June 17, 2020

UAMS Students, Staff Stand Against Racism

By Spencer Watson

Leaders kneeling, surrounded by many others

UAMS Chancellor Cam Patterson, M.D., MBA, and Brian Gittens, vice chancellor for diversity, equity and inclusion, kneel to honor the memory of George Floyd.Bryan Clifton

The event, White Coats for Black Lives, was organized by Gloria Richard-Davis, M.D., MBA, executive director for the UAMS Division for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion collaboratively with the UAMS Edith Irby Jones Chapter of the Student National Medical Association (SNMA).

It was prompted by the May 25 incident in which a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on the neck of George Floyd, a black man in custody, for eight minutes and 46 seconds. Floyd died, and the officer has since been charged with manslaughter and second degree murder.

“In the midst of a pandemic, people are still moved by inhumanity. And one person can still make a difference,” said Richard-Davis.

The nonprofit group White Coats for Black Lives was formed in response to the events of 2014, in which officers involved in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner were acquitted. UAMS plans to start a chapter.

Medical student at podium

Medical student Natasha Thompson, representing SNMA, finishes her remarks. (Image by Bryan Clifton)

It has unequivocally supported the Black Lives Matter movement, which has again drawn national attention following the death of Floyd, the March 13 death of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky at police hands, and the February killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia after being chased while jogging by armed white men.

“We’re still having that same conversation,” Richard-Davis said, citing incidents of systemic racism even in health care, where minorities face greater risks for conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and obesity due to disparities in care and insurance coverage. “We took an oath to do no harm. Racist practice, whether implicit or overt, is harmful. We must take intentional action to eliminate racism, because black lives do matter.”

Event scene

The crowd listens, many with phones recording, as Patterson delivers his remarks. (Image by Bryan Clifton)

UAMS Chancellor Cam Patterson, M.D., MBA, took the podium and emphasized that racism and discrimination have no place at UAMS.

“I’m amazed to see so many of you here right now fighting for the principles and values that are the very foundation of our university and the entire health care industry. We are here to serve all people, regardless of color, religion, ethnicity, sexual identity or orientation,” said Patterson. “We are here to serve all 3 million Arkansans.”

“So much has been said about the ‘new normal’ that we have to adjust to because of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Stephanie Gardner, Pharm.D., Ed.D., UAMS provost, chief academic officer and chief strategy officer. “But on racism we have an opportunity, a responsibility, to be part of the solution, to work each day to create a better normal than what we had. A better normal for our learners, our patients, our communities and our state we serve, especially for communities of color and the most vulnerable populations. Together we can create a ‘better normal.’”

Brian Gittens, Ed.D., vice chancellor for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, reiterated the need for people to be part of the solution, quoting the saying “whatever we do not change, we choose.”

Crowd kneeling in large area around fountain

Everyone who was able to kneel did so for eight minutes and 46 seconds. (Image by Bryan Clifton)

“Your presence today represents a choice,” said Gittens. “A choice to reject systemic racism, a choice to demand justice, a choice to advocate for equity in access, a choice to no longer accept the status quo. We are way overdue.”

Gittens encouraged all involved to continue to stay involved in action and advocacy beyond the current moment, calling the push for social justice, “a marathon, not a sprint.”

Medical student Natasha Thompson, representing SNMA, and neurosurgery resident Jerry Walters II, M.D., also added their voices. Thompson reminded the crowd that SNMA was founded in 1964 because African American students were not permitted to join the American Medical Association.

“Although some things are different today, some things are still the same,” she said. “Black people are still fighting for their freedom. Black people are still dying at the hands of police brutality. And in 2020, black people are still fighting for equality.”

Neurosurgery resident speaks at podium

Jerry Walters II, M.D., describes systemic racism he’s faced personally. (Image by Bryan Clifton)

Walters recounted his own experience as a young man of color, being pulled over by police in college and doing all the things he was taught to do to ensure his safety: turn off the car, roll the window down, turn the dome lights on, keep both hands visible, make no sudden movements and speak in a calm, respectful tone at all times. He still had a gun pointed at him.

“This isn’t to suggest that all police are racist,” he said. “Only to suggest that I believe widespread change is necessary in law enforcement.”

At the conclusion of the event, all present were asked to kneel, if possible, or stand respectfully for eight minutes and 46 seconds, in memory of George Floyd and the time during which he was pinned, unable to breathe.

Crowd of hundreds at event

The crowd gathered around Dolores Bruce Fountain. (Image by Bryan Clifton)