Oh freedom, oh freedom, oh freedom over me
And before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave
And I’ll fight for my right to be free
— Sung during the civil rights movement in the 1960’s
The old order ends, no matter what Bastilles remain,
when the enslaved, within themselves, bury the psychology of servitude.
— Martin Luther King, Jr., in “Why We Can’t Wait”
A few weeks ago I saw for the first time the powerful movie “12 Years A Slave,” based on the memoir by Solomon Northup, a free black man in the 1840’s who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. It is a hard film to experience. But as I watched the scenes of unending brutality and humiliation, somehow I felt calm and almost comforted. I identified with the men and women who were treated as animals and property, to be abused and tortured just as I was as a child. But I knew that eventually those atrocities ended, and slavery was abolished.
In 1946, when I was nine years old and an inmate of Rockland State Hospital, I read about a group of black veterans, just come home from the war, who were ambushed and killed in Georgia. And I thought it was horrible that these men, who had risked their lives to save us from the Nazis, had been treated this way. I thought, these people are being treated just like we are, the inmates of Rockland State Hospital. Even as a child, I understood the connection between my own life and theirs.
In the 1960’s, I participated in the civil rights movement, and it was exciting to see all the other movements of oppressed people, gays, women, immigrants, disabled people, inspired by black people fighting back, start to fight back in their own way. I wished there was such a movement for people like me, and soon, in 1971, there was. For the next fourteen years, I threw myself into our movement, and we made great progress. I am proud that I was able to convince an entire city to vote to ban shock treatment, which was forced on me when I was six. Every year, we had a Conference on Human Rights and Psychiatric Oppression that we organized and controlled. Our issues were taken seriously by the public, and the media were open to our message.
Then the psychiatric empire struck back. Huge amounts of money (by our standards) were spent to set up a system-controlled national conference that took the place of one that we had put on for many years The “Alternatives” conference now swallows up new people in the movement, who might fight for their freedom, but instead are indoctrinated to think harmless venting is all that can be done. They are told that no movement really existed before. They are encouraged to aspire to jobs as straw bosses, helping the system by controlling other “consumers.”
Every year, our conference would have a demonstration during the event at some abusive “mental health” facility, which are never hard to find. Demonstrations are banned at “Alternatives.” No substantial criticism of the system is allowed. A few years ago, SAMHSA attempted to ban Bob Whitaker, an honest journalist who has exposed the dangers of psych drugs, from speaking. Only the threat of a public protest by MindFreedom, which takes no government money, forced SAMHSA to back down from what would have been an embarrassing confrontation. At the same conference, Will Hall, a survivor and therapist, was told he could not publicly give a workshop if he said openly that it was on the topic of getting off psych drugs.
In 2012, the “Alternatives” conference was held at a hotel in Portland, Oregon. Right across the street, local activists organized a demonstration against shock treatment. They were not allowed to publicize the demonstration at the conference. Only a handful of the conference attendees crossed the street tp participate in the demo.
This year, the keynote speaker at “Alternatives” will be a former Congressman who advocates for forced treatment and “more money for mental health.”
People, what sort of nonsense is this? For thirty years, we have caved in to SAMHSA and its public relations people, and our cause has gone backwards. We are no longer “patients” and prisoners of this system. We have been abused and humiliated, just like black people, just like all other oppressed people. They have refused to accept this, and we shouldn’t either.
We are a human rights movement, not the “consumer” auxiliary to the mental illness system. We have to get rid of this slave mentality and start fighting back again.
I have become aware in the past few months that we have reached a kind of critical mass of people, both survivors and sincere allies, who oppose the abuses of psychiatry, who understand that we have reached a point where something has to change, that the Astroturf “movement” paid for by the mental illness system has led us into dangerous territory. And something else has to take its place.
I think the anti-psychiatry movement of survivors and our allies needs to have a conference of its own, as a first step to reviving what we had before and what we need for the future. (For those interested in my definition of anti-psychiatry, please read my article in MIA, “Of Course I’m Antipsychiatry, Aren’t You?”)
A few of us are starting to discuss such a conference. A Facebook page will be set up, so that more people can give their input. Those who want to be involved can contact [email protected].
We have to begin to figure out what can be done, with a focus on tactics and strategy which we need very badly. There are certain issues I think we can concentrate on that will best advance our cause, such as putting measures on the ballot in places where that is possible, and paying more attention to the psychiatric abuse of children, which I think deeply concerns the average person. (One of the reasons we won the ballot measure that banned shock in Berkeley, I think, is that I, as the main spokesperson, had been shocked as a child.)
I think the general public is much more troubled by the abuses of psychiatry than our politicians and most of the media, who are corrupted by drug company advertising and “campaign contributions” (a/k/a bribes). It is that general public that we have to reach, because this is how changes in a democracy are possible, at least in theory. So I think we have to keep in mind always how what we do and say reaches and affects the average person.
As part of our conference, we should demonstrate against psychiatric abuses, just as we did before, at whatever institution that is near the meeting place. These were always covered by the local media. And it told the people who attended the conference that this was what we were about, fighting back, not applying for jobs helping the system to mistreat our brothers and sisters.
One of the most important outcomes I hope to see at our conference is a sense of love and solidarity among the people who attend. In 1974, at the first Conference on Human Rights and Psychiatric Oppression I attended and helped organize, we had this kind of spirit. People hugged one another, and we all felt part of an inspiring movement. We were confident that we would make progress for our cause, and we did.
But for too long now, we who want to fight for our freedom have often fought with one another, when we need very much to support one another. I think this is because most of us, including me, have felt despair about ever being able to win our fight. We certainly won’t if all there is are fake conferences bought and paid for by the people we are supposed to be fighting.
But we can win if we are persistent. If slavery could be defeated, if all the other movements of oppressed people in the past fifty years have made great progress, so can we, if we stick together and never give up.
I am not so arrogant as to think I have the last word on what we need to do, but I offer these suggestions from my long experience in our movement, hoping and expecting that other activists will accept them and build on them.
And I hope and expect too that out of this conference will come, I am sure of it now, a much-needed sense of tactics and strategy, and the realization that we really are brothers and sisters. We are all in this together. The people united will never be defeated!
With love and solidarity,
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.
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