In the video, Varela hangs out the passenger-side window of an ambulance, shouting encouragement and support to protestors walking by. "Black Lives Matter!" she shouts. "Please be safe, make it home safe, come out every day. Do not let up!" Protesters cheer her on in the background of the video as her ambulance slowly crawls down the street. When she resumes her chant of "Black Lives Matter," the crowd goes wild and joins in.
Ambulance EMT just got on her radio to cheer on the Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Brooklyn. People flipping out pic.twitter.com/Yalwh8hn37
— Scott Heins (@scottheins) June 5, 2020
The video, captured and shared by photojournalist Scott Heins on Twitter, has been viewed over 1.5 million times. But her newfound fame worried many fans that she could face professional repercussions for protesting. People quickly created a petition urging Varela's employers not to fire her for her activism. (As of print date, 3,000 people have signed.)
Supporting the Black Lives Matter movement in this way was so important to Varela—a Black woman—that she did this even though she knew she may get in trouble at work over it. Here, Well+Good talks with Varela about protesting during the pandemic and her hopes for the BLM movement.
Well+Good: How long have you been working as an EMT?
Taylor Varela: I've been an EMT for three years now. My mom was actually an EMT until she got pregnant with me. Growing up, she would always tell me about the patients she still remembered. I've also always been interested in medical terminology and anatomy. So that, plus the idea of being able to help people made me think, why not try it?
Your passion for the Black Lives Matter movement clearly resonates with so many people. What does it mean to you personally?
[Abuse against Black people] is so hard to see. There are so many videos now because the technology exists to capture it, but there are many more instances not caught on camera. My grandparents have told me so many first-hand experiences they've had that mirror the same injustices and discrimination going on today. It's enraging not to see change for basic human rights.
Have you been participating in the protests? Have your roles as an EMT and protestor overlapped at all?
My job tries to keep us away from the protests to protect our safety. And I want to be clear that anything I say does not reflect my workplace in any way; they're my own personal beliefs. So I haven't been going to protests when I'm on the clock, but when I'm not working, I have been participating in them, yes.
Even as an EMT who is on the front lines of COVID-19, you feel it's important to participate in the protests.
COVID-19 is very real. I've seen many effects of that first-hand. It has devastated a lot of lives and families. As an EMT, I absolutely encourage people to take safety precautions. So yes, there is a pandemic going on, but I also think it's important to show leaders that nothing is going to stop us, not even a deadly pandemic. It shows we are ready for a change—regardless of what is going on.
Tell me about the video. What inspired that moment of grabbing the intercom and encouraging the protestors?
Like I said, my job keeps us away from the protests for our safety. But my [work] partner—who is actually my boyfriend—and I were driving to our usual spot where we wait for calls and we just happened upon the protest going on in downtown Brooklyn. It was totally coincidental. I heard the chanting and it wasn't really something thought out in my mind, it was automatic. I had to say something. I had to join in. Many of these protestors had been out there since 2 p.m. and it was now after 8 p.m. Many of them were hot, hungry, and tired but they were still out there spreading this message. I thought if I could just get on the PA system and spark a bit more energy and keep them going, I had to do it.
There was actually a petition going around for you to keep your job. Were you at risk of losing it for participating in the protest?
I don't think I was in danger of losing my job. But I did know there would be some repercussions because it was on company time, so that was a policy I violated. A colleague of mine who I had never even met was the one who started the petition, actually. They offered to send an email blast and arranged for people to come support me by waiting outside while I had the [disciplinary] meeting, which is exactly what they did. In the end, I was suspended for three days—not for supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, but for protesting on company time. I've just been using those three days to rejuvenate and get ready for going back to work.
People in cities across America—and the world—are protesting right along with you. What do you hope comes from this movement?
I really hope to see a lot of changes. I hope we see the mayor of New York City [Bill de Blasio] cut a billion dollars from the NYPD's $6 billion budget and allocate that money to be used in other resources, like schools, community programs, and health care. I'm an EMT and experienced the PPE shortages first-hand at the beginning of COVID-19. We needed more resources to help prevent people from dying during the pandemic. So I think the [financial] resources of the city can be spread out in a way that helps people more than what the NYPD is doing.
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