This week in med school, we learned about excitable membranes, ions critical for the transmission of nerve impulses across said membranes, and what happens when the homeostatic mechanisms that keep the concentrations of those ions in check are disrupted, as is the case with lethal injections containing potassium chloride.
We were a few minutes into discussing the mechanism by which an excess of potassium in the blood causes heart failure. I started to chime in with a few additional details explaining this phenomenon, when it hit me, mid-sentence, the absurdity of spending time poring over the molecular details of executing people, and not the incomprehensible human tragedy and horrifically racist underpinnings of capital punishment and the urgent need for its abolition. I wanted to talk about state-sanctioned executions as a direct descendant of state-sanctioned lynching an infinite amount more than the exact mechanism by which hyperkalemia takes the lives of people white supremacy never considered fully human in the first place. Not wanting to unleash a torrent of tears on my unsuspecting PBL classmates, I excused myself from the room. A few minutes later, we were back to more comfortable and “on-topic” discussions of neurons and potassium channels and anesthetic agents and medicine as usual, and my head was still spinning.
Sarah Kendzior once tweeted (I wish I could find the tweet) something to the tune of, “If it was you, you’d hope we were screaming for your release” as a call to action to journalists to mobilize for the freedom of three of their Al Jazeera colleagues, imprisoned in Egypt on false charges. The statement has haunted me ever since. I can’t shake the feeling that had I been born into different circumstances, it would have been me (consider that one in six Black men in the US have been incarcerated) – but since it isn’t, the power and privilege I do have comes with a responsibility to challenge structural racism and oppression in all its forms, and just as importantly, to create space for people directly affected to do the same.
The trouble is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There’s no innocence. Either way, you’re accountable. – Arundhati Roy