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UC San Diego medical students rally and issue anti-racist demands

UC San Diego medical students kneel down
Scores of UC San Diego medical students and others kneel during an anti-racism rally at the La Jolla campus June 8.
(Teri Figueroa / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Students want money budgeted for staff and instruction dedicated to addressing racism.

There they were, scores of people in white coats, down on one knee. An act of defiance, one said. Also an act of mourning.

Most of the people who gathered in a grassy campus square at UC San Diego on June 8 are studying to be the next generation of doctors, learning to practice medicine as the world fights COVID-19. But on this day, the UCSD medical students were focused on fighting racism.

About 250 people, including a few faculty members and at least two deans, gathered for a noon rally on the La Jolla campus aimed at eradicating racism — institutional, implicit and other — from campus, medicine and the community.

The event also served to share a detailed list of demands from students, including providing time and money for anti-racism training for students and staff; creating positions such as an associate dean of equity, diversity and inclusion; and creating scholarships for students committed to improving the health of black communities.

Near the start of the event, those in attendance knelt for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the same amount of time a white Minneapolis police officer was seen with his knee to the neck of George Floyd, a black man who told the officer he couldn’t breathe while handcuffed and pinned to the ground. When footage of the incident recorded by a bystander emerged, Floyd’s name became a rallying cry to fight police brutality and racial injustice.

The May 25 death of George Floyd, a black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee to his neck for nearly nine minutes during an arrest, has been at the forefront of renewed outcry, anger and debate over race relations in the United States, both in regard to police and society in general.

During an open-mic portion of the rally, several people stepped forward to speak. Most were students. Most were people of color.

“For one of the first times in a long time, I really feel like people have believed what they said when they said black lives matter,” new graduate Ian Simpson Shelton told the crowd. “Now let’s put some action behind it and let’s go do something about it.”

Speakers also noted their non-black “allies” in the fight, thanked them for their voices and asked them to continue.

“I swear to you, you have a family member that’s racist, you need to call them out,” neuroscience student Melonie Vaughn said. “Because we are tired of doing it.”

The rally was sponsored by the Anti-Racism Coalition at the UCSD School of Medicine. Several people at the rally wore white medical coats. Some carried hand-drawn signs reading “White Coats 4 Black Lives,” which is a national movement.

Dr. Jamal Gwathney and Dr. Cheryl Anderson
Dr. Jamal Gwathney, left, and Dr. Cheryl Anderson, founding dean of the Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health and Human Longevity Science at UC San Diego, take a knee during an anti-racism rally at the La Jolla campus June 8.
(Teri Figueroa / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Among those at the rally was Cheryl Anderson, who just days ago was named founding dean of the Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health and Human Longevity Science.

“Racism is a public health crisis in America, and we must change it,” Anderson told the crowd.

She and other officials with UC San Diego Health Sciences and School of Medicine leadership are meeting June 9 to discuss student demands.

“There’s nothing that’s controversial in asking for an anti-racist institution,” Anderson told The San Diego Union-Tribune. Of the student requests, she said, “I sense they will be embraced.”

Fourth-year medical student Betial Asmerom, who led the rally, said it was a list of demands students have been pushing for a few years.

“It’s important for the institution to understand that we mean business,” Asmerom said. “I think that’s a great first step, but looking at it isn’t enough.

“If you care about it, you have to put money behind it.” ◆