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As Marginalized Communities Face Dearth of Trauma Care, Activists Step in to Fight for Survival

Protesters fight for communities of color, which lose lives awaiting trauma care that is slow to come.

Led by Fearless Leading by the Youth (FLY), protesters march for trauma care on Chicago's South side, February 23, 2013. (Photo: sarah-ji/Flickr)

Every year after schools lets out, gun violence spikes in American cities, resulting in hundreds of deaths and life-altering injuries. Whether the victim is a young person, who has become trapped in a cycle of violence by a lack of opportunities, or an uninvolved bystander, urgent medical care in the moments after a shooting is often slow in arriving to poor communities of color. In Chicago and across the country, community members are fighting back against this health-care inequity, even at great personal risk.

On the first Wednesday in June, nine Chicago activists were arrested for occupying an administration building at the University of Chicago during an annual alumni reunion. They demanded to meet with Rob Zimmer, the president of the university, to discuss the lack of a Level 1 trauma center on the South Side, as hundreds of big donors were poised to arrive on campus. Two and a half hours later, firefighters cut a hole through the wall and the nine were detained by university police. In the previous month, nine other demonstrators for a South Side trauma center had been arrested during a march on Michigan Avenue.

Currently, all four of Chicago’s adult trauma centers are located on the North and West sides of the city, leaving almost a fifth of city residents and large swaths of the South Side without a trauma center within a 5-mile radius. A 2013 Chicago-based study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, found that mortality rates among victims who suffered gunshot wounds are higher if an ambulance has to travel more than 5 miles to reach a Level 1 trauma center. Such “trauma deserts” surround the University of Chicago’s state-of-the-art medical center.

The community surrounding the University of Chicago’s Hyde Park campus also has one of the highest shooting rates in Chicago, where the consequences of the lack of a Level 1 adult trauma center are acutely felt every year.

“The University of Chicago is an institution that’s allowing people to die near its door.”

Veronica Morris Moore, 22, was one of the arrestees at the sit-in and is a leader of the Trauma Center Coalition, which is comprised of organizers from Southside Together Organizing for Power (STOP), Fearless Leading by the Youth (FLY), and other student, community and religious organizations. Morris Moore said she knew it was risky to mount such a protest because the university is particularly eager to avoid disruptions during alumni events. However, she said, the situation is dire and the university needed a wake-up call.

“[The University of Chicago] has no impact on this neighborhood. They have no presence in this neighborhood in terms of the actual solutions to what’s going on,” said Morris Moore. “It’s kind of like they exist in this bubble.”

In 2015, the Illinois Department of Public Health found that the University of Chicago medical center (which has a pediatric trauma unit that plans to open up to people up to the age of 17) is the only South Side hospital that has the resources to open a Level 1 adult trauma center, but the hospital “indicated no interest in obtaining an adult trauma system designation.” The university’s hospital did have such a trauma center in the 1980s, but it closed after only two years of operation due to the cost of treating the mostly uninsured trauma victims.

None of this is news to the residents of Woodlawn, a neighborhood just south of Hyde Park. There, in 2010, 18-year-old Damian Turner – one of the cofounders of FLY – was wounded by stray bullets from a drive-by shooting. He was standing four blocks from the University of Chicago Medical Center (UCMC). An hour later Turner was dead, after a long ambulance ride to the closest trauma center in downtown Chicago. This launched the grassroots campaign to bring an adult trauma center to the South Side.

Morris Moore lives in South Shore, a community even farther away from the nearest trauma center than Woodlawn. “Gun violence is every day, on every block, all the time. I’ve had people that have been shot and that have died on the way to the trauma center.” she explained. She said that since she and her co-organizers do not see government efforts to stem the free-flow of weapons in their neighborhoods, they are targeting institutions that could offer help to victims and choose not to.

“The medical field is a business like any other business, and it’s one of the most capitalistic beasts in this country,” said Morris Moore. “The University of Chicago is an institution that’s allowing people to die near its door.”

“Seeing the desperation and going through all the racism that we go through, and seeing the lack of urgency in our time of need, really struck deep.”

