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Connecting Police Violence Against People of Color and People With “Mental Illness“

Racism intersects deeply with discrimination and violence against people of all races who are perceived as unstable or “mentally ill.”

December, 2013: Front line of the Millions March NYC. (Photo: The All-Nite Images)

There is a common thread between police violence against people of color and people diagnosed with “mental illness.” Racism intersects deeply with “mentalism,” defined as discrimination and violence against people of all races who are perceived as unstable or “mentally ill.”

“There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” – Audre Lorde

We are a nation imploding from violence. Every 28 hours, they fall, one by one, casualties of police violence, gunned down in cold blood. Executed for the crime of “noncompliance.” For the “crime” of being Black. For the “crime” of being “mentally ill.” Or, all of the above.

The deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and the non-indictment of their killers, have given rise to a profound outrage that has sparked a national movement with international solidarity, from London to Tokyo.

The new civil rights movement is growing daily in momentum and force. It is consciously gathering up the various strands of racism, oppression and social and economic inequality that disproportionately affect communities of color, indigenous people and other marginalized folks.

One common thread that needs deeper exploration among activists regards the acts of police violence against people diagnosed with “mental illness.” Racism intersects deeply with “mentalism,” defined as discrimination and violence against people of all races who are perceived as unstable or “mentally ill.” I do not mean to equate racism and mentalism, but simply to point out the commonalities in these patterns of police violence.

A primary intersection is that the public tends to think of people with mental health problems as the violent “other,” similarly to the way young men of color are stereotyped as inherently dangerous. This twin bias against psychiatric disability and race runs deeply in our law enforcement agencies. Similarly, the twin bias runs through the mental health system, which, according to a report compiled by the Center for the Human Rights of Users and Survivors of Psychiatry, shares with the criminal justice system “minimal guarantees of due process, legitimizes discrimination based on disability and gives free rein to racial prejudice.” The report notes that people of color are more likely to have their behaviors diagnosed as “schizophrenia” than whites. They are also more likely to be subjected to forms of coercive mental health “treatment,” which include forced inpatient and outpatient hospitalization, and restraint and seclusion.

But one of the most extreme versions of “force,” one could argue, is police violence resulting in death. According to The Washington Post, half of the hundreds of people who are killed by police each year are people with psychiatric disabilities. The Portland Press Herald found that 42 percent of those shot by the police in Maine were also “mentally ill.” However, a report from the New Mexico Public Defender Department found that 75 percent of police shootings “involved a mental health context.”

Consider the death of Ezell Ford, who was killed by officers from the Los Angeles Police Department just two days after Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri. Or Kajieme Powell of St. Louis, who was killed by police under questionable circumstances just four miles from where Brown died. Or the killing of Tanisha Anderson of Cleveland, a 37-year-old mother who died when police slammed her down on the pavement. (The cops were “responding” to the family’s desperate 911 call to get mental health treatment for her.) Or the 50-year-old Arizona woman, Michelle Cusseaux, who was killed for standing in her own doorway with a claw hammer raised over her head, resisting being dragged away by the police on a “mental health” call. Recent disturbing footage shows Milton Hall, a homeless Black man from Michigan with a psychiatric disability, whom police gunned down in a parking lot in broad daylight. He was wielding a penknife, and was shot over 45 times by six different officers. Two years later, charges have yet to be filed, prompting the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to testify before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). These are just a tiny fraction of the disability-related deaths that occur each day.

In every one of these cases, police have justified their actions because of the “noncompliance” of the victim. Most “suicide by cop” cases are explained away in this manner. But the fact of the matter is that invoking “suicide by cop” is a flimsy excuse for murder based on psychiatric disability. Disability and “mental illness” are not crimes, any more than being Black or Brown is a crime.

Ending the violence is one of the most pressing social issues before us today. Civil rights and disability rights activists both rightly advocate for equal access to housing, jobs with living wages, rehabilitation and education; but none of these are an option if you’re a person of color with a psychiatric disability like Kajieme Powell or Ezell Ford, and you’ve been killed for “noncompliance.” Death closes the door to all possibilities.

Beyond Band-Aid Solutions

In the absence of political and social will to address the root causes of violence against Brown, Black and marginalized people, we as a nation are often forced to grope about for short-term “fixes.”

