat her down and we looked at the injury and her eyeball was popping out of her skull about an inch,” Johnson said. She had never seen anything like it.
After cleaning the eye with water-soaked gauze, the woman was taken to a hospital.
Johnson said she knows it’s dangerous to be at the protests, especially as they’ve taken a more violent turn in recent weeks.
At one pro-police “Back the Blue” rally, Johnson said, she was punched in the face by two White men. That was on Aug. 14. She said the Kenosha police put her in a chokehold and arrested her, but the men who punched her walked away.
The police officer “pushed me up against the hood of his car, like, bent me over backward over the hood of his car. And I was crying. I said, ‘He punched me,’ and the cop dropped me instantly.”
On Thursday, Johnson’s lawyer entered a not-guilty plea for charges of resisting arrest, blocking traffic and obstructing police and fire vehicles. The Kenosha Police Department did not respond to a request for comment.
“From the first night of the riots, I’ve accepted that I could die out there doing what I’m doing,” Johnson said, adding that ultimately the risk feels worth it.
“I actually had a guy who I had to give stitches on the side of the road reach out to me recently and tell me he was healing up well,” she said.
She knows that she has to take care of herself to be able to keep doing this work. Her birthday is on Sept. 15, and she hopes to spend the day at the beach.
“It takes a serious toll on your mental health, but it doesn’t hit you until you get home.”