UW Medicine Demands Elected Officials Declare Racism and Police Violence a Public Health Issue

by Elizabeth Turnbull

Healthcare professionals and protestors marched from Harborview Medical Center to Seattle City Hall at 9:30 a.m. yesterday to protest racial violence and demand Washington elected officials declare racism a public health issue.

“We have to not just accept progress, but demand change!” said Dr. Estell J. Williams, Assistant Professor of General Surgery and Executive Director of the Doctor For A Day outreach program through the UW School of Medicine and one of the individuals who spearheaded the march.

While health professionals from various medical facilities attended the march, the protest represented a strong stance against racial violence by U.W. Medicine specifically.

Williams, supported by the CEO of UW Medicine, Paul Ramsey and backed by every dean of all the U.W. Health Science Schools, demanded that Mayor Jenny Durkan, County Executive Dow Constantine and Governor Jay Inslee declare racism and police violence a public health issue.

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Thousand of Medical professionals and community members filled City Hall plaza and the streets surrounding it following a march from Harborview Medical Center June 6 to City Hall. Healthcare workers marched to show solidarity with the black community. (Photo: Susan Fried)

In a speech to the crowd, which organizers believe consisted of roughly 7,000 people, Williams demanded that state, county and city leaders eliminate legislative provisions that shield law enforcement officers from investigation and accountability and provide full public disclosure of all investigations of law enforcement officer brutality, in addition to five other demands.

Williams addressed how Black people and People of Color have been penalized in American society because of their skin color, as well as the fact that Black people face greater health issues due to obstacles surrounding access to food, job security, the geographic location of their homes and general stressors.

According to recent statistics, Black people in America are dying of COVID-19 at three times the rate of white people and, according to statistics released in 2017, African Americans ages 18 through 49 were two times as likely to die from heart disease than white people.

In addition to speaking about the general threat racism poses to the health of Black Americans and reading the names of those murdered by police, Williams also referenced the Seattle Police Department’s 2020 budget of roughly $400 million.

“Why should the city budget allow for $400 million to be allocated to patrolling and incarcerating people and you can’t [provide enough] PPE [personal protective equipment] to take care of people of color?” Williams said.

At the beginning of the march, protesters assembled in front of Harborview Medical Center, where many health professionals were visible wearing their white coats, as protesters chanted, “No justice, no peace!” and “What do we do when Black lives are under attack!? Stand up, fight back!” while marching south on James St. toward City Hall.

Many carried signs showing general support such as, “Nurses for Black lives,” while other signs were more specific, such as one addressing maternal mortality rates among Black women: “I’m an RN and I’m still 3 times more likely to die during childbirth than a white woman.”

In an interview with the Emerald, one medical health professional and protester, Dr. Sebastian Jara, a resident at UW Medicine in Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery, spoke to the dangers of racism, its dangers to health and why it is important for health professionals to protest.

“This is a public health pandemic and it takes everyone to recognize the changes needed to make a difference,” Jara said, referring to racism in America. “There are vast inequities that are just ingrained in our communities that end up having adverse health outcomes later in life and if we want to ensure that all people are treated with the care that they deserve the change has to start from the beginning.”

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Healthcare workers react to a speech during a rally in front of City Hall. Thousands of people showed their support for the Black community by marching peacefully from Harborview Medical Center to Seattle City Hall on June 6. (Photo: Susan Fried)

Leroy Horton, a dentist who has one of his two offices in Bellevue, is a part of the Affordable Dental Care network and was a protester at the march, spoke to the importance of the protest.

“I am very proud of today’s event because it’s alway healthcare providers who are on the front lines of saving lives and protecting lives, and we’re taking a stand against a brutal police force that has been doing the exact opposite,” Horton said. “We’re hoping at least the politicians will take notice and actually vote on legislation that will create change.”

Elizabeth Turnbull is a recent journalism graduate with a passion for writing human-centric pieces. Some of her most recent work includes writing for the Jordan Times where she highlighted issues faced by refugees.

Featured image: Dr. Estell Williams speaks before a crowd of thousands of Nurses, Doctors, and other healthcare workers and community members at a rally in front of City Hall following a march from Harborview Medical Center June 6 to Seattle City Hall to show solidarity with the Black community. (Photo: Susan Fried)