Trauma Center Now: Let the Walls Fall Down

In April protestors created a massive candlelight image with the message
In April protestors created a massive candlelight image with the message “TRAUMA CENTER NOW” on the lawn across the street from University of Chicago President Robert J. Zimmer’s house at 59th and University Ave. (Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)

My heart is heavy today for a number of reasons. Like many involved in social justice in Chicago, I am deeply worried. I am worried about nine people who were arrested by Chicago police yesterday after a peaceful sit-in became a spectacle of property destruction. Rather than agreeing to a meeting with young people who have long demanded the creation of a South Side trauma center, the University of Chicago’s leadership chose to ask the Chicago Fire Department to destroy a wall to facilitate the arrest of the protestors. The sit-in had caused no harm. It had prevented no one from leaving the building, and had damaged no property, but the university was willing to tear its own walls out to put an end to it.

If you’re not familiar with the situation, you may be asking yourself, “What was so threatening that a school would inflict such damage upon itself?” The answer is simple: a peaceful, well orchestrated campaign led by determined youth of color.

Photos of sparks flying off the barricaded protest scene at U of C took me back to another moment of struggle in this city. Many of us remember the sense of helplessness we experienced as police sawed their way through the barricades at the Woodlawn mental health clinic. In that fight, as with this one, there was much more than a single facility on the line. Lives were at stake.

And so we fought.

And here we see the fight continue, with the same larger issues at stake – the unwillingness of the marginalized to be deemed disposable, and the fight to see healthcare recognized as a human right.

The demand for local trauma care was sparked by the death of Woodlawn youth leader Damian Turner, who died during the more than ten mile ride to the nearest available trauma center. The effort has been led by the Woodlawn-based Fearless Leading by the Youth, along with the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization, Students for Health Equity at the U of C, National Nurses United and many faith groups including the United Church of Christ. A powerful coalition has formed behind one reasonable demand: that the University of Chicago, with all of its power, money and influence actually serve the community that it occupies and provide life saving care to people suffering from traumatic injuries.

It has been documented by the Illinois Department of Public Health that longer travel times to trauma centers increase the likelihood of a patient’s death. The same study indicated that the University of Chicago is best positioned to expand access to trauma care on the South Side. As Students for Health Equity member Natalie Naculich stated this morning, “The University has a long history of being a bad neighbor and now they are being held accountable for that.”

An institution like U of C cannot be allowed to usurp city resources, occupy a community, police that community, and punish all those that challenge its reign over their neighborhood. The protestors in custody have been charged with three misdemeanors and will remain in the hands of the state until tomorrow, at the earliest, when they will be taken to bond court. Efforts to raise bail funds are currently underway.

Tonight, there is a vigil being held for those still in custody. I will not be able to attend, but my heart is with the young people who have been fighting for this cause. Whether you are currently being kept in a cage for your moral choices, or are enduring the pain of knowing your friends are being unjustly detained, you are not alone. You are loved, you are appreciated, and those who love justice in your city stand with you. The leadership of the University of Chicago have escalated this fight, and I believe the organizing community is ready to meet their destructive obstinance with courage, love and determination.

As I worry about good people being caged in terrible places, I am reminded of all the things that keep us apart – our hearts and minds fixed on the same aims, but with our lives and physical selves being pulled in different directions. Some are divided by capacity or responsibility, some by insurmountable distance, some by conflict. And some by walls and cages. Let’s break down what barriers we can this summer, to share space and purpose where we can, accommodate participation, put aside difference, and build behind those most affected by the issues at hand. The University of Chicago was willing to tear apart its own walls to prevent these young people from building forward. Maybe its time we dismantle a few of our own so that we can build better, and reinforce the struggles of those who have lit the way. I believe we can do that, and I believe that the courage and determination of the young people who have brought their fight this far demands as much of us.

I believe we can all find a way to support these young people. And I hope that we do.

For tonight, I won’t be able to comfort those I’m worried about, or hold hands with their friends at their vigil, but I will be lighting a candle for their safe return.

I’ll leave you all for the night with some words that FLY organizer Veronica Morris Moore, one of yesterday’s arrestees, shared on Transformative Spaces in March, after being arrested for participating in a lockdown that shut down Michigan Avenue:

“For me, the Trauma Center Campaign is about fighting for a fundamental way greedy white America, and all who benefit from, embody and reinvent white supremacy and structural racism, can be accountable – pay the fuck up – for the legacy of terrorism that seeks to kill black life and liberation. The University of Chicago and all of its elusive glory continues to grow and develop in my community without responding to the demands and real life needs of my community, the black community. I will not stop, nor will the Trauma Center Campaign ease up from exposing the anti-black position [University of Chicago Medical Center president] Sharon O’Keefe has taken as a health provider in my community.”

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