The Berkeley Free Clinic, a cooperatively run clinic that’s been providing free health services in Berkeley since 1969, turns 50 on May 25th. With ever worsening gentrification in the San Francisco Bay Area, it feels miraculous that we’re still in our decrepit church basement off Telegraph Ave, surviving on salvaged medical supplies and dumpstered pizza. I wrote this article in commemoration of our 50th birthday and in writing this, I’m hoping to accomplish several things. First, I want to let everyone know that we’re (still) here – I sometimes meet folks who are shocked to learn that we still exist or have never heard of us, and I want more folks to know that we exist as a resource and as a rad project to get involved with. I also want to offer a reflection on our history and how we operate so others can use us as inspiration for similar projects. Finally, I hope that our story provides a concrete example of radical alternatives to existing healthcare systems.
Who We Are
If you happen to live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you might be familiar with the Berkeley Free Clinic and our characteristic red Chinese dragon logo (a holdover from the Maoists who worked in the clinic during the 1970s). You might know that we’re a good place to get a free tuberculosis test or to have your butthole swabbed for gonorrhea, or noticed the oddball mix of UC Berkeley students and older wingnuts who staff the place. We’re not completely in-your-face about our history or politics, though, so it’s possible to enter our space without being totally aware of how it functions.
The Berkeley Free Clinic is an all-volunteer, worker-owned collective that provides free medical care, dental care, peer counseling, vision services, and referrals in Berkeley. We were founded on the beliefs that healthcare is a human right, that much medical knowledge can be learned and practiced by folks with no formal education, and that communities have a ton of power to collectively respond to public health crises.
Although we’re not by any means the only free clinic in the United States (a lot of medical schools have student run free clinics), we’re unique in that we’re non-hierarchical and services are provided by community trained medics instead of professionals. When we provide services, we dismantle the traditional power dynamic where a “professional” holds knowledge about other people’s bodies and tells them what to do. Instead, we work to demystify the process of healthcare and involve clients in learning about their bodies and health. Instead of training in a formal environment, we learn cooperatively from each other and try to blur the barrier between provider and client by recruiting clients to join our collective.
We can’t stress how weird and rare this is in a country where medical services are wrapped in a tangled net of bureaucracy, hierarchy, and liability. Also weird is our autonomy. Our budget mostly comes from donations and grants that we apply for, which means government budget cuts don’t really impact us. Our lack of reliance on government funding (which usually comes with a lot of strings attached) means we don’t have as many regulations to follow as other clinics, and this gives us a lot more freedom to see people who might otherwise not feel safe getting medical care. For example, we aren’t required to report abuse to the police, which means survivors of physical violence and sexual assault can get medical care from us without us being forced to call the cops on them. Similarly, we can provide anonymous HIV testing, even though most clinics are required to report positive HIV tests by name to the State. And because we don’t bill any kind of insurance, we don’t have to check IDs or require proof of eligibility – everything is free without question.
Some notes on our structure
The BFC is made up of small, semi-autonomous collectives that each specialize in a different area of health (like dentistry, peer counseling, general medical, etc.). We make decisions both as these smaller collectives (which can decide if they want to be consensus-based or use a voting process) and as a larger, clinic-wide group (which has a formal voting process). Some of our sections provide direct services and others are strictly logistical. Logistical sections work to preserve institutional knowledge and make sure that all of the little things that need to happen (like updating referrals and maintaining the space) happen. Members who conduct bookkeeping and custodial work receive small stipends, but we do not hire paid staff. In the past, we did have paid members in logistical or administrative positions, but discovered that this created a hierarchy were paid individuals consolidated more power. As a result, these positions were eliminated. Although we no longer “formalize” concentrated power by having paid staff, members who stay in the collective for longer and who get more involved do tend to become more powerful. Whether this is a problem that needs to be solved isn’t totally clear to us, but it is a pattern that’s common in collectives and we try to be self-reflective about it.
Nurturing a culture of accountability is a constant process. In past decades, we held Maoist-style “criticism/self-criticism circles” where individuals would provide “plus and delta” feedback to each other. Eventually, we realized that providing formal criticism in front of a group can create a toxic environment where people feel bullied (indeed, enforcing ideological conformity was why Maoist groups used this form of criticism). Instead, we focus on developing everyone’s communication and de-escalation skills and creating an environment where open discussion is normalized.
Each section is responsible for recruiting and training new members, but we also have clinic-wide trainings that all members take. These trainings focus on institutional history, political education, anti-oppression work, and some safety items like de-escalation and how to intervene in crises without calling the cops.
A brief history of the Berkeley Free Clinic
Our unusual clinic structure is rooted in the anti-war movement of the Vietnam War era. The BFC grew out of an emergency field hospital established by activists during the People’s Park Riots in 1969. During this era, police and soldiers used many of the weapons that we’re familiar with today – like tear gas, pepper spray, and batons – but were also using live ammunition (birdshot and buckshot) and nausea gas (an odorless gas that causes uncontrollable diarrhea and vomiting) and protester injuries were both really serious and not safe to treat in hospitals (since the cops would come arrest the person who sought help). In response to this, a group of Vietnam vets who had been trained as combat medics set up a clinic near UC Berkeley’s campus, where they cared for protesters who had been beaten, shot, and gassed by the University of California police and the National Guard.
