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Black Doctor Handcuffed by Miami Cop as He Wore a Mask Is Critical of Florida’s Pandemic Response

Web ExclusiveApril 15, 2020
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In Part 2 of our interview with Dr. Armen Henderson, an African-American doctor who was handcuffed and detained outside his home Friday as he was wearing a mask and preparing for a volunteer shift to test homeless people for COVID-19, he responds to his arrest, describes why he is focused on working with the homeless, and discusses how local and state officials are handling the pandemic. On Monday, Florida Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees was removed from a press briefing with Governor DeSantis after he said social distancing measures might need to remain in place for a year or longer. Dr. Henderson is an internal medicine physician, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Miami and an organizer with Dream Defenders.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue our interview with Dr. Armen Henderson, who was wearing a mask and preparing for a volunteer shift helping protect homeless people from the spread of COVID-19, when a Miami police patrol car pulled up to his home. Surveillance video from Dr. Henderson’s house shows him loading a van with supplies before the encounter. Dr. Henderson says the police officer handcuffed him after accusing him of littering, and then asked for his identification, which Henderson did not have on him. The officer was not wearing a mask or gloves; Dr. Henderson was. He had to yell to his wife inside their home to present identification before he was released. That was on Friday. On Saturday, the Miami police chief ordered an internal investigation into the incident. The officer involved hasn’t been identified.

The encounter sparked widespread outrage and comes as African-American men are reporting fears of increased racial profiling when they’re following CDC’s suggestion that people wear masks while in public. But what if you wear a mask while black?

For more, we continue our interview with Dr. Armen Henderson. He’s an internal medicine physician, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Miami, also an organizer with Dream Defenders. He was recently profiled by the Miami Herald.

Thanks so much for joining us for Part 2 of this discussion. In Part 1, Dr. Henderson, you described this encounter with the police, and one of the things you said was that the officer was telling you how you should address him, as he was arresting you in front of your house working in your van.

DR. ARMEN HENDERSON: Yes, yeah. He said I should call him sir or sergeant when I’m talking to him. And when my wife came out and actually said, “Why do you have my husband in handcuffs?” the officer basically said, “Well, because he has an attitude with me.” And I was just like, “Oh, OK.” In my head, I said that. And, you know, my wife basically was able to say, “OK. Well, I can get my ID.” She got it. And he basically let me go.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you heard of other African Americans being harassed by police officers, with the African Americans wearing masks? Do you think the mask was part of his reason why he attacked you, part of the reason why he detained you and handcuffed you?

DR. ARMEN HENDERSON: Potentially. I don’t know. You know, I don’t really know what his motives are, as I stated earlier. And it’s apparent on the video, is that he rode down the street very, very slow and then turned back back around to turn down my street to approach me. So, it could have been the mask. It could have been the fact that I was black. It could have been both. And so, I know for a fact that it likely was not due to the fact that I was — that he said I was, you know, littering.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us again. Tell us again. We’re looking at the video as you’re speaking.


AMY GOODMAN: And he slowly comes up. He gets out of his car.


AMY GOODMAN: And what did he say to you?

DR. ARMEN HENDERSON: He basically — well, first of all, in the car, you know, he basically was trying to figure out or asking me where — what I was doing there, why was I here. And I live in a predominantly Cuban neighborhood. My family is probably — well, it is the only black family that lives on the block. So, you know, I think that that — you know, so, I mean, I don’t know, you know? He just — he was saying a lot, and his body language was just very aggressive. And when he got out of the car, I was more focused on trying to deescalate the situation, trying to walk away and gather myself so that, you know, I wouldn’t respond in a different way than I actually did.

AMY GOODMAN: When he took you and handcuffed you, he’s not wearing gloves, he’s not wearing a mask. You had a mask on. Did you say anything to him about him speaking in your face and keeping some distance?

