“I knew it. I knew you were out there because I know you.”
I let out an exasperated sigh as I could feel the tension building in my mother’s silence on the other end of the phone. “Ciera, you’re a doctor. You’ve done enough. This is not your place.”
I looked back at the number of police officers closing the gap behind us, loosing their batons from their holsters. “Mom, we have to agree to disagree on that one. I’ll call you later. I love you.”
I stood in a crowd of hundreds of people of differing races and backgrounds, wearing face coverings ranging from colored bandanas to gas masks, sharing the same beads of sweat on our foreheads, furrowed eyebrows, and eyes showing fear and uncertainty, but mostly determination. I looked at my co-worker, shoulders tense, and looked at my watch. This is it. We had officially broken the 8 PM newly imposed curfew by the city of New York. Though we were wearing our badges and scrubs, the epitome of essential workers, we were not traveling to or from ANY of our places of employment. We were intentionally in the heart of one of many protests against police brutality taking place across this country.
“F*CK YOUR CURFEW!” The rhythmic chants rang out from the crowd. We pressed forward, eyes alert, scanning for anyone getting separated from the group.
“SAY HIS NAME! GEORGE FLOYD! SAY HER NAME! BREONNA TAYLOR!” Don’t run, stick to the streets, we have strength in numbers. I witnessed strangers writing the phone numbers of lawyers in permanent markers on each other’s arms. We saw people handing out snacks and water bottles to the protestors. Onlookers played Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” and NWA’s “F*ck the Police” from speakers and banged on pots and pans. WE were on the same page and adamant about making our voices heard. The solidarity was palpable and encouraging.
…Until the NYPD started driving their vehicles into the protestors. Until the city of New York decided to block off subway entrances and stop taxi services in the area to keep people from being able to get home, leaving them stranded to be arrested or worse. Until the aggressors in uniform started needlessly beating people that they could catch with batons or slamming them to the concrete or dragging their bodies forcefully against parked cars. Thousands of people had peacefully gathered in the midst of the deadliest global pandemic to protest police brutality. The New York Police Department, notoriously one of the most violent and aggressive factions of the police force, was frankly NOT here to keep the peace.
When you consider what’s presented to us by the media, you’d have to be naive not to consider that violence could happen at a protest. In fact, you likely expect that it WOULD happen, especially given the history of the NYPD. While technological advances have allowed us to have more access and proof of the atrocities committed by the authorities, we run the risk of becoming desensitized to viewing these violent crimes through a screen, not realizing the psychological trauma we are constantly enduring.
I saw, with my own two eyes, a black woman get struck across the face with a baton by a grown white man in a uniform for simply exercising her freedom of speech. I saw her body fall to the ground. I saw her friend get punched in the face for trying to pull her to safety. It is the most appalling moment of my life. And it was in that moment that I truly realized we didn’t bring knives to a gunfight, we brought plastic spoons.
It’s bewildering to me that during a time where going outside is risking your life, where millions of people are unemployed, and where over one hundred thousand people have died in a six month time span in this country alone we are STILL fighting against an organization that has its core values rooted in racism, intimidation, violence, and oppression, and that this hatred is continuously fueled by the people in this nation, especially those in positions of power.
As a doctor in New York City I’ve seen more death in the past three months than I have seen in my entire career. I’ve seen families torn apart by a virus that doesn’t discriminate and by a health system that does. I’ve used one hand to hold the limp hand of patients in the hospital and the other to hold a phone with their families on a video conference call to make sure their loved one didn’t die alone. People clap everyday to express their gratitude for the work my colleagues and I have done during this pandemic, and yet, the work to combat another plague that faces my people is far from finished. In training to become a doctor I was equipped to fight a pandemic. My blackness has taught me how to fight racism. I don’t have the luxury of being in one battle at a time.
What has your whiteness taught you?
I took an oath to “do no harm” and have witnessed countless incidences where the police violate their oaths to “protect and serve.” It is my duty to use my privilege as a physician to oppose the racism that is killing my people, even though we all know these degrees won’t protect me from a firmly placed knee to the back of the neck.
What will you use your privilege for?
I called my mother back when I was headed home after finally finding an open subway station and told her, respectfully, that I would continue to protest and contribute to the resistance. I will continue to fight against the system and the people enforcing these injustices, even when it feels like I’m out armed and out numbered.
My place is and always will be on the front lines.
“If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live, and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling, and may I long experience the joy of healing those who seek help.” -Louis Lasagna, The Modern Hippocratic Oath, 1964.