More than 250 Des Moines University students, faculty and staff – wearing masks and practicing physical distancing – gathered on campus on Friday to demonstrate solidarity in accepting the shared responsibility of protecting people of all backgrounds by addressing racism and oppression of all kinds.
“No longer is it okay to sit on the sidelines and say, ‘It’s someone else’s problem, or it’s someone else’s issue, or it doesn’t affect me,’’” DMU President and CEO Angela Walker Franklin, Ph.D., said during the event. “As a campus community, we are all about caring, compassion and empathy for others. So how can we stand by and not acknowledge the fact that people are hurting, people are struggling, people are feeling unjust treatment? There are those having to endure violence and strife in the streets, maybe as we speak today. This is a time for us all to come together. And if not now, when?”
The event came about after President Franklin issued an email message to the campus community on May 29, four days after George Floyd, an African American, died in police custody in Minneapolis. Her email message emphasized the University’s mission of improving lives in our global community by educating diverse groups of highly competent and compassionate health professionals. She also encouraged members of the DMU community to act on their potential to effect positive change.
The message resonated with students and employees of the medical and health sciences institution. Students requested an opportunity to demonstrate DMU’s solidarity and zero tolerance for injustice, which President Franklin, other University leaders and members of the DMU Board of Trustees fully supported.
“It was a message from our students, and that’s what we’re all here for – training the next generation of health professionals. That defines us as an academic institution,” she said. “So I look to them, I look to all of you to help us. There is a quotation often attributed to Benjamin Franklin: ‘Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.’
“This is not a protest here at Des Moines University today. This is not a political rally. This is us all standing together as one university steeped in the tradition of being a caring profession and a caring environment, nurturing and supporting of its own, that we stand in solidarity for those lives lost,” President Franklin continued. “We stand along with other health professionals…As many of you know at this point in time, all around the country, health sciences universities, physicians, hospital systems are all standing in solidarity. White coats for black lives – I’m proudly a part of that as a health sciences university leader, and I’m so proud that you’re all here with us as well.”
During the June 5 event, attendees kneeled for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the length of time that Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin had his knee on George Floyd’s neck. (Chauvin has been charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter; three other police officers have been charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.) But third-year osteopathic medical student Ruffin Tchakounte told event attendees the issue “is beyond the death of George Floyd and many other black men and women who have lost their lives, unarmed, at the hand of police officers.”
“This is about the inequalities that the black community and people of color have faced dating centuries into the establishment of this country,” he said. Those inequalities occur in health care, he said, pointing as an example to the fact the American Medical Association, which was founded in 1847, did not admit black physicians until 1964.
“Black men and women who had physician status were silently screaming to be let in, silently screaming to have justice and equality, but those screams were met with resistance. Those screams were met with other people saying you’re not worthy to be part of us,” Tchakounte said. “Where do we go from here? I do not have the answers. The black community does not have the answers…Maybe collectively we will look toward policy changes that are more than just police brutality, that are more than just changing a system of inequality within our law enforcement, but that also serve our health care community, that also serve our socio-economic status and other issues of inequality in our country.
“I don’t know where we go from here,” he concluded as he thanked those in attendance, “but I’ll tell you that this is the best start I’ve ever seen.”
Amanda Hale, a second-year osteopathic medical student and co-chair of DMU’s Seeking Justice Series, reminded those gathered that the day would have been the 27th birthday of Breonna Taylor, an African American emergency room technician in Louisville, KY, who was shot by police who entered her apartment with a “no-knock” warrant relating to a drug investigation. Hale emphasized the need for white people to have “difficult conversations about racism.”
“For too long, the burden of change has fallen on the shoulders of the oppressed. We need to be better allies and help elicit change in our family members, friends, colleagues, acquaintances and strangers. White people especially need to be better allies,” she said. “I’m guilty of not always using my voice in a positive manner, but no longer. To quote the protesters of George Floyd’s murder, white silence is white violence. We white allies need to step up and speak out against racism, individual and systemic alike.