The campaign has picked up more momentum in the past year, as U of C has vied to bring the Obama Presidential Library to the neighborhood. In their demonstrations, activists from the Trauma Center Coalition connect the $500 million library project with the lack of a trauma center. They point out that the money is there – it’s just being used to build ceremonial libraries instead of to save lives.

The lack of a trauma center at UCMC feeds the general perception that the hospital is not there to serve its neighbors. Since she became involved with STOP in 2010, Morris Moore says she has become aware of health-care disparities that play out in the hospital every day.

“We learned that hospitals are not always that safe place in the neighborhood. The University of Chicago is known, at least throughout this community, for being a hospital for people who have money,” Morris Moore told me. “For poor people that’s not a safe place. For poor people that means sitting in the emergency room for hours, going through whatever you’re going through, seeing a doctor and maybe being able to get some help and maybe not, but knowing without a doubt that you’re going to get a bill that you can’t afford.”

After their arrest, Morris Moore and her co-organizers spent 48 hours in lockup – of which 13 were spent “chained to a wall” – before all but one were released on recognizance bonds. One protester had to pay $100 bail.

But meanwhile, other TCC members continued to disrupt U of C alumni events that weekend. They held a prayer vigil in front of Zimmer’s house, a die-in at a luncheon and led protest chants, interrupting an awards ceremony that was cancelled as a result. As the protestors exited the Rockefeller Chapel, one angry attendee, whom Morris Moore described as “an elite member” of the U of C community, assaulted a photographer who came with the group.

Morris Moore said the continued protests were a big encouragement to her and the other arrestees. “When you’re sitting there and you’re behind those bars, everything makes you feel like ‘Maybe I should have thought twice before I did this.’ But then you get out and you realize all these people stand with us and are proud of us for what we did. It frees you from that feeling that that whole process is supposed to inflict on you internally, to make you feel like you made a bad choice.”

Morris Moore insists that keeping the campaign on a grassroots level is what gives it lasting power and impact. And elsewhere in the country, activists focused on trauma care disparities agree.

“People see us as scary, as sad people, and we’re not. We’re actually really loving people …”

In Oakland, California, activists and trained first responders Sharena Thomas and Lesley Phillips were frustrated by the lack of urgency they observed among police and EMTs after shootings. Phillips explained that the police are always first to arrive to the scene of a shooting and that even when an ambulance comes, they cannot enter the scene and assist the victim without permission from the police, who are frequently slow in granting it.

“We understood from our own experience in our community how that works,” said Phillips. “Somebody got shot, for example, and there’s a crowd of people in the community that come around, and the ambulance shows up and they don’t get out of the ambulance, and that upsets everybody. We didn’t know why they were sitting out there not attending to the patient. We come to find out that it’s because the police are the ones who determine when the scene is safe [for paramedics]. That rubbed us the wrong way.”

In 2011, Phillips and Thomas obtained first aid certifications and wilderness training and came together as People’s Community Medics to teach Oaklanders basic first-aid skills to treat gun-shot and stabbing trauma, seizures, diabetic crises and drug overdoses.

“We are parents, and Lesley is a grandparent,” said Thomas. “We see our family, and our friends and our loved ones lost to gunshots and bleeding to death. We’ve seen firsthand what it looks like to have the EMTs on the corner and the young man or young lady bleeding to death. Those loved ones and people around – they’re crying, they’re upset, they’re angry, and no one really knows what to do. … Seeing the desperation and going through all the racism that we go through, and seeing the lack of urgency in our time of need, really struck deep.”

“They feel like we don’t deserve to live, for the color of our skin. It’s sad, but that’s our reality, and we have to take care of each other.”

Since they began their trainings, Phillips and Thomas have educated over 1,000 people in the Bay Area, across California, and in other states. The trainings, which happen at schools, churches, public parks and even private events like baby showers, are based on wilderness survival skills and using available materials to administer first aid. They distribute basic first-aid kits with gauze and gloves in the communities they visit. While their work is funded entirely by small donations, Thomas said that their dream is to one day build a People’s Community Clinic in Oakland.

The People’s Community Medics believe that it is crucial for people of color to be self-sufficient because in times of crisis, help from the state often does not come fast enough. Phillips sees their work as the legacy of the Black Panther Party’s health-care programs. In the 1970s, the Panthers provided medical and dental services in Black communities around the country through their volunteer-run network of People’s Free Medical Centers.

