by Guest Contributor Kathleen M. Clark, DNP, RN
Edited by Kaija Freborg, DNP, BSN
Racism is a public health issue and has been the root cause of health disparities for Black, Indigenous, and Persons of Color (BIPOC) in our country for over 400 years. The recent killing of George Floyd has brought this emergent issue to the forefront of our nation’s attention as we bear witness to a man struggling to breath against a knee of a police officer. An incident that took 8 minutes and 46 seconds, which may be the same amount of time it takes for you to read this blog, sent people around the world into a rage demanding justice. In the words of James Baldwin, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”1(p0) And in my view, facing George Floyd’s death will change the world– we have a responsibility to make sure that it does.
The reflections I offer in this blog are rooted in the epicenter of the unrest, the city of Minneapolis, amidst the worst pandemic in modern day history. As a nurse, representing a profession repeatedly cited as the most trusted profession, my worldview is influenced by the patients I serve, those experiencing homelessness in Minneapolis. In this setting, as I direct the Augsburg Central Health Commons, a nurse-led drop-in center serving those unhoused or marginally housed, I have witnessed the implications of health issues for these individuals. One of those individuals was George Floyd. While I knew him in a limited capacity, his membership in the community has amplified the emotions and passions felt by others to take action in response to his death. Poverty and police brutality, both longstanding issues in the black community of Minneapolis steeped in institutional and structural racism, ultimately led to George Floyd’s murder; his arrest was allegedly over a counterfeit $20 dollar bill. Stories like this are but one of the many stories I have collected as a nurse engaging in civic agency. I teach in the graduate nursing programs at Augsburg University, which focus on transcultural nursing and social justice praxis. Here are some of my reflections and experiences.
During the height of our state’s peak of COVID-19, the video capturing George Floyd’s wrongful death spread through social media sites. The anger at yet another killing of a black man by the hands of systemic racism in our policing systems could no longer be silenced as Minnesota has been the home of first Jamar Clark, followed by Philando Castile, and now George Floyd. Peaceful protesting resulted in nights of looting and rioting where buildings were burned, stores were raided, and the Minneapolis 3rd Police Precinct was taken over by demonstrators. After each night of protests, the early morning hours revealed not only the visible social carnage but also the anger, fear, despair and loss felt throughout the community.
One of those mornings I was providing care at the Health Commons, counseling people who had known George and mourned the destruction of their community. Despite all of this loss, they still felt compelled to support the riots because otherwise there would be no systematic change without it. Following the Health Commons, I was to bring food to the encampments that afternoon through local volunteer efforts to address the lack of food and water that existed for those living on the streets due to the restrictions of COVID-19. I was assigned to distribute food to the largest encampment in the Minneapolis area, referred to as the Sabo Encampment. Accessing the encampment itself was deemed difficult as the typical path to access it was located in the parking lot where a Cub Foods grocery store and Target had been set on fire the night before. After discovering a way to the area, I found myself in the middle of what I fail yet to understand. The police were dismantling the tents of the residence in the name of public safety. According to these officers, the residents of the encampment were the root cause of the rioting, and the encampment served as a public health concern due to the drug use and human feces discovered onsite. Thus, amongst the back-drop of charred rubble and buildings still in flames, surrounded by a group of activists from Native Against Heroine and Cop Watch groups, I made my way into the encampment to bring the food and water. Realizing how many people were now displaced by a pandemic and now race riots, with no place to go, I left that moment in a flood of emotions, tears pouring down my face. How could I possibly leave these people in this moment, knowing that they did not cause this unrest, had no place to stay, and were likely to endure more violence? I felt paralyzed.
As the days of unrest and destruction continued, those who were displaced bore the burden of violence from tear gas used and rubber bullets fired. That following Saturday night the National Guard entered the streets of Minneapolis on the Governor’s order to address the civil unrest. News stations across the nation captured tensions rising between demonstrators and the National Guard. Word spread that those causing much of the unrest were not local residents, but instead they were flooding in from other states, seeking to escalate the situation to a civil war. Those residing in those neighborhoods found themselves at a loss, not sure of where to turn to ensure personal safety, as vans of white supremacists dropped off people in alleys, explosives were placed in people’s yards, and the National Guard was firing rounds of paint pellets at people on their own porches.
