He can’t breathe. Can’t breathe. Died facedown on concrete. Eric Garner… wait, no. Christopher Lopez. That’s who I’m talking about, right? Diagnosed Schizophrenic. Overmedicated. Guards and nurses stood round laughing. Couldn’t catch his breath. Gasping. Not Eric Garner. (But still Eric Garner.)
Unarmed man shot and killed. Kajieme Powell. (Wait, he had a knife!) Michael Brown. (He had his fists!) Rumain Brisbon. (He had a pill bottle!) Akai Gurley. (He had a … Well, it was dark! They couldn’t see!) Tamir Rice. (A BB gun!… But it looked just like a real one!) Twelve years old. He was just twelve years old! My own son is just twelve years old. (Safer for being a white boy in this world.)
They had to do it. For their own safety. Yours. Mine. Because these people were criminals. Or crazy. Or black. Or all of the above. (Is there even any difference?) Just like all those whose lives were lost restrained on psych wards. Had to protect us from ourselves. Except they didn’t. Except they’re dead. Like Joshua Messier. Alexis Evette Richie. Troy Geske. Bradley Burns. Andrew McClain. (He was only eleven.)
Don’t resist. They won’t hurt you if you just stop resisting. They won’t have to keep holding you down. So many anonymous commenters spew these words all over the web about so many black men who have been slaughtered. About the psychiatrized masses. Wait, no. That was the man who grabbed me in my college dorm basement. That’s what he said. “I won’t have to hurt you if you don’t resist.” (What’s a young girl like you doing down here alone, anyway?)
Don’t make me hurt you. It’s our own fault. It’s his truth. It’s his role. Isn’t that what we’ve told him to do? “In my culture, the only way I can look at a woman non-sexually is to consider them my sister. Do you want to be my sister?” (“But in my culture, if you’re my sister, you have to do everything I say.”) Just. Don’t. Resist.
Who are we even talking about half the time when we rail against the abuses? When we speak out against ‘the system’ and power and privilege and oppression? When we argue against ‘victim blaming’ and discrimination? Do we know who we’re fighting? The individual or the air that they breathe that poisoned them? It’s all so confusing. So fucking confusing. All these roles that shape us. That shape how I see you, and you see me. That we fall into so seamlessly. Gender roles. Race roles. Job roles. So-called responsibilities.
There is an epidemic of brainwashing so many brains into thinking that the daily abuses they carry out are not just their duty, but their right. They don’t even see them as abuses. It’s simply the way that it is, and they get angry when you interrupt them. Sometimes violent. Often accusatory. As if they’re the ones being smothered now. As if they can’t breathe if we try to take back some fraction of power – a power that never should have been theirs to wield.
This is real – this way that our society is fragmented into so many ‘roles’ that divide and conquer, shape and twist. It is evident in every facet of our day-to-day lives, but nowhere is it more blatant (and more without apparent repercussion) than in the institutions of law enforcement and psychiatry. Good people go in to these systems. They have noble (or at least benign) goals and motives. Then, somewhere along the way, some of them seem to forget that their position calls upon them to serve (rather than take charge), protect (rather than control). And yet, I’m not sure they are exactly the ‘problem’ so much as more evidence of it. But how does one fight the ‘air,’ so to speak? Perhaps the only way is to somehow inoculate ourselves against it.
As a white woman, I have to accept that I have very little idea what it’s like to interface with these institutions as a black man. (But I can see the seeds of it in the harsh and dismissive ways police officers have spoken to me in recent interactions.) As a person who has been psychiatrized, but hasn’t faced long-term institutionalization, I have to accept that I can’t know that level of loss of power and vulnerability. (But I can tell you even short stays are enough to begin to understand.) And to be a person of color with psychiatric labels interfacing with the police? It’s like the perfect storm. (A type of ‘perfection’ that occurs more often than most, given that people of color are more likely to be diagnosed in the first place.) Just ask Tanesha Anderson. (Except you can’t. Because she’s dead.) But, for whatever I can or can’t fully understand, I have a responsibility to not be willfully blind to it simply because it’s easier or more convenient to look away, or because it’s too painful or overwhelming to acknowledge (lest I add to the poisoned air myself).
