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A Case for Viewing The Baltimore Protests as a Bioethics Issue

by Keisha Ray, Ph.D.

Freddie Gray’s Death
On April 12, 2015, Freddie Gray, a twenty-five year old black man was arrested and placed in a police van in Baltimore, Maryland for carrying a switchblade (Baltimore State Attorney, Marilyn Mosby later announced that Gray was legally carrying a knife). Perhaps one of the more troubling aspects of Gray’s fateful police van ride was that officers reportedly observed Gray’s unresponsive body on the floor of the police van but still did not take him to see a medic.

By the time Gray reached the Western District Police Station, according to District Attorney Mosby, he was no longer breathing and a medic was called. The medic determined that Gray was in cardiac arrest and severely injured. Gray was then taken to a University of Maryland medical facility. A week later, on April 19, 2015, Gray died, the result of a spinal injury he sustained while in police custody.

The Protests
Gray’s death spurred protests in Baltimore and in other major cities such as Philadelphia, Cincinnati, New York, Boston, Minneapolis, and Washington D.C. The protests spanned several days and still ongoing. When six cops associated with Gray’s death were charged with various crimes, more protests occurred across major cities. However, the events that spurred people across America to take to the streets with bullhorns, signs, tears in their eyes, and frustration in their hearts was not just the death of Freddie Gray.

The protests in Baltimore, and in other major U.S. cities are a response to individuals, particularly black individuals being fed up; Freddie Gray was just the heat that forced frustrations to boil over. Freddie Gray is one of many black men and women who have died at the hands of bad police officers (because not all police officers are bad officers) in just the last six months. Lately, it seems like every time we tune into our local or national news channel or read online newspapers, another black man or woman is dead at the hands of careless, under-trained, or overzealous police officers. However, Freddie Gray and all of the other black men and women who have died in the last six months at the hands of bad cops are just a few among many individuals who have been unjustly killed while in police custody.

To the black community, this is old news. It has shaped how we live our lives, how we prepare ourselves when we get pulled over by police officers even when we know we have done nothing wrong or are only guilty of speeding. We know that a simple speeding ticket can quickly escalate into a “situation” if you are pulled over by the wrong kind of police officer. It has shaped how we raise our children, particularly how we raise our little black boys. Just as we teach them “stranger danger” and give them the birds and the bees talk, we also give them the talk on how to get stopped by police officers and leave with their lives, all so our little black boys turn into black men who know how to interact with police officers and come out with their lives, even if it’s without their dignity.

The Case For Bioethics
There is a complex web of social factors that contribute to unarmed black people and black people accused of minor crimes dying at the hands of bad police officers—white privilege, racism, prejudices, implicit bias, income gaps, all of which can affect the health and wellbeing of black people. Because the issues that spur protests, like the ones currently happening in Baltimore are issues that can negatively affect health and people’s ability to lead enriched lives, the protests in Baltimore are a bioethics issue.

Social determinants of health are an accepted bioethics issue. Racism, a social determinant of health, either experienced directly or indirectly is not conducive to good health. For example, changes to the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) made way for subtle or indirect experiences of racism to be considered a cause for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Prior to the release of the DSM-5, racism as a cause for PTSD was only recognized if a person experienced a specific racially charged event characterized by intense fear and helplessness. The changes to the DSM-5 and what can be considered a cause of PTSD likens the stressful and hostile environments that soldiers face to the racist environments that people can encounter (without equating racist environments to the hostile environments that soldiers face). Additionally, including “alteration in cognition and mood” in the description for racism as a cause for PTSD is also a sign of what specific racist events and indirect racism can do to people’s health.

Black communities as a whole have long histories with bad police officers, but some communities have longer histories than others. Communities like Baltimore and Ferguson have seen protests in response to those histories repeating themselves. The impact on the health of black people who are directly involved and those who are watching the events unfold on their television cannot be denied. It affects the way we view the world and our place and our children’s place in it.

The death of Freddie Gray and the Baltimore protests bring to the surface feelings of fear and helplessness in the black community that can, at the least, affect our mental and spiritual wellbeing. Our people are dying and it seems like there is nothing we can do about it. And rather than being heard when we are all but yelling that we are not ok, our feelings are belittled and we’re told they’re unjustified. This makes the impact on our wellbeing even more detrimental. When media reports focus on the looters (the black looters, not looters of other races) or try to paint protesters as “thugs” (a racially charged word used in place of “black” or in place of worse words), the impact on our wellbeing is even more detrimental.

Additionally, rather than questioning the police officers involved and questioning the conditions under which Gray was subjected while in police custody, we focus on the victim’s criminal record. We look at his criminal record and use that to justify his preventable death. This makes the impact on our wellbeing even more detrimental.

When we use the hashtag “#AllLivesMatter” rather than the hashtag “#BlackLivesMatter” on social media, we fail to acknowledge that our judicial system seems to tell black people that no, all lives do not matter, our lives does not matter. This makes the impact on our wellbeing even more detrimental. And if all of these issues aren’t bioethics issues then maybe I cannot identify a bioethics issue because when I think of bioethics and when I think of an entire group of people saying there is a crisis of humanity in our community that is affecting our wellbeing, it seems almost inhumane for bioethics to not listen and take issue.

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