Nearly three years ago, Robert A. Winn and Otis Brawley provided their unforgettable personal perspectives on the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police—“I could have been George Floyd—many times,” and “I could have been George Floyd, too.”
Both recounted harrowing instances where structural bias in policing nearly cost them their lives.
Winn is director and Lipman Chair in Oncology at VCU Massey Cancer Center and senior associate dean for cancer innovation, professor of pulmonary disease and critical care medicine at VCU School of Medicine, and guest editor of The Cancer Letter for the duration of Black History Month. Brawley is the Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Oncology and Epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University, and co-editor of the Cancer History Project.
This week, after the murder of Tyre Nichols by police in Memphis, Winn and Brawley engaged in a conversation about how systemic racism is present in law enforcement and health care.
As we see evidence of another killing by police, it’s important to revisit the editorials Winn and Brawley penned in 2020.
Robert A. Winn: I am proud of being a director of an outstanding NCI-designated cancer center. I am also proud to have the distinction of being the only African American currently in that position. But as a black male I cannot forget that when I step out from behind my desk, hang up my white coat and get out into the street, I am just a black male—just like George Floyd.
To this day, I have considerable difficulty understanding my first experience with inappropriate policing.
I was walking back to my car with a couple of friends—who by the way, have been very successful, one is a physician, the other, a high-level MBA.
We were in Chicago, and after a late dinner, we were on our way back home. As I approached my car, I was asked if the car I was walking towards was mine. For the record, the car in question was a 1972 Coupé de Ville, a beautiful boat.
“Yes,” I said, and within seconds, I was up against a wall, frisked, then dropped to the ground by what felt like an army of police officers.
When that happens to you, you try to remember all the information your Dad has passed on to you, that his Dad had passed on to him, about the lethal dos and don’ts. (By the way, post-Floyd, I have passed on “The Talk” to both my son and daughter. It’s a macabre rite of passage for us black folks.)
But let me get back to Chicago, with me on the ground, face-down, Cadillac-side, cops on my back.
For what felt like eternity, I answered a series of questions that I can’t remember. Nor can I remember anything the officers were saying. I know there was a lot of yelling, intensity, and nervousness.
What I remember most, was a click, and a gun being placed to the back of my head. Why? Because, disregarding the Talk, I asked the officer, who had me pinned down, to give me his badge number. He didn’t.
Luckily, after the cops were satisfied that I was not a threat to society, I was freed; no bullet wounds, no chokehold injuries—just a few bruises, a few abrasions, and the feeling of deep sadness, with confusion mixed in.
I wish, I could say that this was my only experience. Being cuffed, and sitting in the back of a police car, became a familiar routine. Sitting there gives you an opportunity to think.
As I sat there, I wondered, how was it possible that even with obeying the law, the speed limit, not rolling through a stop sign, not having a cracked head- or tail light, getting through college, medical school, and residency, how was it possible that I was sitting in the back of this damned police car?
More disturbing were the thoughts that I could end up like Emmet Till, Fred Hampton, or Rodney King, the forerunners, of George Floyd, Eric Garner, or Michael Brown. One miscommunication, one misinterpretation of a look, or a movement can cost you your life—as it has cost many others.
This is an excerpt of an article that was published in full in The Cancer Letter.
Otis W. Brawley: Even a 40-plus-year-old military officer and physician can get thrown to the ground, handcuffed and questioned at gunpoint for looking suspicious in a nice part of Montgomery County. That would be yours truly a few years ago.
My real offense: standing in the garage of my own home.
By the way, the cops didn’t apologize, even after realizing that the address on my driver’s license was the address of the house they just invaded. Indeed, some of the excuses for police harassment and intimidation would be comical, if the situations weren’t so dangerous. The result is many black Americans do not trust police and, worse, live in constant fear of police.
Police harassment and mistreatment is a form of oppression. It exists to remind blacks of their social position. Other things exist to remind us of our social position, such as Confederate Civil War monuments and flags. Police harassment is just a part of the social injustice that black people live with on a daily basis.
We call it, “our burden.” It’s also called systemic racism or white privilege. It is an American form of apartheid. It is the evolution of the old segregation. It is a mindset on the part of many whites and blacks. It is so ingrained in society, both whites and blacks have come to accept it, not question it, and live by the rules.