Led by residents, “White Coats for Black Lives” protest asserts that racism is a public health crisis
Hannah Calkins Jun 18, 2020
On the evening of June 3, an estimated 1,000 medical professionals and community members gathered on the greenway between Riley and Eskenazi hospitals to protest systemic racism. Some carried signs with statements like “Racism is a Pandemic,” “No Justice, No Peace,” and “Black Lives Matter.” To protect against COVID-19, all but the youngest children in attendance wore face coverings, and some had written “I can’t breathe” across their masks. But perhaps the most visually striking aspect of the group—beyond its large size—was that most of the people in the crowd wore white coats, signifying their status as medical doctors.
(right) Third-year internal medicine resident Victoria Thomas, MD, RN, speaks at the White Coats for Black Lives protest on June 3.
The protest was part of the worldwide uprising against systemic racism and police brutality sparked by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25. The organizers of the event, most of whom are residents at the Indiana University School of Medicine, called it “White Coats for Black Lives” (though there is no formal chapter of the organization by the same name at IU). The protest, which included a rally and march around the health campus, was a major success, drawing coverage from the Indy Star, WFYI, and other local news outlets.
The organizers were led by third-year internal medicine residents Julia Anderson, MD, Victoria Thomas, MD, RN, and Audrey Hessong, MD. They were supported by a core group of residents, including Crystal Nnenne Azu, MD, MPH and Eric Raynal, MD, and fellow Francesca Duncan, MD.
Azu, also a third-year resident in internal medicine, said they wanted to draw attention to the corrosive effects of racism, including racist policing, on the health of Black people and other people of color.
“As a Black woman, I have been very cognizant of police violence in our communities for a long time,” said Azu.
Floyd’s murder by a police officer, which was captured on video and went viral online, represented a “boiling point” for people suffering from the racism and inequality embedded in the laws and institutions of the United States, she said.
Thomas agreed, and said that what we witnessed happening in the video was emblematic of systemic racism against Black people.
“Our necks are kneeled on daily by our health system, by our educational system, and by our legal system,” she said.
In the aftermath of the murder, Thomas and Hessong joined a Zoom call with Anderson and chief residents from six subspecialties to begin organizing the protest.
“That blew me away. I can’t think of a time, other than orientation, when you can get residents from that many specialties together,” Thomas said.
After the call, the organizers coordinated security, notified the administration of IU Health, Eskenazi Health and the IU School of Medicine, and got supplies, such as bullhorns, masks and hand sanitizer.
The masks and hand sanitizer were vital due to concerns about spreading COVID-19, said Azu.
“Many of us have been taking care of COVID patients since March, so I think that we went into this understanding the risks and how to mitigate them,” she said.
Word of the protest spread quickly among residents, fellows, and medical students, and then even more widely to faculty, staff and community members, said Hessong.
“I was expecting maybe 150 people, mostly residents,” she said “I really underestimated it, and I’m so proud of IU for showing up.”
During the rally, speakers from a broad representation of specialties highlighted health disparities and drew attention to the toll that racism takes on the physical and mental health of people of color. They included an OB/GYN, who lamented the high mortality rates for Black mothers and infants; a psychiatrist, who warned against the dangers of mental health stigma; and an internist who shared a recent example of how his own racial biases had interfered with his diagnostic judgment.
Then, it was time to march.
“Getting the march started was a long process because we wanted everyone to practice social distancing,” said Azu.
As the crowd wound around the campus, they chanted things like, “No justice, no peace! No racist police!” and “Black lives matter.” Passing drivers honked their horns or raised their fists in support, and officers from the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department bicycled along the march route.
“The IMPD officers stopped traffic so we could pass, and were supportive of what we were doing,” said Azu. “I was very appreciative of that.”
While Azu, Thomas and Hessong are glad the march was so successful, they are adamant that more work must be done. It’s not enough just to show up, Thomas said.
“We are watching now,” she said. “We want to be part of the change, and we want IU School of Medicine to be part of the change. That means action.”
Accordingly, the organizers have asked school leadership to take a number of steps, including developing plans to ameliorate health disparities; supporting bans on police choke holds and the use of tear gas and rubber bullets on peaceful protesters; establishing a Center for Health Equity and Poverty Reduction; and installing a Chief Diversity Officer and an Executive Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion to serve in the Dean’s cabinet. (On June 15, Dean Hess announced that Patricia Treadwell, MD, had been named Special Advisor to the Dean and Chief Diversity Officer.)
“We’re doing this because we care about the legacy that follows us,” said Thomas. “I hope that we’ve planted a seed. I trust the students behind us to continue this work.”