One common question put against police abolitionist arguments is “Without police, who will come in the case of public emergency?” Although police responding to an emergency is often much worse than no response at all, as was the case with the murder of Charleena Lyles, it is true that fire, ambulance and emergency services are crucially important to our everyday lives. But abolishing the police hardly means ending emergency response: in fact, as the history of the Black Panther Party shows, police abolition movements can improve the quality of rapid care and imagine a better way of responding to emergencies.
It is well known that the Black Panther Party started out as a copwatch organization, carrying guns and following police on the streets of Oakland (and nearby cities) in order to prevent police violence, inform police targets of their rights and respond immediately to police misconduct. But during their huge growth from 1969-1971, local chapters formed many different experimental social programs aimed at not just monitoring but replacing the police, including a successful ambulance service. As we fight to build cop free zones and communities, discovering similar methods of rapid response and emergency care will be crucial to our movements’ success.
What follows is a section of Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin’s history of the BPP, Black Against Empire.
“Many blacks were poorly served by the health care system, and some had never seen a doctor. Despite the health care initiatives within the federal government’s War on Poverty—particularly the newly created neighborhood health centers targeting the needs of inner-city communities—many residents in these communities received only limited, if any, health care attention.
In response, the Party created a series of free medical clinics across the country. These clinics relied on the volunteer services of local doctors, medical students, interns, residents, nurses, and community folk as well as donated or low-rent clinic space. These public Panther-run clinics, such as those in Berkeley and Cleveland, offered services to all who came, black and nonblack alike. In some cities, like Baltimore, the Party formed coalitions with like-minded individuals and groups to run free clinics in the community.
For the Party, the focus was plain and urgent: to address within its limited resources the pressing health care concerns of poor black communities that sorely lacked adequate medical facilities and professionals. Clinic services “included first aid care, physical examinations, prenatal care, and testing for lead poisoning, high blood pressure, and sickle cell anemia.” If necessary, clinicians referred patients to specialists for follow-up care. There were at least eleven such clinics, including those in Kansas City, Seattle, and New Haven. Chicago’s Spurgeon “Jake” Winters Free Medical Care Center was one of the best-run and most-respected Panther health clinics, serving over two thousand people in its initial two months. “Medical teams from the Winters clinic went door-to-door assisting people with their health problems,” according to Abron. “The clinic’s staff included obstetricians, gynecologists, pediatricians, and general practitioners.” Milwaukee’s People’s Free Health Center emphasized preventive medicine and health care education on “sickle cell anemia, drug abuse, children’s health and birth control” as well as free health care screenings. The clinic also sponsored discussions on black social relations, including relations between black women and men, and concerns of black youth.
• • •
A lack of adequate ambulance services was an especially galling problem in Black Winston-Salem. On October 17, 1970, fifteen-year-old Alan “Snake” Dendy was shot and then died when the drivers of the county ambulance that arrived on the scene refused to move his body, claiming they lacked authorization to do so. Responding to community outrage at the injustice, the local Panther chapter swung into action. By June 1971, the group had acquired an old hearse that it retrofitted as an ambulance. Party members had already been taking emergency medical technician (EMT) and first-aid classes at Surry Community College, and by summer’s end, they were certified as EMTs. The chapter was thus able to begin operating its own ambulance before the year was out.
The free emergency ambulance service was a big success and was named the Joseph Waddell People’s Free Ambulance Service to commemorate the Panthers’ recently deceased comrade. Waddell’s $7,000 life insurance death benefit went to the local chapter, which used the money to subsidize the free ambulance program. Operating for over two years, the service at its height featured twenty-four-hour service and twenty certified EMTs who were Party members. The Forsyth County commissioners granted the chapter a franchise to operate.”