DR. ARMEN HENDERSON: No, I didn’t. I mean, at that point, you know, he already escalated it to a point — I mean, I was already in handcuffs, you know? So, what more can I say at that point? I was just focusing on keeping my mouth shut and hoping that my wife would come out, like as soon as possible.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what do you understand has happened to him at this point. It’s now a few days later, like five days later. What is the Miami police chief doing? Have you been formally apologized to? And what are you demanding?

DR. ARMEN HENDERSON: So, the Miami Police Department has not called me to apologize. I do think that he should be held accountable for his actions. He violated a bunch of protocols, not only as a sergeant, but also as a police officer. I think that they’re supposed to be wearing, you know, bracelets that say that they’ve been tested. He was supposed to have a mask on. You know, he probably should not have stopped me in the first place. So, I just want him held accountable for his actions. And I want an apology, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Armen Henderson, now let’s talk about what you were doing at that van, what you were loading in and out of the van. I want to talk about your work with unhoused people.


AMY GOODMAN: You’re a physician. You’re an assistant professor of medicine at University of Miami. Talk about the homeless population in Miami.

DR. ARMEN HENDERSON: Right. So, the homeless population in Miami is — it’s a large population. And basically, because we live in Miami and we are at the helm of climate change, we have a crisis situation every year during hurricane season, which is June through November. And so, you know, what we’ve seen in the past is that not only just with homeless people, but also with vulnerable populations, those who are working-class, low-income, live in poverty, and particularly in the black neighborhoods throughout Miami-Dade County, we’ve seen that there’s a disparate response when it comes to crisis situations, like during hurricane season.

And so, during Hurricane Irma, we found that, you know, FEMA and the government were saying one thing on TV, but, in reality, people on the ground weren’t being fed, they weren’t getting water. Their electricity was taking weeks to come back on, and people who depended on these things to actually live — oxygen and, you know, dialysis — were not getting the things that they needed. And so, it really took a coalition of organizations to step in and actually be — and actually, you know, to take the place of or to step in where the government was not.

And so, usually we activate during hurricane season, but during the pandemic, we actually decided to activate, as well. And during this time, we actually decided to focus on unhoused people, because we know that when you’re asking people to shelter in place, houseless people have — they can’t put tents outside, because police are harassing them. So, not only are police harassing me outside of my house, but they’re also harassing homeless people. They don’t let them put up tents. And, you know, we’re not allowed to feed homeless people on the street, etc. So we’ve been going out as an act of civil disobedience to feed the homeless, to provide them with socks and toiletries and sanitizer and masks, because during a public health crisis like this, the homeless population should be the population that you pay the most attention to. And the county organizations that are supposed to protect and provide for these organizations just are not doing enough and much of anything at all.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about people who don’t have houses, their access to water. The first thing we know, the best prevention is washing your hands repeatedly.

DR. ARMEN HENDERSON: Right, yeah. So, you know, you would think that in America everybody has access to clean water. But what we’re going to show, basically, when we go down there on Friday — and I’m going to have other media there, at a press conference — we’re going to talk to individuals who live on the street about the types of things that they’re facing during this pandemic, particularly having to use the restroom outside, not being able to wash their hands. Now, the county and the city has provided a wash station for 200 individuals, but when you go to that wash station, the water smells like sewage. You know, the porta-potties — the two porta-potty they provided for 300 individuals living in downtown Miami had poop all the way up to the toilet seat, you know? And it’s just like, what conditions are you subjecting people to live in, in America, who are citizens and who are humans, honestly?

And so, we really have been trying to figure out the best way to put pressure on the city and the county and elected officials, that get paid to actually take care of this population, and also to test them, to show that the virus is present in this population, as well. And this is also the population that’s going to cycle throughout the jails, you know, because the police are still harassing people. They’re still locking people up and putting them in jails. And so, these are also people who are going to cycle in and out of shelters. I don’t know if you saw, in San Francisco, the entire shelter had to evacuate because some of the people who were sheltered there basically had coronavirus. They had an outbreak like that.

