“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see … that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” Martin Luther King, Jr. Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 1963.
These words written by MLK, Jr. in 1963 hold true today as the American Public Health Association (APHA) and other institutions of public health refuse to publicly oppose police violence. At this year’s annual meeting, APHA leaders used many of these same liberal excuses to defeat a resolution to make police violence a public health issue and another resolution to call for UN accountability for the cholera epidemic.
Over 12,000 people attended the 2017 APHA meeting in Atlanta, where anti-racist students and practitioners organized to support these policies. They prepared people to speak out at hearings, picket the convention center, meet to plan strategy, and vote for the resolutions at the Governing Council meeting. They also presented talks and spoke up at sessions to generate support. Hundreds of attendees participated.
The resolutions had passed for a one year provisional status in 2016. The Haiti resolution had been put forward since 2012 and passed in 2016 with a 94% approval vote, but Governing Council members rejected it in 2017. Every year these policy arbiters made new and often contradictory demands for changes that could never be satisfied because their disagreements are really political. It is obvious that Haitian people don’t really matter to them; it’s more important not to criticize the UN.
Voting on the police violence resolution required pressure on the Governing Council (GC). IN 2016, supporters marched into their meeting space and demanded a vote for provisional status. The APHA leaders suspended their own rules to avoid a floor fight over the vote. Over the next year they made suggestions for changes, all of which were answered by the ten young authors, but still rejected the end product. At a well-attended hearing this year, open to all, 95% of the speakers were strongly in favor. Before the final GC vote about 75 members demonstrated noisily in front of the convention center with chants such as “No APHA silence in the face of police violence.”
Now the goal was to establish the resolution as permanent policy. The APHA leaders cut off debate and engineered a defeat by conservative delegates and many liberals who were afraid to take a stand questioning the police. It was very clear that the liberals within the APHA carried most of the responsibility for voting it down. The authors identified strongly with the quote about the “white moderate” who says “later” or “not in this way” or “it takes time.” Although the reactionary who mentioned “black on black crime” from the GC floor was rightly vilified, the multiple democrats who stated “This is a very important issue, but this statement doesn’t get it quite right” were more to blame. Members of the Medical Care section who had endorsed both resolutions still raised objections to the resolution. One member agreed with the statement that “police are agents of social control” but said “you can’t say that.” Another said it was the truth and we should say what is true. Also, the young authors realized that it wasn’t just white moderates, it was ALL of the liberals, given that the anti-police violence charge was led by a Black woman from Atlanta wearing a “threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” T-shirt. It was clear that black lives do not matter to the APHA as much as good relations with law enforcement and the Democratic Party.
The APHA is a typical liberal organization that claims to represent the interests of its members and be genuinely concerned about the public good. However, the leadership is really most concerned about maintaining its status and funding within the capitalist structure of America. Thus they do not speak up in public for even such reformist measures as single payer health care, which is their official policy, and refuse to deal with racism when it threatens their credibility.
As MLK, Jr. writes:
I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
According to a George Washington University public health student:
“The policy focused on the need to collect data, study accountability and establish a commitment from public health to protect communities over policed,” Kelsey Donnellan said. “It passed at the 2016 APHA Annual Conference as a late-breaker and has been cited 18 times in professional articles. Unfortunately, the resolution failed by a vote 64 percent to 36 percent. Despite the lack of support from the APHA Governing Council, attendees packed the hearing and over 60 rallied in support. We have power at GW to study and advocate against law enforcement violence. Our work can strengthen the case for reforms that reduce violence in the communities we serve.”
George Washington University also refused to issue a statement condemning the murders of black men and women as it did for the massacres in Orlando and Las Vegas.
Lessons Learned: Liberals Block the Way to Fight Racism
The defeat did not discourage the young activists because they realized that they had raised the issue of racism with thousands and exposed the cowardice and hypocrisy of the APHA.
While APHA leadership plays it safe, rank and file members have the chance to raise antiracist policies with the 30,000 members. Over the last 2 years, a multiracial group including the authors, the Black Caucus of Healthcare Workers, and Radical Public Health engaged 100s of people to consider state sponsored violence as a significant public health issue. They and the rest of us need to stay active to prevent fascist movements from winning over public health and medical practitioners as they did in Germany during the 1930s.
We must also understand that capitalism does not care about working people, be they professionals or laborers, except as a means to make profits. Thus maximizing the health and health care of workers cannot be a reality under capitalism, because that cost comes out of profits. Instead, capitalism builds racism in order to super-exploit black, Latin and immigrant workers and keep us divided against one another. Multiracial organizing is the key.
These young leaders are calling for continued organizing:
“As we pause and regroup, we would love to hear from you, as allies and those working with communities most impacted by institutional racism and marginalization. How do you imagine this movement growing? What kinds of collaboration between community organizations and programs, public health and medical care fields, researchers, writers, and policy makers do we need going forward? How can this statement be more helpful to your work? How would you like to be involved over the next year? Contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org.”