A public hearing at an auditorium across from the hospital in Willowbrook, south of Watts, prompted a spirited, daylong protest by well over 1,000 people, who gathered to send a powerful message to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
The supervisors held the long-promised hearing to fulfill a legal obligation that they gauge community reaction to the proposed closure, which they say is needed to shore up the troubled, county-run hospital.
They got an earful.
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) led the charge, joined by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn and a potent backfield of local, state and national political officials. All of them urged the board to back off from plans that they said would lead to a needless loss of life because critically injured patients would have to travel farther for care.
Jackson brought the crowd to its feet, and left many weeping, with passionate testimony that he delivered in a quiet voice paced by his trademark cadence.
"People here are so emotional because they feel threatened," he said. "People are scared. There are car wrecks on the freeway — they're scared. Most of these folks don't have insurance — they're scared. They've made AK-47s and Uzis legal again — they're scared."
"Tell it, tell it!" yelled members of the audience.
Added Jackson: "This hospital was born from that kind of pain."
King/Drew was built after the 1965 Watts riots to address a healthcare vacuum in South Los Angeles and its surrounding communities.
But the hospital has been plagued by serious lapses in patient care on and off for years, most prominently in the past year, during which neglect contributed to the deaths of at least five patients, and a variety of regulatory agencies have threatened the hospital with sanctions.
It is, however, a hospital that holds deep symbolic significance to African Americans in Los Angeles, and evokes a strong protective sentiment that was on display Monday.
The supervisors have proposed shutting the trauma unit to reduce the burden on the rest of the hospital. The unit treated 2,150 people last year for serious injuries resulting from such incidents as shootings and car accidents.
The county's health director, Dr. Thomas Garthwaite, has said that the closure was needed because trauma patients put extraordinary demands on a hospital's staff, and it would be difficult to resolve King/Drew's problems while offering trauma care.
The proposal would leave open the hospital's emergency room, which treats more than 47,000 patients a year for problems ranging from flu symptoms to heart attacks.
In response to demands from the federal agency that oversees Medicare and Medicaid, the supervisors have hired an outside consulting firm to take over day-to-day management of the hospital. That decision has elicited little outcry, but the plan to close the trauma center struck a powerful nerve in a community that suffers from more violent crime than any other part of Los Angeles County.
"This is a serious issue that runs very deep, a lot deeper than you know," Waters told the board at the beginning of the marathon hearing. Noting the large turnout, she added: "I'm begging of you, don't ignore this. Don't marginalize this. We want our trauma center kept open!"
At that, the overflow crowd erupted into a sustained, deafening roar that lasted a full minute, coalescing at the end into a chant, "Save King/Drew! Save King/Drew!"
It was one of many chants heard throughout the day.