And so, you know, it’s going to be really interesting to see how this whole thing unfolds, knowing the city and the county’s relationship with jails, knowing the police’s tenuous relationship with houseless people, and the fact that they are allowed — it’s like a federal mandate that they are allowed to break down people’s tents and to arrest them on the street, based on a federal ruling that basically was overturned in 2018.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Henderson, can you talk about the response of people who don’t have houses when you go up to them to say you’d like to test them? And what are the kinds of tests that you’re using?

DR. ARMEN HENDERSON: So, in the beginning, we were using the nasal swab, which is the PCR tests. And individuals want to be tested, you know? A lot of people who live on the streets, in unsheltered facilities in Miami-Dade County, they have symptoms, you know? And, of course, it could be attributed to other things, because they are in a very harsh — they do live in a harsh environment. But on the same token, they know that a pandemic is going on, and they want to be attended to just like everyone else. And so, you know, we’ve just been trying to figure out the best way to go about testing them. But they’ve been very amenable to the testing, you know? They basically, you know, want — they want to be tested, and they’re open to it. And people have walked up to me and said, “You know what? I want to be tested.”

The problem is that the tests take too long to come back. And that’s why, starting this week, we’re actually going ahead with another test that’s going to be rapid. It’s going to give them the results in 15 minutes. And we’re rolling out that test actually starting today.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Dr. Henderson, how did you get involved with Dream Defenders and doing this kind of work?

DR. ARMEN HENDERSON: Yeah. So, you know, ironically, Dream Defenders was started in 2012 after the death of Trayvon Martin. And individuals throughout Miami-Dade County and also, you know, Tallahassee, most of them at FAMU, basically took over the courthouse and stayed there for 30 days, until charges were brought against the person who killed Trayvon Martin. And so, I was seeing this unfold while I was in medical school, feeling like, look, like I chose the wrong profession, like, and I wanted to be involved. I just didn’t know how. And so, when I found out that I matched in Miami, Florida, in which Dream Defenders is based, I got involved with them as soon as I basically touched down off the airplane.

And since then, you know, I’ve been involved in a bunch of campaigns. Most recently, we sued the county over the the jail facilities and the amount of people that are housed at this one particular jail in Miami-Dade County. But I’ve been involved in a number of campaigns throughout my time with Dream Defenders, and it’s been very enlightening and also refreshing to know that there are young people out there that actually care about humans, in general, about poverty, about fighting capitalism, etc. And so, recently, you know, we’ve been involved with homeless people, but we’re in the process of trying to start a trauma recovery center, particularly around violence that happens in Liberty City and Miami-Dade County, in general. And so, yeah, we’ve been involved in a bunch of campaigns, and it’s been great working with the young people at Dream Defenders, for sure.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about Fisher Island, that’s not far from where you are in Miami — 

DR. ARMEN HENDERSON: Oh, yeah. Yeah, definitely.

AMY GOODMAN: — the richest ZIP code, that has bought coronavirus antibody tests —


AMY GOODMAN: — for the entire island population, for all its millionaire residents, average income, I think, two-and-a-half million, making the antibody — the antibody exams are available to all the 800 families, even though less than 1% of Florida has been tested. Now, these are antibody tests. I think the average age is over 60 there. A number of well-known corporate executives, everyone from Oprah to the head of Hasbro, has had places there. What are some of the figures? It takes — you have to pay a club membership of a quarter of a million dollars, average income two-and-a-half million. You can get there by helicopter or by boat. Explain this island. Now, you’re an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Miami, and the island said that they are working with the University of Miami in getting these antibody tests out to everyone, even though it’s extremely difficult to get the test anywhere else.

DR. ARMEN HENDERSON: Yeah. Well, I first want to talk about the fact that Overtown — you know, basically, the disparity in Overtown and Fisher Island is so great that literally the life expectancy of people who live in Overtown is 15 years less, or more, in comparison to people that live on Fisher Island. And so, I’m going to serve people that actually live in Overtown, which is a predominantly African-American neighborhood.

