Doctors for Defunding Police: Interview with Dr. Bahar Orang

Khaleel Grant //

About Doctors for Defunding Police

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. As a group of concerned physicians working in Toronto and beyond, they came together to stand in solidarity with calls from Black and Indigenous communities to address systemic anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism, defunding the police, and reallocating funds to support response systems backed by public health research.

KHALEEL GRANT: Can you tell us a bit about your professional background? Why did you become a doctor, where did you study, and what area of medicine do you practice currently?

BAHAR ORANG: I actually studied English and Comparative literature before attending medical school at McMaster University in Hamilton (ON). I also studied as a family medicine resident for one year before switching to psychiatry, where I am currently in year three out of five of my training. As an arts student, I was introduced to the subject of medical humanities, which at the time was a very exciting field to me, where theory and practice seemed closely entwined. One of my mentors at the time suggested that I look into medical school, where in some places students without an academic background in the sciences could apply. But to be honest, I did not quite know what I was signing up for when I went.

GRANT: To what extent were systems like racism and colonialism incorporated into your medical education and training?

ORANG: Education about racism or colonialism has been effectively absent from my medical education and training. There are student interest groups, who try to attend to these gaps, and there were maybe a few occasional one-hour sessions, but I would reflect that through my six years now as a medical trainee, racism and colonialism are absolutely fringe topics that are truthfully considered inessential (whatever else my schools may now say). Perhaps more importantly, wherever these topics have been taught, very often there are clear flaws and oversights, where, in other words, more violence is done than if nothing at all had been said.

GRANT: What were some of the experiences or influences you had that maybe primed you for getting involved in something like DFDP?

ORANG: Without going into too much detail, I grew up with the knowledge that the police do not keep us safe. These days, I think a lot about policing regimes and intergenerational trauma.

In Captive Genders, Dylan Rodriguez explains, “The fact is, we usually become radical political workers not simply because we have personal grievances with corrupt and unjust social systems, but rather because we encounter the mundane, insistent, nourishing, and contentious influences of some community of activists, teachers, survivors, and intellectuals.” And this has of course been my experience, where I am grateful to have had such encounters, and for me, they have mainly happened through art, literature, and poetry. The writing and thinking of Dionne Brand, June Jordan, Solmaz Sharif, Jackie Wang, Natalie Diaz, Mercedes Eng, and so on—these are the teachers of my political education.

But where I started to actually name carcerality and abolition was definitely during my medical training. Immediately, as a student inside hospitals and clinics, I started observing violence, well, everywhere—white supremacy, neoliberalization of care, coercion, incarceration. Then in psychiatry, all of this was frankly amplified. But there are whole worlds, entire literatures and communities and fields of study, that imagine otherwise, that think clearly and deeply and differently about care. These are the sorts of things I have been reading and continue to read because I know that whatever caring work I hope to do as a physician and as a psychiatrist must be linked with abolition.

GRANT: Can you tell us about how and why Doctors for Defunding Police was Founded? What was your role in its establishment, why in this moment of a pandemic and mass protests?

ORANG: DFDP was founded in the wake of mass protest, happening locally and globally, led by Black and Indigenous activists with calls to defund, disarm, dismantle, and abolish the police. In Toronto, where the city spends $3.3 million per day on police services (more than 25% of taxpayer dollars), pressure from these incredible movements led to a move in May 2020 towards city council defunding the police budget by at least 10%. Huda Idrees (a leader in thinking about the future of health care in Toronto) brought a group of like-minded doctors together, along with the formidable medical student Semir Bulle, to write an open letter of support for the proposal, with the hope that our social influence as physicians could help to advance the initiative.

The proposal was ultimately rejected and instead a number of reforms were taken up instead (including body cams) that would actually lead to an increase in the police budget (by at least $5 million). Toronto continues to be a conservative city that perpetually neglects and abuses its residents, and governing bodies (like city council) tend to resist radical change in favour of reformist practices that perform change, while actually further concretizing a neoliberal and anti-Black agenda. 