“That means speaking out against an uncle who goes on a tirade against looters. That means speaking out against friends who make off-hand comments about ‘those people’ look like thugs. That means challenging a coworker that makes harmful stereotypes when discussing a patient,” Hale continued. “I implore you to find your voice and use it to uplift marginalized communities, the black community in particular. It is uncomfortable to be a good ally and alienate your friends and family, but I can assure you the discomfort you feel is a fraction of the discomfort from the burden of systemic racism.”
LeAndre Kennedy, a second-year podiatric medical student at DMU who grew up in Minneapolis less than 0.1 miles from where George Floyd died, shared with the audience his sorrow in seeing his neighborhood “on fire” and his pride that residents of the city have expressed their outrage. He emphasized that a “much bigger problem” is at hand.
“There are no ifs, ands or buts about fighting racism. It must be eradicated,” he said. “Yes, police brutality is a problem. There’s no reason that the color of your skin should dictate more violence or should lead to getting pulled over more. But it’s so much more than that…This is an issue for every single one of us here because it takes allies to defeat this. If the black community could stop racism, it would have been eradicated a long time ago.”
Kennedy expressed cautious hope that recent protests may be “the final push we need” to reduce racial injustice in America.
“This isn’t just about the black community, because fighting for justice in one community leads to justice in all communities, so this is everyone’s fight,” he told attendees. “We need your help, we need your support…It’s a blessing to see that something that affects me and doesn’t personally affect a lot of you out there, you’re taking it as if it would. Because in the end we’re all in this together, and we all need each other.”
Des Moines physician Michael Witte, D.O., a 1977 DMU graduate and chair of the University’s Board of Trustees, shared at the event how a high school job topping onions with migrant workers from Mexico and his experiences at a diverse undergraduate institution and during 24 years in the U.S. Army had expanded his “knowledge of the world.” However, years later, he was stunned by a conversation he had with an African American physician colleague and friend, Steve.
“I thought I knew my friend pretty well after 33 years of practice. It was only after he retired fully that we were having breakfast, as we talked about our kids, he said one of the toughest things he had to have a discussion about with his kids was ‘the talk.’ I obtusely thought it was about procreation. But for him, with each of his four children, it was about how to behave when you’re confronted by someone in a uniform,” Dr. Witte said. “I had never really thought any of my kids would have been under suspicion because they were driving in a particular part of town or jogging down the street or watching birds in a city park. But lo and behold I learned, after many years, how impactful this incident is for Steve and everybody like Steve.”
Dr. Witte noted that “markers of patriotism” through American history have included demonstrations, riots, rebellion and violence.
“However, rebellion and protests against black suppression and oppression have not been equated to the concept of allegiance to American democracy,” he said. “The philosophy of force and violence to eradicate subjugation, oppression, discrimination and the desire to obtain freedom has long been used by white people and explicitly denied to black Americans.”
He quoted American social reformer and abolitionist Frederick Douglass who, in 1866, stated, “The thing that is worse than rebellion is the thing that causes rebellion.” Recent demonstrations, Dr. Witte noted, relate to “flaws in our health system, our police forces” and “the disparities in economic and educational opportunities.” He expressed hope such demonstrations will bring about positive change.
“Demonstrations of public outrage have the potential to become a slow and long-lasting revolution that when fully mature, becomes irrefutable change,” he said. “I am pleased to see the broad support in the streets of America, the coming together of black, white and brown people arm in arm, risking their lives, to propel our history forward – to make the melting pot of America the bastion of freedom and equality that it was designed to be.”
President Franklin reiterated that hope in an email message she sent to the campus community to thank all who attended the White Coats for Black Lives event.
“We must continue the hard work to stand tall in the face of injustice and disparity and work to save lives,” she stated. “We all have communities to help heal. We all have friends, family members, neighbors and colleagues who need our selfless support. We all can help realize meaningful and lasting change.”
Click here to view all photos from the event.