And it just speaks to the fact that in Overtown, it’s the most vulnerable population, and yet these people who live on Fisher Island, which is literally like two miles away, can get access to these tests, knowing that the people that live in Overtown, their lives may depend on whether or not they’re able to identify if they have the virus, and their access to care. And so, it just speaks to the hypocrisy of the system in general, that if you can pay enough money to get access to things, and be it anything, then you get it, and if you don’t, then you just don’t get it.

And so, yeah, I mean, University of Miami is probably working with them. They’re also — I guess, the same people that they obtain those tests from are the same individuals that I’m trying to obtain the test from, as well, to test homeless individuals. So, I guess —

AMY GOODMAN: Now, we’re talking the antibody test, not the test to see whether you’re COVID-19-positive now, right?

DR. ARMEN HENDERSON: Yeah. Well, if we’re speaking about the same rapid test that you get within 15 minutes, then that —

AMY GOODMAN: I don’t think it’s that. I think it’s the actual antigen test, to see if you have had it, the one that is much more difficult to get.

DR. ARMEN HENDERSON: Oh, OK. Yeah, I mean, that’s probably a way more expensive test. The test that we even have access to are the swabs, which take four to 10 days to get the results back. And as of today, basically, we’re rolling out another test where, you know, it’s within 15 minutes. It’s a blood test. But yeah, even with that one, it’s not —

AMY GOODMAN: Right, it’s a blood test.

DR. ARMEN HENDERSON: Yeah, that says, you know, throughout your entire — you know, throughout the entire time that you’re alive, have you developed antibodies to this specific virus. So, yeah, I mean, that’s interesting, and it speaks to the disparities that exist within every system, but particularly within medicine. And it’s part of the reason why, you know, people who live in Overtown, because of their income, because of their socioeconomic status, that they basically don’t get access to similar things.

But it also speaks to the history, as well. You know, it’s not just because African Americans have diabetes or they just don’t make enough. It’s literally, you know, government, local city and state governments that have come together to basically pass laws that make places inhabitable, in general. So, particularly in Overtown, you know, it was a burgeoning black community, like the Harlem of the South, and most millionaires lived there in Florida. And so the government decided to build 95, I-95, directly through the neighborhood, and no one — to get to Miami Beach, and no one who was driving from upstate Florida to Miami Beach could even visit those businesses, and so they all lost revenue. They closed down. People moved out. And the result that you have is, you know, people who have drug addiction, people who have serious mental illnesses, and those that live in poverty. And so, yeah, it’s important to talk about the history of it, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Dr. Henderson, I wanted to get your medical response to President Trump and his approach to this pandemic. He’s now officially a resident of Florida, right? Mar-a-Lago. And also his ally, Governor Ron DeSantis, who refused to impose, at the beginning, any shelter at home, as spring break was unfolding and we were looking at the pictures of the thousands of people crowded on the beaches. Now he has said that World Wide Wrestling is an essential act and has opened up World Wide Wrestling to continue in Florida, has been a fierce defender of President Trump. Can you talk about both responses and what it means for the people of Overtown and for you as a doctor?

DR. ARMEN HENDERSON: Right. I mean, so, the people that we see actually succumbing to the virus and having the worst morbidity and mortality are those that are poor, that are homeless, that are working-class, those that live on the — that run the transit systems, those that are in supermarkets, etc.

So, when you say — when President Trump or Ron DeSantis — they’re basically the same person — when they say these things, that they’re going to open up the city and continue as business as usual, then what you’re saying is that you really don’t care about the poor people, the working-class individuals. You don’t care about their health.

And so, you know, honestly, I was one, early on — you know, in the community emergency emergency center — community emergency operations center that we run, the coalition of organizations, we have an epidemiologist who works with us, and also a public health expert, who follows the numbers, particularly for Florida and Miami-Dade County. And so, early on, we were seeing that not only were the number of cases low, but also the number of deaths were low, as well. And, you know, people have speculated about a number of reasons of why that is. But the reality is, is that it actually benefits our governor, because he’s saying, “Oh, look at our low numbers. Like yeah, we have a bunch of cases, but our deaths are low.” And so they use that to justify opening up economies earlier, knowing that individuals are dying at a higher rate than what’s been seen. And so, yeah, it’s just a complete disregard for poor and working-class people, particularly those who are African Americans in places like Overtown, Liberty City, but also all across Florida.

