Asmara Gebre serves her community in the clinical and community setting. She has worked with #DPHMustDivest, a coalition that aims to eliminate the presence of sheriffs from the San Francisco Department of Public Health clinics and SFGH. San Francisco General Hospital (SFGH) contracts with the city’s police department, employing upwards of 29 sheriff deputies at the facility. NYC nurse and Left Voice correspondent Derrick Smith spoke with Asmara Gebre about her experience and reasons for going on strike.
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In July, you went on strike against the sheriffs’ presence in your hospital. As you mentioned, you’ve pledged to call in sick everyday sheriffs remain employed and able to potentially harm Black and Brown individuals. Why did you choose this specific method of protest?
It wasn’t an organized action. It was a response to harm. I’m sick of racism. I don’t feel safe. When I see them all around – around the city. Now, everybody knows my name. I don’t know any of their names. I don’t know any of their badge numbers. They get to remain anonymous, but I don’t. So I felt after that experience, I could not go back to a place that fails to see my value as someone who actually saves lives. I provide care. I offer a life skill.
My participation, my essential work is evidence-based, to improve maternal health outcomes. And currently I’m the only employed person in our practice that provides continuity care to Black families that can do that. And yet we value sheriffs; greater than $20 million contract with a system that has been proven to harm. Less than 1% of hospitals in the nation use cops as their primary security, yet in the only sanctuary hospital in the city, we have cops.
We know there are better ways. There’s substantial evidence showing that public safety – community safety can happen without police. Again, police cause harm and that’s well documented.
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Can you detail some other possible experiences of police hospital presence that not only threatened your own safety, but perhaps, that of your patients?
I believe in safety, I believe in safety for all, not just a selected few. And for a lot of us, from when the police were created to catch and harm and kill and traumatize people who were trying to escape to freedom – since that time, they’ve been causing harm.
And they’ve had hundreds of years to reform. Yet reform does not work. And so for some of us, where do we go for safety when our schools and our hospitals have police.
I believe in safety for all, no for a selected few. And again, there’s substantial work being produced by so many entities, entities around alternatives, and yet, because the privileged few benefit from policing, we all have to agree to be harmed. And that’s unacceptable. It’s not evidence-based.
As a midwife, what does it mean for me to carry out my job safely and catch a new Black or Brown baby? A baby a family has dreamed of; has cared for their bodies, the nutritional makeup and parts of that little human being that I get to catch.
What does my job mean, when, for example, on October 10, Cesar Vargas, 21 years old, was shut down by police? Mario Woods was shot down by police. What does it mean for me to catch these babies when they later go on and be killed?
I know I’m essential. Now, it’s a question of America, the United States of America, making a decision about what’s important. Do we value black humanity? Do we value Brown humanity? Do we value the most marginalized?
If so, we must stop allowing a murderous system to continue to harm us because I can’t do my job effectively. The science is there. Now it’s a question of who we allow to make choices that govern everyone’s ability to respect science and policing, especially in hospitals, is not evidence-based or the only way, or actually a non-harmful way to provide security.
So there’s a lot of experiences. DPH Must Divest was able to collect many anonymous encounters of individuals, not just myself. There are so many people at the hospital who have witnessed traumatic experiences. The city put out a report that the amount of sheriff harm is disproportionate to Black community. The CEO of the hospital put out a letter saying, “We don’t need sheriffs.”
I sat through hours and hours of community hearings with the supervisors and the mayor still went ahead and funded the sheriffs, the police, and was going to give them a raise next year.
So though we spent hours of our time bringing actual evidence, experiences – though we have a collection of countless letters – we don’t have the power to implement the evidence. We currently don’t have the power to change it.
I have not heard from the hospital administration. No, one’s reached out to me personally to apologize. The sheriffs have not either, as I mentioned before. I still don’t know who those sheriffs are. And that just goes to show, to me, the hospital’s values.
The question is when you have two black women standing with a man who had been deemed harmful by police, right, there were six police officers needed to escort him out. And when they walked away from us, who are they really protecting and serving? What could have happened? Imagine if my colleague had not come out, imagine if she wasn’t going to start recording? And to reflect back on all the different colleagues that I saw walking by in silence…
So again, back to your question about why I chose this route: I really felt like I didn’t have an alternative. And as the days go by, I feel more reassured with my action and I’m proud of myself for respecting myself and prioritizing my well-being.
I feel for the families, for example, all the families that were on my caseload, that I stopped caring for; All the families that have to continue walking past the sheriffs just to get prenatal care, just to have a baby.
I know there are families that don’t family members that don’t enter because they’re scared of deportation or scared to be harmed by the police. No person in their most vulnerable moment and seeking healthcare should have fear of being hurt or snatched away. But yet we are the only hospital in San Francisco that has police as security.
What resonated for me was not only mentioning us as healthcare providers, relying on evidence-based practices, data and science and not being able to implement that, but also the humanity that you’re shedding light on. The fact that you’re catching babies and comparing that to the Black lives lost, thank you for that. I first learned about you from an article that was written in the San Francisco Examiner that was entitled, “Police do not belong in hospitals either.” It was written by three physicians and describes your experiences with violence and also your protests. How important has it been to have solidarity with colleagues as well as lay folks to endorse the petition?
First off, I chose to work at San Francisco General Hospital because I would be serving the very people I identify with. Community to me is really important and it’s been an amazing experience over the years to meet so many trainees and learners who also share that community value.
