Gray skies hovered and a cold breeze blew above the UC Davis School of Medicine on Wednesday as the region braced for a violent storm. The white-coated protesters lying on the concrete below were calm and still, determined to pay tribute to Michael Brown and others, rain or shine.
More than 100 medical students lay down on the Sacramento campus for the better part of an hour as part of the “#whitecoats4blacklives” die-in. It was an extension of the “#blacklivesmatter” protests that have erupted across the nation in reaction to the deaths of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo., and New York at the hands of police and grand jury decisions not to indict the officers involved. Ongoing protests in Berkeley and Oakland continue to cause transportation issues and public arrests by the hundreds.
Wednesday’s “white coat die-in” was part of a grass-roots movement involving more than 70 medical schools throughout the country, each protesting the racial bias that students say is pervasive in not just the criminal justice system but the medical system as well.
Jeremy Johnson, a second year medical student who helped organize the local die-in, said he caught ear of what was happening nationwide and saw an opportunity for action at Davis, where students had already voiced concerns about how to address the injustices they said they were witnessing.
“It makes me sad, sometimes angry, furious to know different systemic ills exist,” Johnson said. “But I also understand that most people are well intentioned, and with proper interaction those broken bonds can be healed. I saw an opportunity.”
Gathered in front of the medical education building, students wore black armbands to honor the recent deaths and white coats to symbolize their responsibility as health professionals to improve health outcomes for minorities.
Johnson addressed just a few of those outcomes in his speech to fellow students, citing a lack of access to services and a provider bias that minority patients often face when they seek medical help. He mentioned that black patients in emergency rooms are half as likely as white patients to be prescribed opioid narcotics as painkillers due to concerns about addiction and abuse. He discussed a gap in mental health services in low-income communities.
“We can’t just think of ourselves as doctors in this building, in a block, because the path you walk in on also affects your health outcome,” said Lucy Ogbu-Nwobodo, another medical student who helped organize the event. “We have to educate ourselves and our peers about how these complexities affect patients ... We don’t have a choice but to do this. If you’re going to treat people, you must treat all parts of them.”
After the speech, protesters continued to lie on the ground for a period of silence and a poem about police brutality. Many held signs that read “Stop the Violence,” “All Lives Matter” and “I Can’t Breathe.”
The idea for the national white coat die-in sprouted just a few days ago, said organizer Dorothy Charles of the University of Pennsylvania, and quickly spiraled into a social media movement involving thousands of medical students. Charles received a call about the die-in from a friend in San Francisco early this week and began spreading the idea through Facebook and word of mouth.
Student groups from coast to coast scheduled the event in tandem, building off campus frustrations that have grown since Thanksgiving week, when a grand jury released its decision not to indict the officer who shot Michael Brown.
But the issue is bigger than just the police, said Charles, a first-year medical student. Conversations about racial inequity should include bias in the health system, where she said underserved minority communities rarely have access to the care they need despite being at higher risk for many issues.
“As future medical professionals, our job is to take care of the lives and health of our community,” Charles said. “When we have things like police brutality that endanger the lives and health of people of color in this country, we need to speak out against that ... even though we’re ‘just students’ doesn’t mean we have to wait until we’re actually practicing.”
Student organizers at the UC Davis School of Medicine said they believed this to be the first protest organized on the medical campus in many years. Ogbu-Nwobodo said she found the high turnout from her fellow students “humbling, and very reaffirming.” The crowd came from a range of ethnic backgrounds and represented about one-quarter of the 400 students in the medical school, as well as a handful of staff members.
The UC Davis School of Medicine offers a number of opportunities for community health outreach, including student-run clinics targeted at underserved ethnic and religious groups. Brendan Cohn-Sheehy, a first-year medical student, said he noticed very shortly after arriving how dedicated his colleagues were to improving inequities in health care. This was his first protest in a white coat.
“I don’t have so much time in my life to donate to activism, because I devote it to good health and the advancement of good health in our society,” he said. “But it’s important for me, when given the opportunity, to act on that.”
The event was endorsed by Students for a National Health Program, an affiliate of Physicians for a National Health Program – a group of 19,000 health professionals who advocate for universal, single-payer health care. Some of the die-ins lasted 41/2 minutes, to symbolize the 41/2 hours that Michael Brown’s body remained in the street after his death, said Emily Henkels, national organizer for the Chicago-based group.
“Especially this new generation of physicians in training are really dedicated to social justice and picking up the torch for that,” she said.
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