A person walks past a storefront with a sign in the window reading "We Are All One"
David Goldman/AP Photo

A local coalition is training Oakland’s brick-and-mortar employees in everything from de-escalation tactics to emergency medical care.

Inside a community space in downtown Oakland, Kori Chen learned that a tampon can be used to staunch the blood from a gunshot entrance wound. He also learned about the rights he had at his disposal in case ICE ever tried to conduct a raid inside Red Bay Coffee, the café where Chen works as a director.

This past May, Chen and other owners and employees of five local businesses attended a community safety training to learn how to handle everything from a medical emergency to an immigration raid. The session was put on by the Lightning Bolt Collective, an organization that brings together trainers from groups like Sins Invalid, which advocates for those with disabilities, and The Oakland Power Project, which teaches people how to respond to healthcare crises without putting in a 911 call, which would summon the police.

Lightning Bolt was founded by Max Airborne, Katie Loncke, Hasmik Geghamyan, and Zoé Samudzi, and the activists see this training as a holistic safety program through which communities can make themselves safer for everyone.

The idea struck shortly after the 2017 election. “Looking at the political rhetoric and climate right now, we’re seeing a big resurgence of some very dangerous ideas about who deserves to claim this land,” Loncke says. At first, Airborne and Loncke considered creating a visible symbol of solidarity modeled after the safety pins many wore in the wake of Brexit to show their support for immigrants and people of color. But after speaking with people in the Oakland community, Airborne started getting pushback. Some considered the pins to be an empty gesture. Plus, “there’s no guarantee that someone who wears [a pin] has the skills to actually help,” Airborne points out. “So we turned our attention to skill development.”

Grassroots movements aimed at educating citizens and immigrants about policing and deportation—such as Know Your Rights trainings and Cop Watch programs—have existed throughout the country since the ‘90s, when CopWatch started in Berkeley. What makes Lightning Bolt’s training unique is its scope and emphasis on small businesses as important hubs for community safety. The organizers focus on restaurants, art galleries, coffee shops, and other small businesses because they see these shops on the front lines when it comes to dealing with the city’s rising homeless population and community policing. “Being a business owner, it is very important if something happens near their place of business that they know how to communicate with the community,” says Shareena Thomas, a co-founder of People’s Community Medics and one of the trainers at Lightning Bolt’s May session.

One of the key lessons Thomas imparts during her training is the best practice for calling 911 or dealing with an EMT. “A lot of people don’t know how to communicate with [a 911 dispatcher], and the way they talk to the dispatcher affects who they send out to assist a situation,” Thomas says. If the person calling in is calm and collected, the dispatcher may just send a paramedic or a single officer. If the caller is screaming and panicking, says Thomas, they might send out an entire police squad. Much of Lightning Bolt’s training sessions focus on de-escalating situations with police and protestors, and the ways in which small businesses can help the homeless and mentally ill without resorting to police intervention.

Nadia Gaber, a volunteer with the Oakland Power Project, led a training in how to provide healthcare resources—such as getting in touch with paramedics directly instead of going through the 911 triage and bringing cops into a situation. Gaber says it’s important that people in a community have the skills, resources, and knowledge that many currently rely on the state to provide. “They’re just good skills,” she said, “to be able to approach someone in a crisis, to be able to direct people to supportive healthcare services.” Furthermore, Gaber adds, “it’s important for people at the site of interaction to be able to participate in moments of crisis.”

Chen, the director of Red Bay Coffee, appreciated learning which authorities it makes sense to involve—and when—and what scenarios small businesses could handle themselves. “For myself and a lot of the people we employ at Red Bay, we have not had good experiences with the police department,” he says. “What the training really taught me is that you have options in these different situations.”

“We need to rely on each other, because the cops aren’t going to show up, ICE isn’t going to help anyone,” says Eli Isaacs, the operations manager of Reem’s, a local Syrian-Palestinian bakery and restaurant. “So we need our staff to be trained, because that’s the only way we can survive as a business and as a community.”

Chen and Isaacs both found the variety of trainers and topics to be valuable, as the program highlighted the ways in which many community issues are interconnected. For example, Chen says, trainers from the Transgender & Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP) explained how trans issues are justice issues because many in the trans community were formerly incarcerated. Though Reem’s is unable to put in a gender-neutral bathroom because they share their bathrooms with another business, TGIJP walked them through other steps to make their business feel safer for the trans community—such as by giving out both the men’s and women’s bathroom codes to anyone who asks, instead of assuming a person’s gender identity.

“Oakland is a progressive place and there’s a lot of talk about intersectionality,” Chen says, “but that training was a good way to put that into practice.”

The organization’s first session was financed through the Pollination Project, and their second will be funded through a recent $1,000 grant from the Awesome Foundation. Lightning Bolt’s goal is to train 50 small businesses over the course of the next year. “We want to be ahead of the curve about this,” Loncke says. “We want to continue shifting the cultural landscape to one of no one left behind.”

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