On May 25, 2020, George Floyd said “I can’t breathe” more than 20 times before he suffocated on a street in Minneapolis. On Jan. 7, 2023, Tyre Nichols repeatedly screamed, “Mom, mom, mom” as he was beaten to death on a street in Memphis.
Both were Black men. Both died at the hands of police officers wielding the power of life and death.
For me, the only time I’ve had guns pulled out on me has been when I was encountering law enforcement. It wasn’t by a gang or anything like that.
– Robert Winn
“This is like déjà vu all over again. That’s only two years ago,” said Robert Winn, director and Lipman Chair in Oncology at the Virginia Commonwealth University Massey Cancer Center, a professor of pulmonary disease and critical care medicine at the VCU School of Medicine, and the guest editor of The Cancer Letter during February, Black History Month.
“It’s a cultural problem. It’s some kind of bias. It’s a disrespect,” said Otis Brawley, Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Oncology and Epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University, and co-editor of the Cancer History Project.
Both physicians have had life-threatening encounters with police—Brawley was thrown to the ground and held at gunpoint for standing in the garage of his own home; Winn was thrown to the ground and held at gunpoint for walking toward his own car.
“We both happen to be Black men. With the events in the last several weeks involving Tyre Nichols in Memphis, we thought we should have a chat, because both of us have in the past talked about our experiences with police, our experiences in society growing up,” Brawley said.
The Cancer Letter invited Winn and Brawley to discuss the structural biases and racism in law enforcement as well as in health care.