The role of DFDP was to listen to and amplify, as physicians with social power, the calls from activist groups, like BLM-Toronto and Not Another Black Life, while also trying to raise critical consciousness among health care workers (particularly doctors).

GRANT: “Policing is a Public Health Crisis” is a recurring slogan in many of the statements Doctors for Defunding Police has issued. Can you tell us a bit about how and why as doctors you see policing as a threat to public health, and why the call to “defund the police” specifically?

ORANG: Every aspect of policing is a threat to public health, by which I mean the physical and psychological health of individuals and communities, and specifically Black and Indigenous communities. The police regularly murder Black people, Indigenous people, and people of colour. The police routinely, intentionally, and seriously physically injure Black people, Indigenous people, and people of colour. They target houseless people, sex workers, drug users, immigrants, low-income people, and queer and trans people. There are profound psychological effects for people who are subjected to physical violence. These are effects that extend beyond individuals to families, immediate communities, and broader communities.

We know that increased exposure to “carding,” and more generally intensified police surveillance, can cause fear, stress, anxiety, depression, and trauma. We know that exposure to police violence, whether by the police or other school-based law enforcement agents, is a significant barrier to success for young people. We know that the police are perpetrators of sexual violence, especially towards Black and Indigenous women, which can of course lead to serious physical and psychological health consequences. The police do not keep people safe, and, in fact, every encounter with the police for people who have already been structurally abandoned by the state is another opportunity for harm by the state. If a priority for public health promotion is community safety, indeed the police enact just the opposite. Likely we should be thinking beyond the militaristic language of safety and security, which has already been cannibalized too completely by white supremacy and liberalism, and instead think more so with the language of care and caring. Caring about communities, about each other, will never mean policing.

Our group started with the call to “defund” to address and push forward the very particular action being considered by city council to defund the police. We contextualize “defunding” within the broader landscape, dream, and eventual reality of total police abolition.

GRANT: At the start of the pandemic, one of the immediate concerns amongst activists as well as those with loved ones in prisons was the extreme risks prisoners face if there were a Covid-19 outbreak on the inside. If policing is a public health crisis, where does the prison factor in all of this as far as DFDP is concerned?

ORANG: We would certainly recognize imprisonment as a public health issue and support every call towards prison abolition, which is of course inextricably tied to police abolition. As you point out, as a result of the pandemic, we are seeing so acutely and so grotesquely how all incarcerated spaces (including prisons, nursing homes, detention centres, shelters, and psychiatric institutions) are where people are held captive without access to appropriate care and are neglected towards death, illness, and suffering. We are seeing very clearly who the state wants to see live and who the state wants to see die. Even with current vaccine distribution plans in Canada, people living in incarcerated spaces must be given priority because they are highly susceptible to infection given their forced living conditions, but this has of course not been the case.

GRANT: Many talk about the reallocation of resources to other non-policing institutions of care if defunding is accomplished. But do you see this as enough?  Those who study the prison-industrial complex argue that many of our institutions perceived as separate from policing and punishment, such as schools, social work, mental health institutions, and hospitals, not only work very closely with police but also reproduce the violence of the carceral state. What is your perspective on this?

ORANG: Carcerality is reproduced, and has long been reproduced, by medical institutions, including and especially psychiatric institutions. We, as doctors, are therefore highly implicated as carceral agents. Doctors have indeed been and continue to be the perpetrators of carceral violence. Some might say that to defund the police is to defund the psychiatrist, to defund the obstetrician, the gynecologist, the ER doc putting their next “agitated” patient in restraints, CAMH [The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health], the hospital CEO traveling in the midst of a pandemic, and so on. I therefore do not believe in a simple reallocation of resources. It is not and cannot be the straightforward practice of funneling funds from one place to another. So where does that leave us? Well, we likely need to entirely rethink, abolish, tear down and rebuild the meanings and possibilities of health and of care. Perhaps there is knowledge, information, and influence that we have as medical doctors that can be helpful to people experiencing illness and pain, but something has gone awry here. I am interested in imagining anew.

