Op-Ed: An American Autopsy

This piece was co-authored by two writers located in Atlanta and Washington, D.C., who have chosen to stay anonymous in this work. The authors — one Black and the other Palestinian — are physicians and colleagues.

An American Autopsy. Illustration by Joshua Jarrett, 2020.

UNITED STATES — As of this writing, police have killed 598 individuals this year. Last year, there were only 27 days without a death at the hands of the police. 

Mon., May 25, 2020, was not one of those days. In this way, it was a grotesquely normal day in the United States of America when a Minneapolis police officer knelt on the neck of George Floyd, murdering him. This is an indictment on the sad state of race and class in a country built on slavery and genocide. A nation that has yet to honestly address either its present or its past, nor the subsequent ramifications its actions have had on those affected communities that live in this country.

We are two physicians and colleagues, practicing in Washington, D.C., and Atlanta. When our patients fall ill with countless possible diseases, we work hard to provide therapy in various forms. As physicians, we do not just treat the individual. We have a responsibility to treat our communities as a whole and to care about the public’s health and wellbeing.

Yet the government, and its most violent domestic representative — the police — demonstrate very little care for our patients and communities. The government ignores the plight of the homeless, a known risk factor for poor health outcomes. The government imprisons and detains immigrants, including vulnerable populations such as children, the elderly, women fleeing abuse, pregnant women, and transgender individuals; depriving them of appropriate medical and psychiatric care, while often actively participating in abuse. It has partnered with industry and corporations to send individuals, disproportionately Black and brown people, but also poor whites, to prison, decimating their communities and families. Prison is increasingly used as a method to control disadvantaged communities as well as those with mental health conditions. The government continues to neglect healthcare access which primarily affects the poor of all races, but particularly Indigenous, Black, and brown people. Perhaps not surprisingly, rates of death for the novel coronavirus pandemic have initially affected those communities disproportionately; yet the government remains criminally slow in responding to this healthcare disaster appropriately. Meanwhile, government officials have largely ignored the pleas of prisoners and detainees who are vulnerable to the pandemic as the virus rages in the jails and prisons

The government hinders attempts to rectify the rapid destruction of the environment and wildlife, exacerbating global health crises and contributing to the rise of zoonotic diseases as we’ve seen in the COVID-19 pandemic. It has neglected education, leaving poor children behind with limited resources and funding, yet manages to increase policing of schools resulting in strengthening the carceral system by fueling a school-to-prison pipeline to the dismay of pediatricians. Other times, the government ignores its comprehensive economic failures and uses the military as an option for poor children, luring them with promises of scholarships or job security in order to participate in the military\’s violent subjugation of (often) Black and brown peoples globally, collapsing fragile healthcare systems at the behest of geopolitics or corporate profits. Meanwhile, in the U.S., communities and prisons are exploited for cheap labor to raise capital and riches for an increasingly wealthy elite. 

And now, we regularly witness police murdering people in our streets. Some, such as Anthony Hill, suffered from mental health disease that requires professional medical help and not the violent arm of the state. Disproportionately, the victims of police brutality are those from Black and Indigenous communities

None of this is new. Codification of police oppression of Black communities preceded Jim Crow in the 19th century. But now, the video camera places it before the national eye. Videotaping is useful in documenting police actions, particularly in helping individuals who are arrested often under false accusations and to demonstrate to the public the true sequence of events. It may also serve as a deterrent; perhaps the police officer is less likely to use violent means on the detained individual if they are being watched. 

Yet, despite a video recording, George Floyd was murdered in the street. This is not a criticism of the video recording, as the witnesses who shot the video lived in fear; a fear that their fate may have been similar if they approached any of the officers in an attempt to save a dying man. This is the brutality of the state, one that paralyzes and has usurped the power from the people. Unfortunately, he is not the first and likely not the last man to be killed by police. As Rayshard Brook’s recent murder outside an Atlanta Wendy’s demonstrates, video recording alone is clearly not the solution. 

As physicians, we can turn to a medical analogy. Video recording is similar to performing an autopsy: to understand and document why an individual died. But, our goal as physicians is to prevent injury and death when possible; to prevent the need for an autopsy in the first place. We are also not content with simply treating symptoms. In our medical training, we are taught the importance of treating the disease at its root. Only in doing so will there be any hope in eradicating a disease.

When the U.S. government sells weapons perpetuating human rights abuses and fueling wars globally, it worsens existing global health emergencies. Similarly, when the U.S. government ignores and promotes racism, it worsens the existing public health crisis domestically, furthering the deleterious economic, psychological, and physical impacts on the population. Just like COVID-19 or any other medical condition, racism — as well as social and economic inequalities — must be treated like diseases and addressed at their roots. This should be our goal as a community. If we fail to do this, then we will fail as a society. 

Physicians and other healthcare workers in hospitals and clinics tirelessly treat the sick while navigating through the COVID-19 pandemic. Life is precious; people are sacred, not property. We are therefore enraged by the little regard the police have displayed for the public’s lives as they fire tear gas, rubber bullets, and other projectiles at protesters, or ram them  with their vehicles. It is doubly problematic and dangerous given the circumstances when access to medical care is increasingly limited during a pandemic; when tear gas induces coughing and respiratory symptoms that promote the spread of the virus; when arresting and placing individuals in jails can easily further transmission of the novel coronavirus. In a naked demonstration of the government’s priorities, while the public has unequal access to health care, and while health care professionals are forced to reuse personal protective equipment due to defunding, the government resists budget cuts to the increasingly militarized police departments. 

While Donald Trump and others such as former Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields attempt to portray protesters as terrorists, it is in fact the state that is inherently violent. Is violence not harm to one’s body and mind? Neglecting health care is violence. Poverty is violence. Miseducation is violence. Detention and incarceration are violence. Funding imperialism, the colonization of Indigenous people’s lands or apartheid regimes throughout Africa, Haiti, the borders of the U.S., the Amazon, Palestine, and elsewhere is violence. Global export of weapons, infinite military campaigns, and drone warfare is violence. And finally, domestically, the rapid militarization of the police in equipment and training, combined with the use of violence as a method of control over the general population has revealed the police for what they are: an occupying force.

We recognize the urgent need to achieve both a psychological and a physical liberation as we encounter communities facing state sanctioned violence, mental and physical harm to their health, and racism. Within the medical sphere, changes in how we approach mental health illness — which far too often works in parallel with the carceral system — will serve towards achieving this goal, as will reprioritizing health care to the most vulnerable in the community over the creation of profit. 

But our communities must also change the culture of fear and oppression and take back the power that the police and governments have robbed the people. The people, notably of all races and backgrounds, demonstrate this as we witness them take back their streets; as they provide mutual aid amongst various communities; as they build up and support their neighborhoods; as they confront institutions of power that have for too long not only neglected, but also ravaged their communities; and as they strive towards autonomy. Protesters in Atlanta acted in this re-awakening as they freed their fellow protesters from the hands of police attempting to detain them on Fri., May 29, outside the CNN Center.

It is increasingly apparent that the police are the most visible and violent domestic arm of this failed government, one that has neglected the health and safety of our patients and communities, both within and beyond these borders. The police need to cease their violence, and it is time we move towards not only defunding but disarming and disbanding the police; a goal that can be achieved through building strong and self-reliant communities. 

As the government incompetently attempts to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic, it is clear that the people do not want to return to yesterday\’s America.

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