Trauma surgeon highlights issues of race and law enforcement at public health symposium
Dr. Brian Williams, a trauma surgeon and associate professor of surgery at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, spoke at the University of Michigan’s Public Health Symposium on violent interactions between law enforcement and Black Americans Thursday night. Williams began speaking with a list of names, such as Sandra Bland, Philando Castille and Eric Garner, a list of names of African Americans who had been killed or allegedly killed by police.
“These are the names of men and women whose untimely death sparked national movements, ignited international conversations, forced policy makers to make changes,” Williams said. “Their deaths force the end of silence. Tonight, I’m going to tell you about the end of my silence. As we discuss the social justices of today, I want to challenge you all to also look at what has kept us silent about all of this.”
Williams, in his talk, focused on the immense price people pay for staying silent when it comes to acts of racism, and particularly in situations of racism in relation to law enforcement.
“There are many reasons why this silence has to end, but I think the most succinct explanation is echoed by Dr. King, when he talks about well-intentioned people who do nothing,” Williams said.
He went on to paraphrase Dr. King by stating, “The shadow of indifference from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute indifference from people from ill will.”
Williams continued, narrating his life in terms of the racism he has faced as a Black man in America, including stories from his childhood, when a white mother did not allow her son to play with Williams when he was four, and finally arriving at the event that changed Williams's life and ended his silence.
“On July 5, there’s a video of Alton Sterling being shot and killed in Baton Rouge,” Williams said. “Then on July 6, there’s a video of Philando Castille leaning out of his car and getting shot. Then on July 7, I go into work. I have no idea or expectation that all of this is about to converge with my personal and professional life.”
Williams was the only Black surgeon at his hospital, and was the trauma surgeon on duty the night a group of police officers were shot in Dallas, Texas during a peaceful protest regarding the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, where the officers were providing security. He detailed the moment the first officer was wheeled into the hospital.
“In times of crisis, you become hyper-focused on your job,” Williams said. “I am a doctor. I don’t get to change the quality of care I give based on someone’s ethnicity, or religion, or race, or gender or occupation. That was completely irrelevant.”
Three of the police officers that came to Williams’s hospital died. Williams described the night as one of transformation and extreme emotion. The hospital sent out a disaster page, and the hospital police were activated. After talking to the family of one of the deceased officers, Williams was overcome with emotion and had to go to a back hallway.
“I leaned up against the wall, and the floodgates opened,” Williams said. “I slid down the wall, put my arms on my legs, head in my hands and I just started bawling. None of you know me, but I don’t cry. To this day, my wife is still a little bit irate that she missed this incident. I’m crying, bawling, I can’t tell you why, but I just remember thinking to myself, ‘What is going on?’ ”
Later, at a panel about the shooting, Williams realized he could stay silent no longer. Though he planned on saying nothing during the panel, Williams ended up speaking out about what he was feeling. Despite the fear of losing his job and being marginalized by his community, Williams concluded the price of staying silent was far larger than that of speaking out.
Williams was just one of five men on the panel at the symposium Thursday night, which also included Washtenaw County Sherriff Jerry L. Clayton, former U.S Rep. David E. Rutledge (D–Mich.), Sociology Department Chair Alford A. Young and Donovan Smith, local action planner for Washtenaw County. Each member had a chance to respond to Williams’s talk, and each had their own unique perspective on the subjects Williams addressed.
After outlining some of his own experiences with racism, Rutledge applied his knowledge of government proceedings to make suggestions on what steps he thought the law enforcement community could take to ameliorate some of these issues. Some of his ideas were to use retired police officers to create a presence in the community, or create an “adopt-a-cop” system akin to the “adopt-a-highway” system already in place.
As a member of the law enforcement community, Clayton provided a different perspective, touching on the duality of situation and the necessity of cooperation.
“It is a mutual accountability and responsibility equation,” Clayton said. “In any relationship I have ever been involved with, it takes two. So as we think about moving forward, we all have to step up to the plate, assume responsibility for our behavior, but also be willing to challenge each other internally and in our community.”
Two members of Clayton’s police force attended the talk as well and who echoed his sentiments about striving to create the world you want to live in. When asked about whether he ever gets discouraged as a police officer, Officer David Clifton offered some advice on how to combat the hopelessness and frustration that can come with the job.
“If you care at all about people and humanity, you’ll get discouraged seeing the things that go on,” Clifton said. “I think that the key is to set yourself a goal, keep that in your mind and let that sadness push you in the right direction. I have small children, and I don’t want them to grow up the way people are growing up nowadays. I don’t want my kids to be afraid to go outside, fearful that police may come after them because of the color of their skin. At the same time, I don’t want Black people to grow up thinking that all cops are racist.”
Though the panel focused mostly on the experiences of Black men, there were students presenting about the experiences of Black women and a study they had done on the relationships of Black and Hispanic women with police in comparison to those of white women and police. LSA sophomore Bria Bush said she and the other people involved in the experiment found a significant increase in incidents among Black women compared to both white and Hispanic women.
At the end of the symposium, various action teams presented, which were consisted of four different committees about: civic engagement and activism, community-police engagement and partnerships, pipeline programs, and advocacy. These were created to further involvement and provide ways for symposium attendees to get involved and introduce their platforms in order to promote action around the issues highlighted in the symposium.
Event organizer Dr. Jessie Kimbrough Marshall said she would know if the event had been a success when she saw if these action teams gained a significant number of new members from the efforts of the symposium.
“We did not simply want to have a symposium and have it be done,” Marshall said. “We really want to galvanize the community. We want to build upon the energies that are already circulating out there, and we want to further develop those partnerships with our community partners — including law enforcement — to make our community what we want it to be.”