In such a reimagining or reconstruction, we need to disentangle science and care from the total institutionalization, neoliberalization, and algorithmization of medicine, all of which make it such that medicine has moved away from its purpose as a collective social good towards an endeavour in the service of a political project to control, surveil, and manage populations.

As a group, we have thought about the Black Panther Party’s 10-Point program. We have stayed with the writing and activism of Mariame Kaba and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, as well as the conceptualization of abolition medicine, which was first written about in The Lancet.

GRANT: Often in medicalized discourses, we hear talk of Black and Indigenous people being “predisposed” to certain diseases. Even at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic when it became clear that these communities were dying at alarmingly higher rates, many were quick to suggest this was because these people are genetically prone to other conditions that make them ill-suited to survive Covid. As a doctor what do you make of these sorts of claims?

ORANG: The language of “genetic predisposition” in accordance with race has always been the language of medicine and has always been exploited as a heuristic technique to conceal, deny, dismiss, and ignore racism and to justify and reify white supremacy. (Racial science is indeed historically a foundational practice for psychiatry, continuing into the present). The document “Towards the Abolition of Biological Race in Medicine” (by Noor Chadha, Bernadette Lim, Madeleine Kane, and Brenly Rowland) is a helpful guide for clinicians on the issue.

To suggest that Black and Indigenous people are more genetically prone to Covid-19 is an obscenely opportunistic, violent, and totally ungrounded claim.

GRANT: If my research is correct, you did an MA in Comparative Literature and you actually released a book during the pandemic titled Where Things Touch: A Meditation on Beauty. Can you tell us a bit about the project and how its themes are connected to our present crisis? I’m especially interested in a recurring question in the work: “What are the borders of care?”

ORANG: I started writing Where Things Touch (which is an experimental book of prose-poetry) as a medical student, during a time when I was feeling quite acutely the medical world’s rigidity and bearing witness to a lot of its violence and cruelty. And yet I was having these intimate encounters with people, grappling with how to care for them in this strange new world. I wanted very badly for the terms of these encounters to be different. So I started writing, at least in part, to imagine what other languages and ruptures could be possible, and to follow beauty into those other possibilities.

One question I hoped to pose in the book was the question of how we can do this work of health care and healing differently. How can we start to imagine and create a radically different set of relations for caring? And I think that question is more urgent than ever right now, as the pandemic has laid bare so much political violence, so much tyranny, and I want to continue to be engaged in that difficult creative work of grappling with the current—to challenge the current—and rebuild differently. I see the book as being in that same plane of political imaginativeness.

Looking more specifically at the question What are the borders of care?—I suppose in the book I suggest that whatever borders we have now manifested in medicine are frequently misguided and ultimately create more harm. Thinking in the rhetoric of policing, incarceration, and abolition, the language of “borders” much more clearly signals violence. So instead of what are the borders of care?, we might instead wonder: what are the shapes of care? What are the forms that care can take (and does already take, in places other than the clinic or the hospital)? 

GRANT:  What vision do you and DFDP have for the future of health and care in our communities?

ORANG: To imagine a world with no police is to imagine a world where all people have access to good food, safe shelter, clean water, political education, friendship, and art. To imagine alternatives to the police is to return all power to communities, who know better than anyone else what they need. To imagine the end of a police state is to imagine the end of a white supremacist state, a capitalist state, a patriarchal state. These are some of the things we’re thinking about when we’re thinking about the future of health in our communities. One of our members, Nanky Rai, shared an article with our group for the new year: “Future Gazing: What if care was the organizing principle of our society?” (by JM Wong) which also asks, “What if care is everyone living lives of exploration, of ease, of connection?”, and care, here, is “creative and tenacious, relentless and wholesome, abundant and kind. The kind of fierce love that helped us survive the pain, loss, and heartbreak of 2020. A world where this love is the uncompromising foundation of our society.” I believe that DFDP desires, projects, and wants to move towards this kind of care as the organizing principle of our society and of how we approach and understand health.

Author bios: Khaleel Grant and Dr. Bahar Orang, MD, are both affiliated with the University of Toronto.

Image: Bahar Orang.

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