Some of the abuses people suffer because of their role as somehow being the ‘lesser’ are obvious. People (like Michael, Kajieme, Tanesha, and Andrew) end up killed or seriously injured. We can point to the problem with precision, and everyone has to at least admit the harm was done (even if they still evade blame, or make up heartless songs and jokes poking fun at it as if it were nothing). However, other abuses are even more common and for all their commonness, they become invisible and thus ignored. And so, in some ways, these abuses may be even worse for the sheer numbers of people who they consume. They are the orderly in the hospital with the bouncer’s silhouette staring at you, unmoved, while you cry. They are the power tripping nurse who denies you visitors just because they can, and leaves you feeling alone and isolated all weekend instead. They are the police officers who use the real-life mug shots of black men for target practice. Together, they are the people who appear to be able to violate so many laws, protocols and basic human decencies with impunity. Because you’ve fallen into the role that doesn’t count. And they happen to be in the role of ‘managing’ you. And their doing so chips away every day at your own sense of worth. Your own sense of even being real. Until you feel like you can’t breathe.
I’d like to believe that all the training and new approaches out there will make a difference. I’d like to believe that *I* make a difference when I go into a police station or hospital to talk to the staff, and offer a new way of thinking about things. But if we can’t figure out what happens to so many of their brains when they take on these roles, I fear all efforts are doomed.
We need more studies like the Stanford Prison Experiment that demonstrate just how quick and dramatic the effects of taking on these power-ridden roles can be. Perhaps they can help us better understand this phenomenon. Except that it’s unethical to do these sorts of studies because it has the potential to traumatize the participants (in the same way that hundreds of thousands are being traumatized on our streets, in our jails and in our hospitals every day). What a funny bind.
Look, folks, as I noted above, I know that people working in these systems are not universally bad people, and I’m not interested in condemning them all. But something is going on here that we can’t just keep ignoring, and that won’t be cured by 40 hours of Crisis Intervention Team trainings or anything else of that nature. There is something about the very underlying design of these roles that is the problem, and no layering on of trainings will fix much of anything until we can come to understand and protect ourselves against our own starting point and the dark path it tends to lead us down. Because, in some way, the people doing these terrible things often at least believe they’ve been asked to take on these roles in this way, and so they see themselves as living up to their fullest potential.
It’s as if this phenomenon was a ‘mental illness’ itself, progressive (to be sure) and with its very own set of identifiable symptoms and prognosis. It doesn’t hit everyone (at least not with the same severity), but isn’t that just like what some claim about so many psychiatric diagnoses in the DSM? I’ve heard many people suggest that perhaps certain people carry a ‘vulnerability’ to a particular set of so-called mental illnesses that are ultimately triggered by societal factors (going to war, living in an abusive home, etc.), thus neatly explaining why two people can live through something terrible and have very different reactions to it. How is this any different? How is what happens to the brains of many people who’ve been told they must be ‘in charge’ and ‘control’ those who have – for whatever reason – been deemed lesser or ‘bad’ (or ‘out of control’) any different? Perhaps this ‘disease’ is the great new untapped territory for the pharmaceutical industry! (We already know that many of its victims are ‘treatment resistant.’) Perhaps genetic vulnerabilities should be researched and identified. (What shall we name their malaise?)
It’s also funny how so much of this institutionally approved violence gets justified – in one way or another – underneath the lofty umbrella of being an imminent ‘risk to self or others.’ Further funny how our systems are allowed to define which side of these equations get deemed the ‘risky’ one. (And how the ones that come out on the winning end also happen to be the only ones that are still alive far too much of the time.) I, for one, would like to suggest that there’s an unfortunate number of police, prison guards and psychiatric staff who pose just such an imminent risk.
Who’s on board with committing them while we look for a cure?
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.