For example, we hear lots of calls for “training” for police lately, such as different forms of diversity and awareness training. On the mental health side, the example is Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) for law enforcement encountering people who are “behaving strangely.” But CIT is a Band-Aid solution at best.

One of the officers responding at the scene of the Kajieme Powell murder was CIT trained, but it didn’t matter once Powell was determined to be a “threat.” All the other training trumped those 40 hours of CIT and kicked in to squash Powell’s “noncompliance.” And even in cases when CIT trained officers do help to successfully de-escalate a situation, currently only 10 percent of police forces are CIT trained.

Let’s face it: No matter how well-trained or “sensitive” an officer is, a person who is dealing with the effects of a mental or other disability, or of institutionalized racism, is not likely to view an advancing police officer as a compassionate ally who is there to help. The officer’s presence is more likely to provoke fear, anger and resistance, which leads all too often to the tragic outcomes we face today.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In New York, a rookie cop fresh out of the academy made a decision to use a Taser rather than a gun against a suicidal man, though his murder would have been completely “justifiable” as he was brandishing a knife. I am not advocating for the use of Tasers, which can also kill people – this is simply to say that deadly force does not have to be the norm in these “suicide by cop” scenarios.

Similarly, calls for police to wear body cameras, championed by both President Obama and the family of Michael Brown, while well-intentioned, are still somewhat of a Band-Aid solution. While a California study indicated that body cameras, led to a reduction in the use of force and complaints against officers, consider the case of Eric Garner. The fact that his death was caught on video still did not move the grand jury to indict his killer.

As one activist put it: “Funding body cameras and other tactics to review police actions is a start, but that doesn’t solve the problem of too many officers who see us as ‘demons’ and not members of a community. Until we deal with that, we can’t move forward.”

The task in our communities is to address once and for all the scourges of the increasing militarization of law enforcement, combined with racist/mentalist attitudes that foster disproportionate use of force against people of color and people with “mental illness” diagnoses – not to dance around the problem with Band-Aid “solutions.”

Breaking the Cycle of Trauma and Violence

“The social conditions that affect a person’s likelihood of going to prison also increase the likelihood that this person will have had numerous traumatic experiences that affect them in ways that psychiatry classifies as mental illness. In effect, trauma, poverty and race are both criminalized and psychiatrized.” – Report on Forced Psychiatry and Psychiatric Abuse Against African-Americans as Intersectional Discrimination Based on Race and Disability

For the past several years, I have been training and educating mental health providers about what are known as “trauma-informed approaches.” The premise behind trauma-informed approaches is that the vast majority of people who interface with all of our systems – criminal justice, juvenile justice, foster care, mental health, substance use, homeless services – have experienced some form of significant trauma or abuse in their lives stemming back to childhood. For people of color, this also includes the trauma of the intergenerational experience of racism.

The various “systems” designed by those in power tend to reinforce entrenched patterns of racism, mentalism, power and control. Consider the school-to-prison pipeline, which disproportionately affects children of color with mental, physical and developmental disabilities.

According to one report: “African-American and Latino young men are disproportionately affected by various forms of trauma and adversity including violence, poverty, incarceration, lack of access to health care, marginalization and low social status . . . Ultimately, through trauma-informed approaches, we can address the adverse effects of chronic stress that come from the social position of this population.”

It is imperative that we build the social and political will to adopt trauma-informed approaches to healing our traumatized communities. The trauma-informed movement says that we must remake all our systems to recognize the huge prevalence of trauma in our society, and to respond in ways that do not re-traumatize and cause further harm. In short, we must change the way we do everything.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted,” and called for a social movement based on such maladjustment. The way forward is for each of us, the maladjusted, to join together with other maladjusted folks who share his vision and act. We can take our anger and turn it into fuel for real and lasting social change, fuel born of what activist Pat Deegan calls the “intersection of love and outrage.”

A new civil rights movement is growing. It’s the one that has the potential to address the roots of the intersecting crises we face today – crises that spring from the deeply ingrained hatred and fear of whoever is designated as the “other,” whether Black, “crazy” or both.

Activists have coined the term intersectional justice: the “pursuit of justice emphasizing that no individual or community lives a single-issue struggle.” Collectively, social justice activists need to focus less on Band-Aid solutions and more on the real problem: the arbitrary abuse of police power against the people. Together, with creativity and persistence, we can come up with ways to take back our power, claim a sense of true safety and begin to heal as a nation.

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