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Why Michael Brown’s Death is a Public Health Problem

By Fay Gibson on October 29th, 2014

Unsupervised, make-shift play spaces are not uncommon in economically disadvantaged communities. Does this increase the risk of life-threatening encounters with law enforcement?

The recent “weekend of resistance” in Ferguson, Missouri, gave me chills. Thousands of people organized in response to the attack on Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager who was shot multiple times and killed by a Ferguson police officer. As people raised placards and shouted the words that have become a rallying cry for so many in the African American community—“Hands up, don’t shoot!”—it reminded me of an earlier time when those willing to stand for something changed the course of this country’s history. Watching the rise of this latest youth-driven movement, I thought to myself, folks are once again just “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

Fifty years ago, civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer spoke before the 1964 Democratic National Convention. Her speech is thought to have been one of the most pivotal moments of the Civil Rights Movement. In graphic detail, Ms. Hamer described the vicious 1963 beating that she endured in a Mississippi jailhouse, which left her with severe kidney damage, a blood clot behind one eye and a permanent limp. I can remember listening to her passionate testimony about the demeaning discrimination that black folks experienced in Mississippi. With all the passion and authenticity that she could convey, she declared, “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired!” Met with criticism by some for such a bold statement, she nevertheless continued to fight for civil rights for the poor and disenfranchised until her death.

Five decades later, the World Health Organization defines a healthy community as “one that is safe, with affordable housing and accessible transportation systems, work for all who want to work, a healthy and safe environment with a sustainable ecosystem, and that offers access to health care services which focus on prevention and staying healthy… Health is more than the absence of disease, and is defined broadly to include the full range of quality of life issues.” Despite that vision, the recent events in Missouri underscore the challenges that communities of color still face every day. Clearly, residents in Ferguson are “sick and tired of being sick and tired” of discriminatory police practices that, far too often, result in unjustifiable shootings and deaths of unarmed men and boys of color. Due to the grassroots activism that inspired Ferguson residents to break their silence, Michael Brown’s death is the most recent, highly publicized case, but the list of similar incidents is much longer. Ferguson’s “weekend of resistance” gave voice to a shared sentiment among an overwhelming majority of African Americans and low-income communities of color: that they are living in places that are inequitable and unsafe.

Few would disagree that everyone should have the right to grow up and live in truly healthy environments where they will not be subjected to aggressive and excessive police tactics. Safety is a quality of life issue that directly affects one’s ability to be healthy. Practices and policies designed to protect and serve should not result in indisputable racial disparities, or in black lives and white lives being valued differently by health, welfare, educational, economic and criminal justice systems—but that is exactly what is happening. The number of unarmed black men who are killed by law enforcement has long been a silent epidemic. It is not only a detriment to our collective psyche; it must be addressed like any other public health crisis.

Public health professionals, advocates, community organizers, policy experts, philanthropists and others concerned with the total health of all communities must act now. We can become the Fannie Lou Hamers of this generation. We must broaden our framework for assessing the total health of a community if we are to expect transformative impact. We must work harder and smarter to support efforts that are designed to ensure collective impact by addressing the daily realities of communities. It is the only way to truly make all communities healthy communities.

Fay Gibson

Active Living By Design Alumna

Former Senior Project Officer at Active Living By Design, old-school community organizer and advocate for social justice and equity for all.