On Friday, September 11, 2015, the Trauma Center Coalition held a press conference outside the University of Chicago Medical Center (UCMC), as it has done many times over the past five years. This time, however, there was a difference. On the signs, the normal message of “Trauma Center Now” had been flipped: the signs now read, “Trauma Center Won.”
The day before, UCMC officials had announced that they would give $40 million to Holy Cross Hospital on the Southwest Side for the opening of an adult trauma center. This trauma center will be the first on the South Side of Chicago since 1989. For the Trauma Center Coalition, this announcement is a reason to celebrate. In August 2010, Damian Turner, a community leader and co-founder of Fearless Leading by the Youth (FLY), was shot at 61st and Cottage Grove and died after a 30-minute ambulance ride to Northwestern Memorial Hospital. In response, members of FLY began demanding that the University of Chicago open an Adult Level I Trauma Center. At the time, many doubted that FLY could move the University of Chicago, but with widespread support, smart strategy, and dedicated leadership, this campaign has discredited the skeptics.
A timeline detailing the history of the campaign hangs prominently in the office where the Trauma Center Coalition regularly meets. It not only marks the campaign’s actions over the past five years, but also makes clear that the campaign has continuously escalated: in 2011, there were die-ins and tent cities; in 2012, there was a 10-mile march; in 2013, UCPD brutality and infiltration drew widespread attention to the campaign; and, in 2014, there was an unprecedented week of action as well as protests at state hearings and University fundraising events. The last six months have been the most powerful, with the Coalition shutting down Michigan Avenue and holding a sit-in in Levi Hall as well as a disruptive protest during Alumni Weekend.
The University of Chicago administration’s responses have mirrored this escalation. Although it’s hard to believe that anyone could deny how shamefully inadequate the South Side’s access to trauma care is, in 2011, UCMC officials claimed that all Chicago residents had sufficient access to trauma care. In 2013, after high-profile arrests at the Center for Care and Discovery, Dean Kenneth Polonsky declared that the South Side did lack sufficient trauma care, but that the University of Chicago couldn’t solve the problem. By the summer of 2014, UCMC President Sharon O’Keefe said that the University of Chicago was working toward a regional solution. In December 2014, UCMC officials agreed to raise the age of their pediatric trauma center. And then, incredibly, came the announcement of the new trauma center.
Although this new center, which will save many lives, is an astonishing victory for the Trauma Center Coalition, the University of Chicago still has not done enough to show that it believes that “black lives matter.” To the contrary, the University continues to distance itself from the Black communities that surround it. In fact, the administration disregards—and even suppresses—Black voices.
The decision to create an adult trauma center at Holy Cross Hospital instead of the UCMC highlights the racism that determines who receives trauma care. Black residents on the South Side of Chicago have had inadequate access to health care—especially trauma care—for decades. Although the University of Chicago Medical Center is the wealthiest hospital on the South Side, UCMC officials have resisted calls to help them access this care, even taking steps to prevent them from receiving it.
The UCMC has been under fire for years for changes to emergency room policies to favor admittance of patients with private insurance, a federal investigation after accusations of patient dumping, and a continuous commitment to profits over other supposed priorities like research and teaching. UCMC officials have continuously fallen short of meeting the needs of people in their community, and their attitude toward trauma care has mirrored this failure. If these officials believed that every life is worth saving, no matter the cost, they would not have refused to reopen the trauma center that the U of C closed in 1988. But trauma care is not profitable, and the predominately white administrators and trustees who control the U of C have consistently demonstrated that they value profits over the mostly Black lives that a South Side trauma center will save. Building a trauma center at the UCMC would have been an opportunity for the U of C to begin to correct institutional racism. Nonetheless, instead of welcoming nearby trauma patients into its state-of-the-art medical facility, “at the forefront of medicine,” UCMC officials have demonstrated that they prefer to send those patients miles away for treatment. The new trauma center is, without a doubt, a step in the right direction, but the choice of location underscores the University’s longstanding desire to keep Black community members off its property. This is racism.
The University of Chicago not only hesitates to treat people from the primarily Black communities who are its neighbors, but also ignores their voices. President Robert Zimmer’s response to last spring’s protests in particular reveals that the University’s stated commitments to “rigorous inquiry” and “free expression” are disingenuous. When members of the Trauma Care Coalition staged a sit-in in the lobby of Levi Hall last June, they made it clear that they would exit the building as soon as President Zimmer agreed to meet with them. At a university that claims to value “rigorous inquiry,” this level of escalation should not have been needed to get something as simple as a meeting, but President Zimmer had consistently declined invitations to engage in dialogue. As usual, the administration refused to engage with the campaign and instead called the fire department, which destroyed walls and windows so that the protesters could be removed and arrested. Such a forceful response to a completely nonviolent demonstration is “not representative of, nor compatible with, the level of discourse that our students, faculty and staff work to sustain,” to borrow President Zimmer’s characterization of the sit-in in his campus-wide email on June 7, 2015.
That email should be deeply concerning to all members of the University community who value freedom of expression. Zimmer seems to accuse the Trauma Center Coalition of “diminishing freedom of expression” by preventing him from giving an introduction at the 2015 Alumni Awards in Rockefeller Chapel. It is hypocritical, however, to accuse protesters of diminishing freedom of expression by speaking over him while University administrators routinely and deliberately drown out the voices of Black community members. Unlike the Trauma Center Campaign, the University has a well-funded Press Office to produce propaganda, and Zimmer regularly expresses himself by emailing the entire University community. Any right that leaders of the Trauma Center Campaign have to quietly and calmly say whatever they want is meaningless as long as the University of Chicago administration’s point of view is more easily heard because of the University’s wealth and power. For that reason, the Trauma Center Campaign must carry out disruptive actions that force the University to listen. The protests last spring briefly increased freedom of expression on our campus because they amplified the voices of Black youth whom the University leadership systematically delegitimizes. As long as those leaders continue to marginalize Black voices, it is the administration, not the Trauma Center Campaign, that is “diminishing freedom of expression.”
Unsurprisingly, the University’s statement about the new trauma center fails to acknowledge FLY. To further suppress Black voices, University officials have indefinitely banned non-student protesters who were arrested in the administration building from campus, a draconian measure that is, to borrow President Zimmer’s words again, “directly antithetical to the University’s values.” Moreover, University officials did not allow community members to have input in or knowledge of the decision-making process leading up to the announcement of the trauma center at Holy Cross. This shows that the campaign’s recent victories, while exciting, have not been accompanied by any indication that University officials have begun to value Black lives or voices.
Students for Health Equity will continue to support FLY in fighting health care injustices on the South Side. UCMC officials have threatened to renege on their commitment to raise the maximum age of the pediatric trauma center, an important step to save lives of many people in the communities that, even with the new trauma center, will still be underserved. We are organizing to ensure that the UCMC fulfills its commitment, and we continue to demand that hospital and University administrators listen to and value Black voices from the community. By organizing people to disrupt business as usual, we will continue to amplify marginalized voices and fight structural racism at our university.
This article was prepared in collaboration with Students for Health Equity.
The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.