“Why Choose to Be Arrested?” Choice, Privilege and the Fight for South Side Trauma Care

Author Michal David, at the far right, with fellow protesters.
This post first appeared on the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs Blog on September 4, 2015.
On June 3rd of this year I, along with eight other trauma center activists, was arrested for participating in an action of civil disobedience on behalf of the Trauma Care Coalition. During this action we barricaded ourselves into the front lobby of the University of Chicago’s Administration Building. Our goal was to secure a meeting with University President Robert Zimmer to discuss the opening of a life-saving Level-I trauma center at the University of Chicago Medical Center.
We were detained by University and City Police for 45 hours, about four times longer than the average time people in the US are held for actions of civil disobedience. All nine of us were charged with criminal trespassing, mob action and resisting arrest. The 45 hours I spent in jail were some of the most challenging of my life; I was handcuffed to a bench in an interview room for eleven hours, I was denied access to my medications and to adequate food, and I was continuously dehumanized by the officers charged with protecting me. Three days after release from police custody, we all received letters from the University of Chicago informing us that we were permanently banned from the University’s campus as a consequence of our actions. Just this past week, the University sent a private investigator to my home at 7:00am to again deliver a letter explicitly banning me from campus for life.
This is one of the first times I have shared my experience publicly. Following my release, at the urging of my lawyers, I decided to keep a low public-profile until the legal proceedings related to my arrest were concluded. As a result, I have spent the past few months processing what was both a traumatic and empowering experience with family and friends. One of the most common questions I encountered in response to my arrest was ‘Why? Why choose to be arrested?’. As I have not been able to speak publicly to my experience until now, what follows is my attempt to offer an answer to what I think is ultimately a very important question.
I am a white person. I am a white person living on the North Side of the city who is actively involved in a cause that for the most part does not affect me in my day-to-day life. I am affected by the lack of trauma center on the South Side only to the extent that this injustice stirs my soul; by the fact that I believe that as long as there is injustice for any people in this world, we will all continue to live in a world bound by injustice. Thus, my involvement in the Trauma Care Campaign is ultimately a choice—a choice directly fueled by my passion for social equity—but a choice nonetheless.
For many of the black activists fighting for a trauma center on the South Side though, this campaign is not a choice. They live in a world where they know that if they experience a traumatic injury while in their neighborhoods, in their homes, they will have to be transported to a trauma center on either the North or West Side of the City. They live in a world where a young man like Damian Turner, the founder of the youth-led organization Fearless Leading by the Youth (FLY), died upon his arrival at Northwestern Hospital after being caught in the crossfire of a drive-by just three blocks from the University of Chicago.
For my fellow black activists, this campaign is about more than a trauma center. As Veronica Morris Moore, a FLY organizer, wrote in a blog about why she and other trauma center activists shut down Michigan Avenue in March of this year, “The devastating amount of black lives that are lost along the 10 mile journey from the south side to seek trauma care, and the pain black families live with, are significant burdens that undercut our right to life as black people and the quality of the black families and communities we exist in.” When one’s right to life is undermined by inequities such as lack of access to crucial medical facilities, the struggle against these discriminatory structures is not a choice but a structurally imposed fight for survival.
The fact that I have a choice to work towards the establishment of a trauma center on the South Side is a privilege. This is accompanied by the privilege that I live without the daily fear of arrest or abuse by police. As Michelle Alexander asserts in her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, “Arguably the most important parallel between mass incarceration and Jim Crow is that both have served to define the meaning and significance of race in America…Today mass incarceration defines the meaning of blackness in America: black people, especially black men, are criminals. That is what it means to be black.” For black activists, risking arrest through civil disobedience is particularly risky as they are more likely to be treated unfairly by the criminal justice system. As a white woman with no criminal history, these risks are not so imminent.
For me, both of these privileges—the privilege to make a choice to be involved in the Trauma Care Campaign and the privilege to live without the fear of mistreatment by the judicial system—come with responsibility. While it is easy for those of us born with these privileges to become consumed in guilt and therefore become complacent in inaction, I believe there is a much more critical lesson to learn from this privileged status. We must use the power that comes with this privilege to fight for a world in which everyone, regardless of their race or class, is bestowed with these same privileges. I chose to use my privilege to raise awareness for the Trauma Care Campaign by participating in an arrestable action of civil disobedience. I urge each of us to think about how we can step out of our comfort zones and use our privilege to become the most effective allies in the fight to establish a life-saving Level-I adult trauma center on the South Side.
Editor’s Note: Since this post was written, the University of Chicago made a surprise announcement that it will partner with Sinai Health System to build a Level-1 Trauma Center at the Southwest Side’s Holy Cross Hospital. While the Trauma Center Coalition has celebrated this significant victory, it also has expressed major reservations about the proposal, the continued lack of accountability to the vulnerable community, and whether the University plans to follow through on commitments. JCUA is holding a major event on Nov. 1 to rally the South Side Jewish community and friends to continue to pressure the University to fulfill its commitments.