According to legend, this improvised field hospital was raided by riot cops, a street medic and an x-ray machine were thrown down a flight of stairs, and our anti-authoritarian clinic was born. The BFC was open 24 hours a day, run by volunteers who used pseudonyms, and provided both acute and emergency medical care. When not caring for protestors, the BFC began serving the general needs of the activists and runaway youth who’d flocked to the Bay Area during the 60s. In 1970, a group of feminists joined the clinic to run a women’s reproductive health night. They brought radical theory with them and eventually usurped the largely male, military-trained core of BFC members, resulting in a more horizontal distribution of power. The 70s were arguably the most radical and involved years of the BFC. During this period, we collaborated with the Black Panther Party’s free clinic in South Berkeley, operated a drug information hotline that was known nationwide, and had a psychiatric emergency team that responded to bad trips and overdoses throughout Berkeley. In 1976, the Gay Men’s Health Collective formed to offer queer-friendly sexual health services to men who faced homophobia from doctors. Clinic culture was steeped in the sexual revolution and psychedelic drugs and naked business meetings and orgies were much more common than they are today.
The 1980s were a much rougher decade for the clinic. Prior to the 80s, the clinic actually did receive government funding, but Ronald Reagan’s budget cuts brought on a financial crisis that saw the end of 24-hour services at the clinic (and gave us good reason to be more independent of government funding). At the same time, AIDS began killing clinic members, lovers, clients, and friends, and the BFC responded by offering anonymous HIV testing. Although our financial situation stabilized in the 1990s, staffing of the clinic declined, due in part to the gutting of the welfare state and because fewer activists had the resources to be on-call at odd hours. Daytime and afternoon shifts disappeared, and the clinic shifted to its current evening and weekend schedule. The AIDS epidemic continued, and clinic member John Iverson founded ACT-UP East Bay and began pushing a baby stroller full of clean syringes around People’s Park. Needle Exchange Emergency Distribution, our sister syringe distribution collective, was born. Members were routinely arrested for the first three years of the program but persisted through legal challenges and budget cuts to become a thriving collective.
In the early 2000s, word got out that a lot of BFC volunteers went on to medical and nursing school with a big advantage in the application process, and pre-med UC Berkeley students became much more interested in joining the clinic. Although this gave us the opportunity to corrupt and radicalize young minds before they went off to professional training, volunteer turnover increased as students went off to graduate programs, leading to the loss of institutional memory and more burnout. Despite this, we continued to exist as a clinic that supports marginalized communities and social movements. We were in the streets providing medical care during Occupy, Black Lives Matter, and the anti-fascist defense of Berkeley from Nazis. During particularly intense protests, we kept the clinic open all night to care for injured demonstrators and in one case, a medic used her body to prevent riot police from getting through our front door. Between intense periods of street activity, we quietly filled cavities and treated UTIs and taught folks how to reverse overdoses. We provided a warm indoor space with bathrooms and free hygiene supplies and endless cups of donated nettle tea. We also increased our outreach work to growing homeless encampments throughout the East Bay, scrambling to provide medical services to homeless folks while local governments destroyed their tents and bedding and failed to provide any actual help.
The BFC is currently in a dual state of revival and precarity. As often happens when radical political organizations fill in government gaps in social services, we spend so much time trying to meet folks’ basic needs that our ability to organize is limited. As we approach our 50th birthday, there’s talk of finding ways to strengthen our activist and advocacy work on top of the services we already provide. We’re expanding our anti-oppression and radical political training, finding ways to contribute to mutual aid projects in California, and trying to support the fuck out of other radical health projects in the area.
That being said, we’re also fighting to keep our shit together. Several members have died recently, our energy is spread thin from responding to multiple crises in the Bay Area (homelessness, fire, ICE raids, sex worker crackdowns, overdoses), and we need to move out of our current church basement space as the building is condemned. In the middle of a rapidly gentrifying university town, the BFC is a small, funky pocket of difference. However, the reality of existing in that gentrified city is starting to hit us and it’s unclear in what form we’ll exist in the future (though given the creativity and dedication of my co-collective members, it’s highly unlikely that we won’t be here).
Like a satellite that is in constant free-fall without ever hitting the ground, the BFC has spent the past 50 years in a state of managed chaos, without ever actually falling apart. We are a collective made out of human beings, with all the mess and conflict and dysfunction that sometimes goes with that, and our limited skills and resources prevent us from meeting everyone’s medical needs. However, we’re also a proof of concept: lay people can do something tangible for the health of their communities and provide healthcare in a totally transformative way. Knowledge and power in the healthcare system can be horizontalized, and even in the face of police repression and lack of resources, it’s possible to craft little pockets of creative difference.
How to Support the Berkeley Free Clinic
The radical imagination is our most valuable resource. If you live in the Bay Area and are into the idea of joining a radical health collective, please just fucking join. We always need more people, especially people who want to take initiative, make shit happen, and stick around for at least a few years. We have info sessions on the 3rd Monday of every month at 7:30PM at 2339 Durant St. You can also go to our website at www.berkeleyfreeclinic.org to see which sections are taking applications.
Even if you’re not in the Bay Area, you can always give us money.
Do you know of a grungy church basement or warehouse space in Berkeley that could house a clinic? Come find us and let us know.