In Oakland, Thomas and Phillips are also advocating for policy changes, such as requiring California police officers (who receive first-aid training) to administer emergency trauma care when they arrive at a crime scene.

“Realistically that change is not going to occur in our lifetimes, unless some kind of really radical change occurs and we have community control of the police,” said Phillips. “But, until that time, we have to take care of ourselves.”

Thomas chimed in, her voice rising with emotion: “People see us as scary, as sad people, and we’re not. We’re actually really loving people, and people see us as scary for the color of our skin, and they feel like we don’t deserve to live, for the color of our skin. It’s sad, but that’s our reality, and we have to take care of each other.”

In an emergency situation such as a shooting or car accident it can be terrifying for anyone to spring into action, even with the right first-aid training. Thomas choked up as she recalled her first time helping a victim after a hit-and-run motorcycle accident. But sometimes, volunteer medics face additional burdens: Two Black youth in Portland who recently aided a shooting victim, were arrested and handed misdemeanor charges.

That shooting occurred at the end of May, during a monthly street festival in a once-Black, but now gentrified, Portland neighborhood. Marcus Cooper, 26 and Loren Ware, 23, both involved in that city’s #BlackLivesMatter movement, found themselves near a 15-year-old boy who was shot from a car. While many people around them, (including, as Cooper recalled, a police officer) scattered at the sound of the gun, Cooper’s training as a lifeguard propelled him into action.

Cooper pulled the victim into a nearby restaurant and dressed his arm and stomach wounds while they waited almost a half hour for an ambulance to arrive. He said the wait was unusually long, and he focused on keeping the child cool and distracted to prevent him from going into shock.

“I made sure that he was talking so that he wouldn’t register the amount of pain that he truly was in,” said Cooper. When the police and fire departments finally arrived, Cooper recalled, they suspected that he and the victim were related and that the boy was faking his injuries. He remained at the scene of the incident to ensure that the relatives of the victim knew where the boy was being taken.

“I kind of got into it with one of the officers because since I’m African American and the victim was African American, he kept referring to us as if we were brothers, saying that I must know him,” said Cooper. “I gave the fire department the kid’s name and told them where he was hit. They kept asking him if he was faking. They didn’t handle the situation well at all.”

“If you’re a person of color, at this stage that’s a risk that you have to be prepared to take. Standing up for anything – that could be your life taken away.”

Cooper said he helped the child walk to the ambulance because the EMTs did not bring out a stretcher. In the aftermath, some people who gathered at the scene recorded a video of Cooper and Ware arguing with a group of seven officers who surrounded them, with weapons drawn. The two young men were charged with disorderly conduct, harassment and interfering with police.

A local news station covering the shooting highlighted the actions of a white woman who helped another shooting victim but did not report on Cooper and Ware assisting the boy. In fact, the TV cameras caught the scene of their arrest and showed pictures of their mug shots. Although they clarified that Cooper and Ware were not the suspected shooters, the station made no mention of their heroic actions. Their faces and names were connected instead to alleged unlawful activity.

“I was just shocked that that happened to us,” said Cooper. He and Ware spent that night in jail but eventually both pleaded no contest to the charges and were sentenced to community service.

Despite this experience, Cooper said he does not regret helping the child and is grateful that he survived the confrontation with police unscathed.

“The way that things are going in America – we should have died,” he says. “They held us at gunpoint. I was ready to die. If you’re a person of color, at this stage that’s a risk that you have to be prepared to take. Standing up for anything – that could be your life taken away.”

As the summer proceeds, these activists remain undaunted in their work. Thomas and Phillips have connected with Cooper and plan to visit Portland soon to conduct a series of trauma care trainings. What keeps them committed to this work, despite the daunting odds? “It’s a love for our people,” explained Thomas.

Meanwhile, Morris Moore and the Trauma Center Coalition will focus on building their ranks to continue their affront against the University of Chicago. “It’s not about politics or even social justice,” said Morris Moore. “It’s about trying to survive. And that’s all Black people have been trying to do in this country since Black people touched foot on this land.”

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