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January 21, 2011

Celebration, protest mark MLK Day

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On the 25th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a group of activists honored his legacy with a nonviolent protest against health care concerns on the South Side.

The 25 protesters staged a mock funeral—complete with people lying in makeshift caskets—outside Rockefeller Memorial Chapel Friday during the MLK Commemoration Service, which featured Alvin Ailey Artistic Director Judith Jamison as its keynote speaker.

The event was one of a number of demonstrations by the local student activist group Fearless Leading by the Youth (FLY), protesting the absence of a level-one adult trauma center at the University of Chicago Medical Center (UCMC).

A statement issued by the UCMC on Friday said that adding a level-one trauma center would require changes in staffing and facilities, and could limit the hospital’s ability to provide other important services, including pediatric, neonatal, and advanced speciality care. “Achieving geographic balance on trauma care must not come at the expense of such lifesaving services,” the press release said.

But activists believe a trauma center would be a more effective distribution of UCMC resources. “Our point that we’re trying to make is that more lives could be saved if the U of C had a level one trauma center,” said FLY member Darris Lightfoot.

“In our society, we have a Martin Luther King holiday, but oftentimes we don’t live up to Martin Luther King’s example and his message in terms of justice and equality and looking out for the poor people in society,” said Toussaint Losier, a fourth-year history graduate student who became a FLY supporter when the group’s campaign to improve conditions in juvenile detention centers crossed paths with his dissertation research.

Losier acknowledged that balancing health care services is a complex issue, but said that the University’s stance fails to address the South Side community’s greatest need.

“If you’re talking to folks on the South Side, particularly young people like those in FLY, gun violence is one of the biggest concerns, and one of the biggest public health concerns is people either getting shot or dying from gun violence,” Losier said.

The mock funeral’s position outside Rockefeller’s main entrance caused a brief moment of tension between protesters and chapel security personnel, who were concerned that the demonstration would disrupt the audience’s departure from the chapel.

The group refused to clear the pathway until threatened with arrest. “We’re going to keep doing this until we get a trauma center,” said FLY member Kurtis James.

University spokesperson Jeremy Manier said it was important to balance the rights of the people attending the MLK memorial service and those holding the protest. “It was important to respect people’s free speech and the people who were attending the event,” he said.

Splashed across the group’s banner was a quotation from King, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.”

Another read, “MLK would be with us demanding a trauma center at the U of C.”

According to several attendees of the service, an announcement was made in the chapel alerting the audience to the presence of the protest, and reminding them that they could leave through any of Rockefeller’s exits.

Six police officers were on scene, but didn’t take any action other than to confer with chapel security personnel.

According to Losier, the protests have brought the issue into the public eye in the spirit of Martin Luther King. “Even though it might make some folks uncomfortable, it really starts a conversation that wouldn’t exist otherwise,” he said.

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