To say the past three months have been eventful and emotional draining is an understatement. During this period my public health colleagues and I have been consumed with working on the COVID-19 crisis, especially as it affects African Americans in North St. Louis. After documenting the increased cases of COVID-19 in the African American community, we worked with the Missouri Foundation for Health to create PrepareSTL, which uses community health workers to share information about COVID and distribute PPE to communities of color. We conducted research (pdf) with the Missouri Hospital Association documenting the disproportionate rate of COVID-19 infection in North St. Louis. We finally started seeing cases and deaths plateau in the St. Louis region, but there was more tragedy in store for us.
When I first saw the video of the white police officer with his knee on the neck of George Floyd, I broke down in tears. I could not bring myself to look at that image again for several hours. I may have told some of you why, but here is the reason. When I was a second-year medical student at Washington University in 1982, I was on my way to my apartment on Waterman Blvd. when several police cars pulled in front of me outside of the Straub’s grocery store on the corner of Maryland Plaza and Kingshighway. I was grabbed by the collar and thrust upon the hood of a hot police car by officers with their guns drawn on me. I have a chronic cervical neck injury, and I instinctively tried to move because of the searing pain caused by the officer’s nightstick on my neck, only to have the nightstick pushed harder on my neck. Of note, I grew up in the ghettos of Memphis, Tennessee and had been stabbed and shot at several times, but I was never afraid of dying until that moment in the street in St. Louis. I yelled out why were they doing this to me, and they responded an African American male had robbed a liquor store down the street. I said I was a medical student, they had my driver’s license and my WashU student ID, as well as a backpack full of medical books. Nonetheless, they kept me there in that position for at least 10 minutes. They then held me for at least another 30 minutes, verifying that my IDs were legitimate. They only released me when a white classmate, Mark Cooper, ran down to let them know I was indeed a medical student (allies matter). They then drove off as quickly as they arrived, never considering to offer me an apology. To this day my chronic neck pain progresses, aggravated by that assault.
The George Floyd video triggered that memory, as if it just happened yesterday. You see, I am George Floyd, I am Ahmaud Arbery, I am Freddy Gray, I am Tamir Rice, I am Michael Brown, I am Eric Garner. I am every Black man who simply wanted to live his life in dignity like any other individual. Don’t let my title or position fool you; when I walk out the door on any street in my country, I am a Black man, White America’s problem – someone to be feared, hated, and discriminated against. The George Floyd killing is so raw for me. I am reaching out to you to hold you, comfort you, and move you into action based on a righteous indignation of what is so wrong with this country, but I am also wounded, and need your comfort as much as you need mine.
After reflection on both the COVID-19 crisis in Black America, and the escalating assault on people of color, I decided with another public health colleague to co-author an editorial on Racism as a Public Health Crisis. I stated that we need to have the same systematic approach to dismantling racism as we have in containing the COVID-19 pandemic, or eliminating health disparities based on social and structural barriers to health. This requires the effort of all us, and here are some of the ways you can help:
- PrepareSTL has been remarkable successful, especially after we recruited Dr. LJ Punch to assist us. You can work with PrepareSTL as we distribute health information and PPE to vulnerable members of our community.
- You can volunteer as a COVID contact tracer with the City or County Department of Health
- You can join the protest against institutional racism, and you can get involved in a Get Out to Vote campaign.
- You can join the campaign to expand Medicaid in Missouri, with the Statewide vote scheduled in August 2020.
- You can advocate for criminal justice reform in St. Louis, starting with closing the City ‘s Medium Security Institution, known as the Workhouse.
- You can mentor African American and other youth from disadvantaged communities, starting with the program medical students established at the Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience.
- You can speak out against injustices, microaggressions and macroaggressions within our institution and beyond.
At the end of the day, we are all interconnected. One person’s pain is another person’s pain, one indignity is another’s indignity. So if we are to heal, it will have to be collectively. Let’s get together, at least virtually, to share more of these thoughts and help each other through this tragic and traumatic period in our nation’s history. I look forward to us working and healing together.
Will Ross, MD, MPH
Associate Dean for Diversity
Principal Officer for Community Partnerships
Alumni Endowed Professor of Medicine, Division of Nephrology