Health Hero: Organization Provides Emergency Care When Police Refuse

People's Community Medics empower Oakland residents.

The tragic 2009 death of Oscar Grant, a young Black man shot and killed by the police on New Year’s Eve, touched many lives, including local Bay activists Sharena Thomas and Lesley Phillips.

After doing their own independent investigation, the women learned that while 911 was called, Oakland Fire Department purposely did not respond quickly enough and then destroyed the evidence of this mistreatment. 

Armed with this information, the two women knew that something needed to be done immediately, especially since this negligent delay in emergency care treatment wasn’t rare in their Oakland community. From there the People’s Community Medics (PCM) was born to be on the scene to help provide emergency trauma care to people who desperately need it.

And over the years, the mostly volunteer organization has grown. Not only do they respond to traumas ranging from gun shots to car accidents, they also empower other residents and organizations across the Bay area in first-aid 101 and treating the effects of tear gas and pellets for protesters. sat down with the two women to talk about how the police stand in the way of saving lives, why empowering communities to save themselves is crucial and how their organization has changed their lives. Why is People’s Community Medics so important in the community?

Sharena Thomas: First, we know that when people in our community call 911, ambulances don’t show up quick enough. Secondly, when a victim is laying in the street hurt, too many times, the police will allow for our people to just bleed and die, not letting EMTs come in and work on people.

I have seen police laugh, make jokes and drink coffee all while people are lying on the street dying, with their mothers crying behind the police tape begging to be with their loved ones. It’s devastating. So we know that our work is crucial in saving our people’s lives, especially when the police could care less.

Lesley Phillips: We also noticed how, many times, when someone calls 911, the police show up before the EMTs do. And once they do that and block off an area, they don’t let the EMTs in to take care of the person who is hurt. And this is really a problem given how the first hour after a trauma, the golden hour, is a crucial time and those minutes are ticking away.

Do you believe that this utter disrespect of Black lives in these situations is partially due to an attitude of “Oh well, they are killing each other, so why care?”

Thomas: Most definitely. But it shouldn’t matter who is shooting who: We all deserve the right to treatment and the right to live. No one should have to die in the street alone and scared, because a police officer has a problem with what is going on in our community.

And no one is denying that violence isn’t a problem, but we hope that by showing our children the importance of saving a life, hopefully they won’t take one.

Phillips: Also California law makes it easy for the police to not care about our lives. It’s a law here that they can stop you from assisting a victim if they think the area isn’t safe. And what’s even worse is that police are trained to respond to trauma. Oakland police have expensive trauma kits in their trunks and very rarely do they use on Black and brown folks. Why won’t they use them?

Walk us through how PCM responds to trauma.

Thomas: Sometimes people will call us first if someone is hurt we respond ourselves. We also have our ears open, listening for gunshots or collisions and go to check to see if anyone is distressed and needs help. There are also times when people bring their loved ones to our house to get looked at.

Phillips: We really try to use these opportunities to educate people, too, because we know that we cannot be everywhere. We also pass out kits to people that have gauze, Emergen C for diabetics, and Know Your Rights pamphlets in English and Spanish. We have to learn to save ourselves. 

What has the response been from the community?

Phillips: People love us! From all walks of life, people let us know how much they appreciate us. People will just come up to us on the street and donate. We get requests for trainings from all over — the response has been tremendous.

And since Ferguson, we’ve gotten a lot of calls from activists on how to deal with tear gas, pepper gas, blood, nightsticks and pellets.

And the response from local EMTs and police?

Phillips: In the beginning, the EMTs were really critical of us, especially given that our theme song is Public Enemy’s “911 Is a Joke.” (Laughs.) But, when they began to see that we are trying to save lives and at times make their jobs easier, the tension is gone. Most of them support us and appreciate us too.

Thomas: Now, the police? They don’t say much to us. And here is the thing, when we talk about them we are only speaking the truth. The police are terrorizing Black and brown communities and we refuse to sit back and be quiet about it. Our lives matter, regardless of what they think.

Learn how you can donate to People’s Community Medics here.

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(Photo: Sara Lafleur-Vetter)

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