It was more than an abstract gesture for medical student Ayodeji Sotimehin, protesting the shooting and choke-hold deaths of unarmed young black men at the hands of white police officers in Missouri and New York.
For 4½ minutes today, Sotimehin lay down on the sidewalk with about 150 fellow student at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine – part of a national med student demonstration to symbolize the roughly 4½ hours that Michael Brown lay dead in a Ferguson, Mo., street.
Watching the video of police tackling and choking to death Eric Garner “really moved me,” Sotimehin said afterwards. “It really showed me there’s still a a lot of injustice in this world, that a man could be killed for an act as simple as selling some illegal cigarettes.”
But then the 24-year-old first-year student, asked about his experiences as young black man growing up in Atlanta, had his own story to tell: “Oh, I’ve been involved in racial profiling.”
Sotimehin described what happened once when he was waiting in a parked car to pick up his little sister at the place where her school bus was going to stop.
“There’s flashing lights and all of a sudden I look up and there’s these police officers,” he said. “They came out of their cars and had their guns pointed right at me.”
Eventually, the officers realized that he was not the suspect they were looking for – someone, they said, who had “similar clothing.” But the experience left him shaken and feeling a bond with the Michael Browns of the world.
“That could have been me,” he said.
Bias, Poverty and Poor Health
Students at the medical school said they heard over the weekend about the #BlackLivesMatter die-ins organized at over 50 U.S. medical schools and felt that Hopkins had an obligation to take part.
“As future physicians being educated at the number one hospital in the country or perhaps the world I think it’s important to make it clear that equality matters, to make sure that fairness and equality exist in health care,” said first-year medical student Katie O’Conor.
First-year student Afkera Daniel said the medical students organized the protests to broaden the discussion from excessive police force and bias in the criminal justice system.
“It’s more diffuse and permeates across many other areas,” Daniel said, standing with fellow students outside the Armstrong Medical Education Building
Bias plays a part in poverty, which in turn “can cause poor health outcomes,” said third-year student Steven Pennybaker. Bias can be seen explicitly in national studies of patient care, Tania Haag, another first-year student, said, with “black patients less likely to receive excellent care than corresponding white patients.”
Students from the School of Nursing, as well as a few non-Hopkins community members, participated in the protest.
“It’s important for us to be advocates for the people we are treating and especially the people of color,” said Hopkins nursing student Ellen Renfroe.
“Especially in a city like this with so much segregation and inequality,” said Demetrius Marcoulides, a fellow working at the hospital as a researcher who has been accepted to the nursing school.
The students said the school administration was cooperative in allowing the protest, though they told the organizers they needed to make sure it had no impact on patient care.
Class schedules were changed to accommodate the protest, the students said, including the meeting time for one particularly apt class: “Ethics.”