When treating patients of color at a pair of HealthPartners clinics in St. Paul, Bryan Leyva said he doesn’t shy away from having conversations with them about race.
“I ask them how they’re doing,” said Leyva, a third-year medical resident at the University of Minnesota in pediatrics and internal medicine.
“Many times they say, ‘I’m OK.’ And then I say, ‘Given what we’re dealing with, with COVID, and given all the protesting and police brutality towards Black communities, I’m surprised that you’re doing OK. It really speaks to your resilience and your strength.’”
This, Leyva said, often gets patients to open up about their experiences, including conversations like whether they’ve experienced racism in the clinic. It’s just one of the ways that Leyva, who was born in Colombia and grew up in Rhode Island, tries to counter systemic racism in health care.
So when Leyva first heard last week that one of his university medical peers defaced an iconic mural of George Floyd, he said he felt “complete and utter outrage.”
Volunteers at Floyd’s de facto memorial site—the scene of his late May police killing on Chicago Avenue and East 38th Street—caught a man on the night of August 18, spray painting black paint on the eyes of Floyd’s image and putting an “X” on his face. The man ran away. After a chase, the volunteers caught and confronted him.
Instead of calling the police, the volunteers asked the man to call a friend on his cell phone, and the friend identified him as Daniel. They then took the man’s picture, published it on social media and let him go.
Soon, social media users identified the man as Daniel Michelson, a 26-year-old medical student at the University of Minnesota’s Rochester campus. The Minnesota Reformer last week reported that Michelson admitted to defacing the Floyd memorial and expressing remorse.
Michelson, according to the news site, said that he was drunk and didn’t remember vandalizing the mural, adding that he made a “terrible mistake that just doesn’t represent who I am or what I value.”
Fellow students call for accused vandal’s expulsion from med school
Now, in a protest in front of the University of Minnesota’s Moos Tower, several dozen of Michelson’s fellow med students—along with doctors, nurses and healthcare workers—called for Michelson’s expulsion from medical school.
“It’s not about revenge,” Leyva told the gathered crowd. “Expelling Daniel Michelson is about who we are. It’s about character. It’s about our values. And it’s about our actions and how our actions align with those values.”
Michelson’s current student status at the university is unclear. The university’s website lists that he was most recently enrolled in the medical school this summer. University spokesperson Katrinna Dodge told Sahan Journal that a medical student “by this name is not currently enrolled as of August 20”—that is, two days after the incident.
Dodge said that privacy laws and University Board of Regents policy prevents her from disclosing more information.
“The University does not condone the defacement or damage of any public property, and specifically condemns the recent vandalism of the George Floyd mural at the site of Mr. Floyd’s murder,” she said in a statement.
Michelson did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment sent to his university email account.
Many of the rally’s attendees wore white medical coats to show solidarity with the “White Coats for Black Lives” student group, which helped organize the rally. Several also held signs with slogans like, “Racism is a public health issue” and “Health care is a social justice issue.”
One protester held a replica of the street-sign posts of the 38th and Chicago intersection, where police killed Floyd. Several speakers described the location and mural as sacred ground.
Jeanelle Austin, who lives just blocks from the site, explained that the mural was made “out of pain,” as a gift to the community “to help us grieve.”
“What would happen if someone came into your mosque, to your church or to your temple,” Austin said, “and defile what you consider sacred?”
Austin, who has helped maintain the memorial site at the intersection this summer, also rejected Michelson’s explanation that he was drunk and doesn’t remember defacing the memorial.
“If you are drunk and you are driving a vehicle, you are still held responsible for your actions,” she said.
Abdi Khalif, a registered nurse who helped organize the protest, made a similar assertion.
“As the saying goes, a drunken man’s words are a sober man’s thoughts,” Abdi told the crowd.
Protestors cite history of systemic racism in medicine
Roughly 100 people stood on the Moos Tower front plaza. Appropriate for medical students, the crowd stood far away from the speakers, wearing masks. Behind Abdi, four protesters wearing white coats held two large banners, including one that read, “George Floyd, enough is enough.”
Prakrithi Srinand, a fourth-year medical student, said that the historic problems with health care in communities of color, especially in Minneapolis, prompted her to attend the rally.
“For someone in our own community to add to this trauma is so devastating,” Srinand said, in reference to Michelson.
Srinand, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from India, plans to practice obstetrics-gynecology. And she pointed to higher premature births among Black mothers as just one example of systemic racism within that medical specialty.
“If we can take him out of the equation, I think that would be a good thing for all of our patients of color,” she said.
Having someone in the medical field adding to this problem, she argued, will only do vulnerable patients more harm.