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Doctors for Defunding Police

September 10, 2020

Semir Bulle of Doctors for Defunding Police on how professions can use their privilege to address systemic racism.

You are a co-founder of Doctors for Defunding Police. Tell us about your background and the purpose of this work? 

My parents were refugees, I grew up on more of the low-income side of Toronto where I had a lot of interaction with the police. I think in one year I got carded over a dozen times. Everyone in my community had similar experiences if not worse. When I came to the University of Toronto for medical school, I found other doctors doing community organizing. That led to Doctors for Defunding Police which is a collective of BIPOC doctors committed to the health of our communities. We work in the Greater Toronto Area and have come together to stand in solidarity with calls from Black and Indigenous communities to address systemic anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism.

When we are dealing with a mental health crisis or a drug overdose, we have to consider whether calling the police will make situation any better or worse for our patient. We recognize that our healthcare system is complicit in systemic racism and often works in concert with police services, especially as it relates to mental health crises. Defunding the police and reallocating funds to support response systems backed by public health research will make our communities safer and healthier.

We are all navigating the global pandemic in different ways. What are some key insights about how Doctors for Defunding the Police mobilized during this time?  
 
Doctors for Defunding Police came together in the pandemic and this moment is changing the way we organize. We have done everything online – with Twitter we can be transparent about who we are and our work. We can share information with our communities at work and in our lives – this is how we move forward and how we have built our audience. By providing information and education about issues that are impacting them and that the media isn’t addressing. People who are working on the frontlines, essential workers, they don’t have time to describe how systemic issues are affecting them. That’s our job – our job is to provide a base of support that reflects their reality and to show we actually care. Bringing people together in this way online creates a buffer and a base from which to push for institutional change.

In your press release you describe policing as a public health crisis. What is the significance of using health as a lens to address systemic anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism? Is there a connection to a healthy democracy?

Systemic racism is a matter of life and death to us. As doctors we are advocates and part of the community, healthcare doesn’t stop the second you step out of our office. In medical school we are taught about the social determinants of health – how medicine is 20% of the solution but the other 80% is within our environment – our communities. A recent report from the Ontario Human Rights Commission found that Black people are 20 times more likely to be shot than someone who isn’t Black. How can we function in society knowing this?

We are trying to connect every dot – to acknowledge the significance of intergenerational trauma, to acknowledge that better resourced neighbourhoods have a better quality of life, to acknowledge that kids from over-policed neighbourhoods end up in the criminal justice system. Democracy is supposed to be about people feeling like they have a voice in shaping their communities. That’s not happening right now and we want to change that. During the pandemic in Toronto we know that racialized communities have had it the worst – it’s where many of our essential frontline workers live, where social distancing has been the hardest and where access to mobile testing units hasn’t been available. What are the repercussions for this? We need people to understand democracy is about being part of a community and something greater. We think that society will function better when the quality of life of all citizens is centred.

Why is it important to organize as a profession right now?

Doctors have a lot of privilege and we trying to leverage that along with our community knowledge to call for improvements in our society. The pandemic has given us an important window to make a difference. We are aware that other professions can’t necessarily join us on this path – they face barriers. But we want to at least show what’s possible, that you can organize and if others want to join us, we want them to know that we’ll push with them. The digital age means we don’t have be siloed in our efforts, we need to work together and the groups with the most privilege need to call for change first because they can get away with the most.

Could you share an idea or initiative related to increasing civic engagement or democratic participation that inspires you?

I’m inspired by Nurses for Abolition who see the over-incarceration of Black and Indigenous people as a public health issue. They are based in Halifax and are using their professional base to call for the abolition of police and prisons.

For people looking to engage with you, how can they get involved? Who can they contact?

We are on Twitter and Facebook and have a mailing list. Our website has an open letter about policing as a public health crisis – we welcome doctors to be added as signatories.

 

Doctors for Defunding Police started as an initiative by a few doctors concerned about the toll anti-Black and anti-Indigenous policing was taking on the health of residents in the City of Toronto. We are a collective of BIPOC doctors committed to the health of our communities.

 

This is an unprecedented moment for democracy in Canada so we created the Sector Spotlight to learn about how leading practitioners are responding to it. Our hope is to support knowledge sharing and spark new connections by profiling a wide range of initiatives from regions across the country. Have ideas for our next Sector Spotlight? Get in touch!

Semir Bulle, Co-Founder of Doctors for Defunding Police

Semir Bulle is the co-founder of Doctors for Defunding the Police and an MD Candidate at the University of Toronto.