Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
The People's Community Medics can turn anyone into a first responder.
The shooting in Newtown got a lot of pro-gun activists like the NRA talking about preventing gun deaths by empowering civilians to carry weapons in public places such as schools.
But in Oakland, California, where community members have been watching the gun violence epidemic claiming lives for many long years, a group of local activists has banded together for a different kind of empowerment. Instead of meeting guns with more guns, the People’s Community Medics are training citizens in basic first aid techniques to treat gunshot wound victims. Their effort were recently documented in the East Bay Express.
Sharena Thomas and Lesley Phillips founded the group in 2012. Both have CPR and other basic medical training. In a post on the blog Northbay Uprising, they wrote about how their project was catalyzed after an unarmed man named Oscar Grant was shot in the back by a BART officer and died in 2009, a case that prompted widespread protests and riots after the officer in question was convicted of involuntary manslaughter but acquitted of murder:
While members of the Oscar Grant Committee we learned that the BART police refused to call an ambulance for 20 minutes for fatally wounded Oscar Grant, despite the passionate pleas for medical help from his friends who were detained at the Fruitvale station by the police. That experience as well as our knowledge that 911 calls often do not result in an ambulance arriving in a timely manner to Black neighborhoods largely inspired us to teach our people basic emergency first aid so that we can help one another until an ambulance arrives.
The group’s efforts come in a context of rising violent crime and falling police staffing in Oakland. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, budget cuts have cut the number of officers from 820 four years ago to just 630 today. At the same time, homicides have been on the rise – 126 in 2012, compared to 103 in 2011. Other violent crimes, including rape and assault, have also been climbing steeply. To respond, the department just hired William Bratton, former police chief of New York City, as a consultant – a move that drew protest from some Oakland residents who are concerned about Bratton’s history of using controversial "stop and frisk" tactics.
The relationship between Oakland police and people in minority neighborhoods is badly strained. In December 2012, after a decade of struggling to comply with a consent decree instituted in response to a case in which four officers were convicted of planting evidence and using excessive force, the city handed over control of the department to a court-appointed official.
As crime has continued to rise, residents frequently complain that police response to 911 calls can be slow. The East Bay Express piece details just how bad the problem is, using the department’s own figures:
According to data obtained from the Oakland Police Department, there were 36,236 high-priority 911 calls made in 2012 — most of which were for violent crimes. But it took the understaffed police department between ten and thirty minutes to arrive at 36 percent of those calls. In 13 percent of the cases, OPD showed up more than thirty minutes after the initial call for service.
According to a training video posted on YouTube, People’s Community Medics has adopted Public Enemy’s 1990 classic "911 Is a Joke" as its theme song.
When the cops do show up, they sometimes prioritize securing and investigating the crime scene over giving medical attention to the wounded. And paramedics, who in Oakland often reach the site of a violent crime before the police, have for several years now been following a policy increasingly common in the United States -- one that requires them to wait several blocks from a shooting scene until they are given the go-ahead to come in and administer medical assistance to the victims, even if people are critically wounded.
That approach was instituted to protect paramedics, but it has caused a lot of anger in the city, particularly in minority neighborhoods.
Thomas and Phillips emphasize that they don’t see paramedics as the problem. “We have a good relationship with them,” said Thomas in a segment that aired on Yahoo! News. “All we’re doing is adding a cushion between the time they get there, that’s all. We’re assisting them to add life to our people.”
At a People’s Community Medics training in an Oakland park last September, a young woman stepped forward to speak about an incident that had occurred there four days earlier and just a couple of hundred yards away. Her account, which is on the above video (starting just before the 6-minute mark), gives some idea of the extreme situations people in Oakland’s toughest neighborhoods are dealing with every day.
She was hanging out in the park when she heard rapid, repeated gunshots, she said, and she was sure that someone must have been hit. So while others were running away, she ran across the grass and the parking lot toward the victim, who had been shot four times, in the head, leg, and torso.
She stuck her thumb in one of the wounds, and applied pressure to two of the others by lying on top of him. The fourth wound, she couldn’t reach. She estimated that it was 25-30 minutes before official help arrived. In the meantime, she lay in that awkward position, stopping the bleeding as best she could. Some other bystanders suggested putting the man on a mattress and driving him to the hospital in a pickup truck, but she argued that could shift the bullets and make his condition even worse. In the end she prevailed, and the man survived.
“If I wouldn’t have did the things that I did, he could have laid there and died,” she said. “I just thank God for giving me the opportunity, that experience, to know what to do, because most people, when those shots were going off they were just leaving, just running…. My instinct was not to leave him, was to help him. When something like that happens, we got to come together as a community.”
Top image: People participate in a vigil for four Oakland police officers who were killed while on duty in Oakland, California, March 24, 2009. An Oakland, California man killed four police officers Saturday in two separate shootings that began with a traffic stop and ended with a gun battle, police said. (Kimberly White/Reuters)