Many residents shared stories of forming neighborhood watch groups during the unrest in response to 911 calls for help were no longer an option, as the system was overwhelmed. Lee George stated, “Last Saturday we were told by City Councilwoman Alondra Cano during a gathering in Powderhorn Park, that if something happens tonight, if your buildings are burning, if you have armed men in your neighborhood, you are on your own.” People organized a 24 hour watch system, prepared buckets of water, and connected hoses to spigots (for possible fires or if the water supply became compromised), packed a bag for an emergent exit if needed, and identified those who had certain skills such as medical training. Not only was the community mobilizing to protect one another, they found themselves caring for peaceful protesters caught in the crossfire or displaced after curfew. These actions demonstrated acts of solidarity in the community, as neighbors demanded justice for George Floyd.
A group of volunteers, who had been organizing efforts to address the health and safety issues in communities of homeless people during the pandemic, found themselves needing to mobilize in new ways due to the civic unrest. Inspired by the organization theory of mutual aid, they formed a human shield as best possible; volunteers, service workers, and nurses fought to secure safety for the unsheltered. After negotiating with a nearby hotel, the unsheltered were welcomed to stay at what was temporarily named the Sanctuary Hotel. The plan was that these individuals would be allowed to stay until the night time violence ended. That next morning (Sunday), I was able to help provide care to those staying in the hotel and in a nearby encampment. Most people were exhausted from the endless chaos and trauma they found themselves in. A few individuals suffered from eye irritants, wounds from rubber bullets, or falls while attempting to flee. Not one person told me they were actually part of the protesting, but instead they were caught in the crossfire because that is where they had currently called home. The owners of the hotel decided to allow the unsheltered guests stay longer, while a nearby foundation offered funds to cover the cost of the hotel. The members of the volunteer group, where there is no one leader named, spread the word that additional volunteers would be needed to maintain the hotel for the guests. Thus, endless volunteers helped to coordinate on site collecting donations, distributing food, cleaning rooms, washing clothes, providing medical attention, and operating the front desk. I have never witnessed a group acting in solidarity, without hierarchies or self-interests dictating the next moves. People came from outside communities to provide assistance and formed trusting relationships in real-time. While the hotel had to end the stay for the residence 10 days later, being part of this experience with this group re-invigorated my hope as a nurse in the way we can co-create community in the future.
While still enduring this pandemic, Minneapolis communities continue to organize in unity as well as protest for justice in the wake of George Floyd’s death. While I have endless stories to offer from my nursing practice, these ones surfaced as vital in demonstrating the capacity to act, to create solutions in community that are potentially life-saving. Nurses have power and this privilege can be used to support and create change in communities where we are called to care. I have been transformed by the destruction, fear, and pain that has been embodied in structural racism in Minneapolis for more than 100 years, but I’ve also been transformed by the kindness, goodwill, and brave actions of people – many of them nurses – demanding justice for George Floyd.
1Li C. Kinfolk. Confronting History: James Baldwin. 2017. https://kinfolk.com/confronting-history-james-baldwin/#:~:text=But%20nothing%20can%20be%20changed,wrote%20the%20late%20James%20Baldwin.
About Katie Clark
Kathleen ‘Katie’ Clark is an Assistant Professor of Nursing at Augsburg University and is the Director of the Health Commons. She has taught at Augsburg University since 2009 where her primary responsibilities are in the graduate program in courses focused on transcultural nursing, social justice, and civic agency. She also practiced for over eight years in an in-patient hospital in both oncology-hematology and medical intensive care. She has a Masters of Arts in Nursing degree focused on transcultural care and a Doctor of Nursing Practice in transcultural leadership, both from Augsburg University. Katie has been involved in the homeless community of Minneapolis for over 15 years and has traveled to over twenty countries. She lives with her husband and three children in Stillwater, Minnesota.
About Kaija Freborg
Kaija Freborg is the Director of the BSN program at Augsburg University and has been teaching as an assistant professor in the undergraduate and the graduate nursing programs since 2011. Her focus in teaching includes transcultural nursing practice as well as addressing social and racial justice issues in healthcare. She obtained a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree in Transcultural Nursing Leadership in 2011 at Augsburg before teaching at her alma mater. Currently her scholarly interest in whiteness studies has her engaging in anti-racist activism work both in nursing education and locally; her aspirations include disrupting and dismantling white supremacy within white nursing education spaces. Previously Kaija had worked at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics in Minneapolis, in both pediatrics and neonatal care, for over 15 years.