How Can We Go Forward as a Community and as a Society?

By Eve Higginbotham SM, MD, ML

Yesterday at 4PM, a young man lost his life in West Philadelphia.  According to reports, he had a history of mental illness and was brandishing a knife, as he walked towards police.  As I view the video which documented this occurrence, I see a young man, younger than my nephew, who is indeed, walking towards police.  He was not running towards the officers but was simply walking.  Why is it that the initial response to such a circumstance is to release a flurry of bullets?  Why is it that the deadliest display of force is the first response?  Why isn’t it the last strategy? Why not use a Taser first rather than consider this method as an afterthought?  It is my hope that these questions will be answered during the investigation that is currently underway.  The details are yet to be revealed.  It may be as a possible hypothesis that at the very core, there may have been a presumption of criminality rather than mental illness, which shaped the canvas upon which this tragic loss of life finds its depiction. 

As a democratic society, we have the right to protest this latest shooting and we have the right to seek a call to action.  As a society, we also have the responsibility to ensure that governance responds in a constructive way to reduce the reoccurrence of this fatal shooting.   We live in a society with competing priorities of self-interest and community interests.    Currently, the protection of self-interests is continuing to reign, and we have an opportunity to make a change in another direction whenever we vote. We must lean into efforts to recapture the soul of America by voting for those that understand the importance of working for the common good. 

As a member of a progressive community, I invite you to talk about your concerns because only by hearing from you can we understand how best to make our Penn Medicine culture better.  We have encouraged leaders to host safe space sessions throughout the Penn Medicine community and there are additional chances to share your thoughts by engaging via COBALT.  There are groups you can join which are ongoing and there is the opportunity to be a part of a discussion specific to what is happening now in West Philadelphia.  Please contact Dr. Puneet Sahota  Visit our website and enter your comments about our current strategic initiative to address structural racism, ACT.   As a university we are reviewing our own policing practices and there is still time to provide your own input, for those who work on the university campus.  Of course, we encourage everyone to vote so that we can elect legislators and executives who understand the importance of creating an infrastructure that supports the health of everyone in our society.  We already know how dismal our public health infrastructure is based on the surge in COVID-19 cases across this country.  Walter Wallace, Jr.’s death reminds us about the need for a better infrastructure to care for and treat individuals with mental illness.  We have lost too many individuals, too early in their lives to continue on this current path.  Every member of our community should have access to health care regardless of insurance status, whether it is no insurance, Medicaid, or a commercial payor.   When will this ever end? 

If we consider a quote that has been attributed to Aristotle expressed more than two millennia ago, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” and apply that to a thriving society as a vision of the whole, then we cannot ignore the needs of any of us as members of the whole.  We must continue to work towards ensuring all the parts of society reach fulfillment; without this conviction, we will never be totally complete and fulfilled as a thriving democratic community.