May 20, 2014

Chain of command

Student protestor explains the motives for yesterday’s protest and calls the UCMC to action.

Yesterday morning, eight activists from the Trauma Center Coalition chained themselves to the entrance of a construction site at the University of Chicago Medical Center (UCMC) to protest the UCMC’s refusal to provide adult trauma care. Our actions, which have sparked conversations and will surely spark criticism, require context and explanation.

There is no trauma center for adults on the South Side of Chicago. Fearless Leading by the Youth (FLY) and Students for Health Equity (SHE) have been reminding people of this fact for years. Consequently, ambulance travel times to trauma centers are significantly higher from the South Side, which has been linked to increased mortality rates for victims of traumatic injuries in a study done by Northwestern trauma surgeon Marie Crandall. But this research merely confirms what South Siders have known for years: that the intentional divestment of resources from their communities has produced a reality not only in which gun violence is commonplace, but also in which the lives of victims of gun violence are so devalued they do not warrant appropriate medical treatment.

The UCMC could have a substantial role in remedying this. As the most resource-rich hospital on the South Side, it is difficult to picture a situation in which a trauma center opens without their collaboration. But the UCMC could be described at best as an unwilling partner in this endeavor. For years, they have stonewalled young activists who have sought access to treatment for their friends and families. This changed, however, when Executive Vice President for Medical Affairs Kenneth Polonsky hosted a public meeting in the aftermath of the sit-in in the Center for Care and Discovery in January 2013. He voiced an openness to working with other hospitals to find a collaborative solution and bring an adult level-one trauma center to the South Side.

And yet, one year later, how much closer are we to this goal? We have seen no action from Polonsky or the UCMC and no signs of any to come. We chained ourselves to the hospital construction site to make clear the disconnect between Polonsky’s promise and his actions. It falls on us to remind him that there is a robust and growing coalition of people ready to hold him accountable.

Last Friday, an e-mail written by Polonsky was sent to a group of students, reminding them about the university’s protest policy and reiterating that entering any hospital building or disrupting any hospital functions is strictly forbidden on the grounds of patient safety. We would like to point out that the whole premise of our campaign is about increasing the level of safety on the South Side. Safety cannot be presented as an apolitical value in light of which all other priorities must be tabled. It is out of a concern for the safety of all people that the Trauma Center Coalition has come together to take political action. In fact, we seem to be the only ones concerned about safety, as we watched with our own eyes as Assistant Vice President for Student Life Eleanor Daugherty and Executive Director of Community and External Affairs Leif Elsmo stood by and looked on while UCPD dragged protesters by their arms, shouting in pain as they were forced off the site.

We are aware that blocking a construction site is a form of political expression that Polonsky explicitly condemns, but we have been left with no other options to make our case heard. If we only adhere to modes of expression approved by the administration, what chance do we have to get through to an institution that has proven so reticent to engagement? The idea that the standards of protest and dissent are set by those being protested and dissented against is laughable. We are not careless enough to plan a protest that prevents people from receiving healthcare. It is the UCMC that has pursued a deliberate set of policies that prevent people from accessing healthcare, and Monday’s demonstration was meant to draw attention to that.

Administrators will surely respond that they value protest and dissent, but that this protest went too far. It seems their commitment to free political expression is more a talking point than a reality, as peaceful, undisruptive students and community members have been removed from the lobby of the Duchossois Center for Advanced Medicine three times in the last three weeks merely for standing in a circle and praying.  Polonsky’s claim that these activities are so disruptive to patient care as to merit removal are ludicrous, as is his suggestion that filming these incidents threatens patient confidentiality.

We know we have broken the rules, but only in service of drawing attention to an unjust system. To those who say our protests would be better aimed at city hall or the state house, we reply that institutions that perpetuate systemic injustice are worthy targets as well, as the status quo would not go on without their assent. Polonsky may feel he is the victim of the larger situation of American healthcare, but thus far we have seen no great vision from him about what to do about it.

So we blocked the hospital’s new construction site. While the University insists it is doing the best it can, we find it necessary to put our bodies on the line in our attempt to articulate a blueprint for a more just society. We do not accept their excuses for inaction, and we encourage those who share our desire to see a trauma center on the South Side to join us in the rest of our Week of Action.

Patrick Dexter is a fourth-year in the College majoring in geography.