AMITA Health Saint Francis doctors Shoshana Waskow and Michael Slater at the White Coats for Black Lives vigil on June 5 Photo by Heidi Randhava

Silence ruled at noon on June 5 as doctors, nurses, administrators and other staff members from AMITA Health Saint Francis Hospital knelt along Ridge Avenue in front of the hospital. They joined healthcare professionals across the country in support of Black Lives Matter, kneeling “for our patients, colleagues, family, friends and entire community,” said flyers about the event.

The vigil was organized by hospital physicians, supported by hospital President Kenneth Jones and attended by dozens of healthcare workers and others – including Mayor Stephen Hagerty and Eighth Ward Alderman Ann Rainey – who knelt silently for eight minutes, 46 seconds on sidewalks and parkways that line the Ridge Avenue just north and south of Austin Street.

Eight minutes, 46 seconds is the length of time that a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on the neck of George Floyd, Black and unarmed, while arresting him on May 25 for reportedly trying to use a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes. Three other officers stood by in silence while Mr. Floyd, who was handcuffed, told officers, “Please, I can’t breathe.” The officer continued to kneel on Mr. Floyd’s neck even after he became unresponsive, with no detectable pulse. After nearly nine minutes, an ambulance was called and he was taken to the Hennepin County Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.

“Our hospital president and the entire hospital decided that today at 12 o’clock we are going to be kneeling down for nearly nine minutes for the life of George Floyd and the Black lives that have been suffering for years. So this needs to stop. Right now, 2020 …The new generation disagrees with what has been happening for so long. It cannot continue. The United States doesn’t need that, because we are united. All together we can succeed,” hospital nurse Annie Michel told the RoundTable as she returned to work with her friend and colleague, Ebony Johnson.

“Taking this moment of solidarity, just seeing that we all agree that Black lives matter, and that until Black lives actually matter, all lives won’t matter – because ‘all lives’ includes Black lives. So just to know that our place of employment stands with us, stands for justice … that makes the difference in our lives,” said Ms. Johnson, a hospital nurse and Evanston resident.

AMITA Health Saint Francis President Kenneth Jones was among those who kneeled in solemn silence while passing cars honked and bicyclists raised their arms in support of the vigil.

“Our goal is to raise awareness around the impact that racism has on our community and our health care communities in the world. Our goal is to really show that we want to work as a community to eradicate racism and the ills it has on our world,” said Mr. Jones.

A shofar blown by Dr. Shoshana Waskow signaled the end of the vigil.

The story of George Floyd is not an isolated incident. Black Americans are regularly the victims of police violence. According to research published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) in August, 2019, about one in every 1,000 Black men can expect to be killed by the police.

The global response to the killing of Mr. Floyd, however, offers glimmers of hope. His violent death sparked protests across the nation and the world, with multi-racial and multi-generational support for Black lives in America.

“This is really important. The recognition of health disparities that we see so blatantly in the COVID epidemic is just a piece of the systemic racism that our society experiences. Police violence is one piece of that as well, and all of these are wrapped up in our centuries of racism in this country. And we as physicians who see the outcomes of this all the time, need to stand up with the rest of our society to say this is one of the things we have to help repair,” pediatrician and Evanston resident Shoshana Waskow told the RoundTable after the vigil on Friday.

Dr. Waskow attended the vigil with her husband and fellow physician, Michael Slater, who was identified by his colleagues as the primary organizer of the event.

“Violence is another preventable public health condition and, as Shoshana said, I can’t agree more about social determinants of health,” Dr. Slater told the RoundTable.

He said the vigil at Saint Francis came out of a group called “White Coats for Black Lives,” a nation-wide medical student-run organization with local chapters. Its mission, according to its website, is: “To safeguard the lives and well-being of our patients through the elimination of racism.”

Dr. Slater, who practiced medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital on Chicago’s West Side before joining Saint Francis three-and-half years ago, reflected on his role as a physician.

“You know, we’re in the business of providing healing of body and comfort of spirit. And I don’t want to see people who are unjustifiably injured or killed. I also don’t want to see the police officers who are our neighbors,…people who come in, who we work with all the time – I don’t want to see them subjected to the moral hazard of a wrongful killing. I have to believe there are better ways to police that are safer for citizens who are being policed, and that will also be safer for police officers,” said Dr. Slater.

He welcomed the opportunity to help organize the eight minute, 46 seconds of silent reflection to remember George Floyd and many others like him who needed justice.

“The opportunity was there, and in Mr. Jones had somebody who was willing to make things happen and…get the word out. The hospital chaplaincy then were able to come and help organize…It’s a great hospital, and it’s a great staff,” said Dr. Slater.

Heidi Randhava is an award winning reporter who has a deep commitment to community engagement and service. She has written for the Evanston RoundTable since 2016.