So when the strike happened, I was greatly moved by my colleagues who reached out to me and shared an understanding of the harm being done. I mean, a lot of providers talk about it and here was a moment of action that happened organically and not planned.
And it really moved me to see people who often work up to, I mean, I’m probably misrepresenting doctors’ work hours, but I swear they work over 75 hours a week. And I was so moved by their ability to manage that and be supportive and organize.
As you read in the article, there’s been a long-going campaign to remove the sheriffs in the hospital. So to be able to join a collective group of experts in healthcare in this kind of way was a moment of growth for me and healing.
And regarding community: I’ve gone to almost every march since my strike and I’ve been greatly moved by the people who show up again and again, in solidarity with the community and Black lives, Brown lives, Indigenous lives that have been harmed by the police system. And one of the best tools of a midwife is to listen. And so I’ve been listening to the community and, when asked, I share my experience, that’s also been really healing for me.
So thankfully there are colleagues whose base values and beliefs and science align with mine. Thankfully, there are community members who speak up about the injustices they’ve experienced and collectively that has been a necessary support system for me and carrying on – it’s all the messages, all the Instagram and Facebook DMs, all the emails that confirm to me that this action might not be popular by some that I must say that if we tease out the people that I care about, the most marginalized, those that I identify with, there is strong solidarity, not just in San Francisco and in California – nationally and internationally.
Have you had any negative responses to this campaign or protests? And if so, how have you dealt with that?
Yeah, there’s, there’s been a substantial amount of negative responses. For example, there are nurses who send me DM messages talking about how horrible I am. There was a counter-petition that single-handedly named me as the problem and misinformed the community by saying that it was just one experience that was calling for the removal of sheriffs when in reality, and there’s been well documented cases and statistics that have been made public showing that it wasn’t just one experience. Mine was the most recent that was public.
I hear and understand that there are people who only feel safe with cops. That was also true when the police system was established during enslavement. I hear that. But that’s not the people I serve.
I serve those who are marginalized. And disproportionately, those who have been marginalized have been harmed by police. And police through reform have yet to understand the value of listening to humans; have yet to understand what deescalation means; have yet to understand what mental health services and access to mental health services means; have yet to understand the chemistry and the science and the compassion needed to serve those who are on a journey, recovering and healing from substance use disorders.
Police do not belong; responding to situations that disproportionately are made up of individuals in those categories. We need to divest financial resources from a force that is militarized and has harmed us. And instead invest in the community people who are trained to serve us.
For example, I’m a midwife, I’m an essential healthcare worker, and I have the tools and skills to save lives. We should invest in more Black and Indigenous and people of color midwives. We should invest in healthcare workers that reflect the populations that they serve and trained personnel that understand and value deescalation and mental health services and access to homes and resources.
So as a San Francisco employee and resident I would love to invest our money in San Francisco residents. And the truth is, a lot of these people who are having a problem and are fear-based-driven in supporting a non-evidence-based way of providing safety don’t actually walk the streets out here. They are not from here. And, and that’s not all of them, but that’s all a lot of them.
So I say, if, if folks don’t feel comfortable with evidence based ways to provide safety, then maybe they should go find a position in the less than 1% of hospitals that have cops as their primary security, because that seems like an environment for them. And that’s why they’re at the General right now, because we allow that to happen.
Since July, three of the 29 sheriffs have been removed from duty to your hospital. The public health director is developing a proposal to significantly change the security model and uplift a “healing environment.” My question is, if you could speak to them directly, what might this mean for you? And do you have in mind a better alternative to the current system? And I know you touched on it just now, but if there’s anything you’d like to add in addition.
Yeah. I think I appreciate this platform and to speak, but I highly value collaboration. And I think there’s a lot of experts who are trained in these areas, including health care professionals. So I just want to, again, refer to the #DPHmustdivest coalition who has devised a beautiful alternative plan that clearly spells out what is needed. And within that, there is a recommendation to remove all sheriffs, which is also what my strike calls for.
I will not go back if there’s even one sheriff still employed at our hospital. I would just inform the hospital that it’s important to listen to experts and relinquish power in a moment where science can really and experts and community can lead.
I’m not sure if that will happen, but I do know that my job is to midwife. I’ve worked really hard to become a midwife. On the second month of my strike. I made an announcement that I want to open up a birth center in a year so I can provide care in a safe place that does not require or include policing of individuals.
I hope in that effort, I can partner with the hospital and the institution I work for, UCSF, to support my efforts. But at the end of the day, our community needs a place that is not harmful. And I really feel it’s my calling to provide that and in order for me to feel like I’m doing my job and I can feel safe while I’m working, because again, I do deserve to feel safe. I also believe that people I care for deserve that.
I can’t keep waiting nor can the community. Sometimes we have to create our own spaces. That’s what I feel like the silver lining of this has been. I, for the longest time, dreamed of opening a birth center, but I thought that might be selfish and I needed to go when the community is right, because medical reimbursements make it really hard for individuals to actually get care outside of the hospital that we know is the safest for non-complicated pregnancies. That’s a privilege that white people have benefited from accessing.
The silver lining is that it’s turned out that opening a birth center would not be selfish. It’s actually in the best interest of the communities I’m serving. I’m looking forward to that.
And hopefully the hospital can remove the sheriffs because people deserve options. And if Black community members in San Francisco can have an option of a safe hospital and safe birth center and safe home birth midwifery, they’ll have options, which has been privileged to our white counterparts for a very long time. I hope to support that effort for access to safe midwifery care.