So, yeah, I mean, it’s politics as usual for our governor. And he’s going to parrot whatever Donald Trump says. And I can go on record saying that, because even before DeSantis was even chosen as our governor, you know, I was one to say that it’s obvious that he’s not going to care about poor people. I mean, this is a guy who had a commercial with his kids building a wall, as advertisement for his governorship. You know, “Build that wall!” And, of course, people thought it was funny, but it’s like, “Wow! Like this is the time that we’re living in.” And he’s fulfilled every promise around making sure that people knew that he was Trump Jr.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, that issue you raise of racial disparities, not only in Florida, but around the country. In fact, we don’t even know the half of it, because, I mean, you have places like Michigan, Detroit, you have places — New York City — you have places around the country where it is very clear — New Orleans — that the disproportionate effect particularly on African Americans, also on Latino people, on the death toll of COVID-19. And we don’t know the half of it, because, in fact, in most areas, they don’t keep racial statistics. And that’s just beginning to be released as we see this astounding figure around the country. Can you comment on this?

DR. ARMEN HENDERSON: Yeah. So, individuals, particularly in Florida, and, you know, those who are African-American physicians — there’s a physician I know who runs Florida Clinicians for Climate Change, in the Florida Medical Association. Her name is Cheryl Holder. She’s been one to go back and forth to Tallahassee to get those numbers, to figure out what those numbers are, because, as you mentioned, you know, it really looks bad as a country if African Americans are dying at a higher rate than other people.

But honestly, when you look at the history of medicine, in general, the access to it, who gets it, who doesn’t, and the disparities that have been in place since we started practicing medicine in the United States, it’s not unusual to see those numbers. I actually expected it. And it’s just disheartening to know that people are still trying to cover those things up. And I hope that physicians in every state, they start to dig into the numbers to see what’s really going on, because the system that we have, it just doesn’t work for poor people. It doesn’t work for African Americans. And in some cases, even if you do come from a high socioeconomic status, you still have disparities amongst those individuals, as well. So, honestly, I’m not really surprised. Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, on Monday, the Florida Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees was removed from a press briefing after he said social distancing measures might need to remain in place for a year or longer. Let’s go to the clip.

DR. SCOTT RIVKEES: So, as long as we’re going to have COVID in the environment — and this is a tough virus — we’re going to have to practice these measures so that we are all protected.

AMY GOODMAN: So, just minutes after those remarks, Dr. Rivkees was ushered out of the room by Governor DeSantis’s spokesperson. Your final comment, Dr. Armen Henderson?

DR. ARMEN HENDERSON: I think it just speaks to the moment that we’re in. Politicians are being politicians. They’re not listening to medical professionals. Obviously, this guy is an esteemed physician. And I think he knows that in this time, you know, like, you have to put politics aside in order to protect people. You know, we take an oath as physicians, which is “do no harm.” And in his remarks, it’s obvious that he’s trying to make sure that a lot of harm is not done.

And so, it goes against what Governor DeSantis wants to do, which is open up the economy as soon as possible, particularly in Miami-Dade County, because this is probably one of the areas that produces the most revenue for the state, because of the beach and the tourist attractions. But DeSantis is going to put people at harm.

And so, I’m glad that the surgeon general actually spoke out and said what was right. But it’s a shame that we’re putting politics over people’s health, revenue over people’s well-being. And hopefully, at some point, I hope that we get it together, basically.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Dr. Armen Henderson, I want to thank you so much for being with us, internal medicine doc, a physician, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Miami, also an organizer with Dream Defenders. On Friday, a Miami police sergeant came up to him in front of his house, where he was gathering equipment to help homeless people, in his van, and the sergeant came out and handcuffed him, the sergeant not wearing gloves or a mask.

To see Part 1 of our discussion with Dr. Henderson, go to I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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