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Julianna Alson & Omid Bagheri Fight Police Violence With Public Health Tactics

Julianna Alson & Omid Bagheri Fight Police Violence With Public Health Tactics

COPHP alumni Julianna Alson and Omid Bagheri Garakani (’16) are a part of a national collective of public health practitioners and community organizers - the “End Police Violence Collective" - working to center the issue of law enforcement violence within the public health community. The collective aims both to raise awareness of these issues among the public health community, and to directly combat state violence using public health tactics, in collaboration with community members.

Julianna and Omid say, “Our work is rooted in generations of grassroots organizing against violence carried out by the State, through biased policing, incarceration, and immigration enforcement. In doing this work, we recognize how structural oppression inequitably distributes state violence to people of color and other marginalized populations, such as immigrants, individuals experiencing houselessness, members of the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) community, people who use drugs, sex workers, and individuals with mental illness.” 

Julianna and Omid, together with many others from across the country, successfully lobbied the American Public Health Association (APHA) to adopt a policy statement declaring law enforcement violence a public health issue, and calling for structural policy change to shift from a reliance on policing, toward addressing the social determinants of health, with a goal of investing in upstream public health strategies and community-led solutions. The statement has been widely cited by academic journals, media outlets, and in various public health and community-led advocacy efforts. 

Since the policy statement’s adoption, Julianna, Omid, and others have co-authored an article in the American Journal of Public Health's special issue on mass incarceration. The article’s goals are to increase knowledge of this APHA policy, and to bolster the grassroots organizing already taking place in communities that are disproportionally affected by law enforcement violence.  

“Public health practitioners have a key role to play in violence prevention,” say Julianna and Omid, “but to truly be effective advocates for health equity, we must develop a holistic understanding of the structural factors that cause violence, including violence which is perpetrated by the State and entrenched in systemic oppression and racism.”

The communities most affected by law enforcement violence are already leading anti-violence work across the country. One local example of community-led anti-violence work is the community push to ensure that the City of Seattle and Seattle Police Officers' Guild (SPOG) comply with federally-mandated police accountability measures made in recent years during police union contract negotiations. “Public health practitioners must not only support these community-led efforts, but must also make sure we are advocating for health by addressing structural violence. Failing to do so undermines the other public health work we are doing,” say the two.

Before entering the COPHP program, Julianna worked in policy research and evaluation. “I had a birds-eye-view on the ways that policies and programs attempt to respond to the downstream effects of systems of power and oppression, but in actuality fail to consider upstream systemic determinants, like state-mediated violence,” recalls Julianna, adding, “The anti-racist student organizing in COPHP gave me the opportunity to learn new frameworks and skills to understand and address systemic racism.” 

Julianna became particularly interested in combatting the negative health impacts that racism has through the criminal system via biased incarceration and policing. Says Julianna, “Biased policing is a particularly insidious determinant of poor health. Policing has its origins in patrolling enslaved people, yet among many Americans, there is widespread belief in its benevolence. As a Jewish and White person, I have both intergenerational personal and community-level experiences of being victim to state violence, but also of being part of a community that is perpetuating racism.” 

Says Julianna, “I feel deeply that ‘until everyone is free, none of us are free,’ to quote Fannie Lou Hammer. So, I dedicate a portion of my time to public health organizing.” In doing this work, Julianna emphasizes the importance of taking our lead from the most marginalized communities.

Omid’s commitment to combatting state violence was awakened once he connected the policy changes stemming from the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, to the present-day realities of surveillance and criminalization of communities of color. Says Omid, "My lived experience as an immigrant of Western Asian descent in the United States has shaped my understanding of the reality of what it means to be Iranian and a person of color in post-9/11 America. This lived experience is intricately tied to the reality of police violence in African American and Indigenous communities, where structural racism, colonialism, and xenophobia all intertwine to cause state-sanctioned violence.” Omid adds, “I'm thankful to have studied system-level change and community-based public health work at the University of Washington, and to have learned from local leaders and anti-racist community organizers about the local and national movements led by communities of color against state violence and racialized systems.” 

Julianna and Omid are both 2016 alumni of the Community-Oriented Public Health Practice (COPHP) MPH program at UW, where they studied public health with a focus on equity, collective action and learning, and community health. “These aspects of our education have shaped our thinking in terms of addressing law enforcement violence - along with all areas of systemic injustice - as a public health issue,” say the two. “Through this, we became connected with community-based programs and grassroots campaigns. We learned how to take guidance from and work alongside community partners as public health practitioners, and how to advocate for change. Finally, working collaboratively with people all over the country helped us to strengthen our very practical group collaboration and leadership skills.” 

Julianna and Omid’s involvement in this policy statement arose directly from their COPHP activities. Several years ago, as graduate students in Dr. Amy Hagopian's policy course (HSERV 537: Health Policy), Omid and Julianna were both were working on another APHA policy statement, focused on increasing the minimum wage to improve public health. Their group was successful in having that statement adopted by APHA. While attending the 2016 annual conference, Julianna and Omid met others from Chicago and Oakland who hoped a statement on law enforcement violence could be permanently adopted by the APHA. As they recall, “We offered our help, and today we're still working with them in the End Police Violence Collective.”

Julianna’s current position as a Research Coordinator in the UW School of Medicine, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology lies at the intersection of reproductive health, racial justice, and cancer. “I see daily how state violence is a reproductive justice issue, which reaffirms the importance of this work,” says Julianna.

Julianna plans to continue advocating for systemic change toward freedom from oppression and violence. One of her primary projects involves supporting a community of Black gynecologic cancer survivors in building a community and utilizing public health research in a way that brings them healing. “I find deep meaning in shifting public health resources - like monitoring and evaluation - to groups of people who might not otherwise have access to these tools, so they have maximum agency in their own healing and advocacy,” says Julianna. 

Omid is currently working as Equity and Community Partnership Director at JustLead Washington, a network of community leaders working toward equity and justice for low-income and marginalized people throughout Washington State. Omid works alongside legal advocates in Washington who are providing legal aid, and implementing legal strategies to make systems more equitable. 

“Bringing a health perspective to the law and justice space has been fruitful for me and others in better understanding the health impacts of our legal system,” Omid says. “Our laws ought to support the health and well-being of all people, but historically, the legal system has fallen short. Needless to say, this is ongoing work.” 

"If we have injustice happening, then we cannot have a healthy and strong society,” says Omid, who co-teaches the UW SPH 489: Structural Racism and Public Health course. “Community-led movements against structural violence are doing public health work, even if we don't call it that,” Omid says, adding, “I want to take my skills as a public health person and continue to support interdisciplinary approaches like this in the future. Public health folks can do more.”

The APHA policy statement is here

Check out the AJPH Article here.