Hundreds of people wearing scrubs, lab coats and masks knelt for nine minutes in front of the Martin Luther King Jr. Living Memorial in downtown Anchorage on Saturday morning.
It signified the approximate amount of time — 8 minutes, 46 seconds — a Minneapolis officer knelt on the neck of George Floyd, whose death in police custody has sparked outrage and a cascade of protests and demonstrations nationwide.
“I wanted to be a part of this specific protest because it’s very important that we understand that racism is systemic,” said Tonya McCarthy, a health care risk manager and registered nurse who attended Saturday’s demonstration by medical professionals. “And it affects not only the police system and the judicial system, but it also affects the health care system.”
McCarthy said that such systemic racism is reflected in the high numbers of black people who have contracted COVID-19 “because there are so many comorbidities that aren't being diagnosed because they don't have the same access to health care.”
During the moment of silence, McCarthy said she thought about her three black sons.
“I hope that things will progressively get better for my children,” McCarthy said. “I hope that they will grow up in a more inclusive society.”
On Saturday morning, health care workers walked through downtown — carrying signs with messages such as “Skin color shouldn’t be a death sentence” and “We all bleed red” — before eventually stopping to kneel at the memorial.
Silence spread across the crowd, with some demonstrators accompanied by dogs and strollers. All that could be heard was passing cars, planes overhead and nearby birds along the Delaney Park Strip.
“There’s a lot of data on how racism affects health. It’s detrimental,” said Toni Biskup, 44, a faculty member with the WWAMI program in Alaska and a doctor at the Alaska Native Medical Center.
Health care providers know the data and can see the results of discrimination and systemic racism, which means they’re in a position to speak with authority, said Biskup, who helped organized the protest.
“As health care professionals, we see this, we know this, we have the data,” Biskup said. “Things need to change.”
The show of solidarity by health care professionals followed a peaceful march in downtown Anchorage on Friday night and rallies in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau the previous weekend. Additional events protesting police brutality were scheduled in Palmer and Anchorage later Saturday.
Alaska’s chief medical officer Dr. Anne Zink, who has regularly communicated with Alaskans about the COVID-19 pandemic in community briefings and on social media, weighed in on Twitter on Friday, saying that “systemic racism is a public health issue." She described how “centuries of discrimination and different access to resources shows up in the health system, and in people’s health.”
“And these inequities keep showing up — including, right now, in very different rates of COVID infection and death by race and ethnicity across the country, in very different access to care, and in the brutal murder of George Floyd, of Breonna Taylor, of so many others,” Zink tweeted.
Cassandra Sweetman, a WWAMI student in Anchorage, helped organize Saturday’s demonstration by health care workers in solidarity with similar marches taking place in Seattle. Sweetman said the goal of the Anchorage march was “to connect and mobilize the health care community locally,” and to also help amplify the voices of those protesting in Seattle.
She said people should be listening to community organizers and taking action instead of just using rhetoric.
“It was a moment of solidarity,” Sweetman said. “And I was thankful for everybody that came to add to that, to amplify that message.”
Jasmine Brown, 24, a chiropractor’s assistant, said that over the past few weeks, she’s felt emotionally exhausted through several conversations she’s had about race. Protests can be a peaceful time, she said.
“It’s still emotionally taxing, but it's not the same as just constantly having to reiterate what you've gone through your entire life to somebody who doesn't understand,” Brown said.
After Floyd’s death, Brown said, all she could say to her friends was, “If you see me in the streets and there’s a cop with his knee pinned to my neck, please don’t stand there. You need to do something.”
Brown said that after seeing such an outpouring Saturday, she hoped that people have gotten to a point where they know to step in during those situations.
“I don’t want to feel alone in this, and I don’t feel alone whatsoever,” Brown said. “And that is one thing that is beautiful about Anchorage. Because at the end of the day, we can all come together, and we can all stand together, and we can all kneel together.”
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