Can’t Breathe


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 MessierAlexis Evette RichieTroy Geske.  Bradley BurnsAndrew 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.


Mad in America has made some changes to the commenting process. You no longer need to login or create an account on our site to comment. The only information needed is your name, email and comment text. Comments made with an account prior to this change will remain visible on the site.


  1. Well my freind got sectioned last week.

    He is manic and that is driven by conflict with family and someone he is close to. The services ignnore this and lock him up, becuase he phoned up his family and was rude to them, so the family phone the hospital and they they section him. Then they drug him with dangerous drugs.

    The hospital and the psychiatric service pose an immanant risk to him.

    I know other people who had thier arms broken by restraint teams in hospital. Then they ignored her saying it was broken for about three days. They isolated her from her freinds and family and it was only her boss looking for her that got her an advocate.

    If you are on a section and your friends phone the ward up they will not say if you are on a section as they say this protects patient confidentiality. Kafka eat your heart out. You have more rights when arrested by the police.

    Report comment

    • Thanks for reading and adding the first comment, John.

      Yeah, the task of convincing anyone that the system poses the most imminent risk of harm to the individual is a huge task, even if it’s so obvious to so many of us.

      The phone issue is further complicated by the fact that if you then phone the ‘patient’ line, no one answers because the same people who told you they can’t tell you if the person’s there turned the phone off for some group (even though, at least in MA, that’s against the law) or someone else is on it or what have you…

      I’m sorry your friend is dealing with all that right now. I wish I could speak more hopefully about it all.


      Report comment

  2. Hi Sera,

    I don’t know if you have seen the recent work of Phillip Zimbardo. Worth a look as to why ‘good’ people do ‘evil’ things.

    I have personally witnessed and discussed with a senior staff member the use of terrorism tactics as a means of control in these environments. His honesty with me was refreshing. Staff provoking confrontations with targeted patients during meal times so that all patients witness the restraint and know that they too can be subjected to the same treatment if they should stray from the ever changing rules (ever tried to figure the rules in these places?) in the environment. It’s a cheap and easy way to obtain compliance.

    The first few paragraphs of this article describe the demonstration of this by Sun Tzu in the 5th Century BC. Been around a long time, and I doubt it will be discarded any time soon unfortunately.

    Love the article.

    Report comment

    • Hi Boans,

      I am not familiar with Phillip, but am bookmarking this so I can look later. 🙂 What you describe is terrifying (about provoking someone during meal time, etc.) but familiar. I appreciate your broadening the picture/understanding even further!


      Report comment

      • I’m not a fan of Zimbardo but was certainly struck by his experiment and the events at Abu Ghraib. The first thing that came to my mind was that it would be easy to create an environment where this would occur (and it has been suggested that it is precisely what was done). Role confusion, lack of supervision, no accountability, a belief that it was for ‘good’ etc.

        Certainly all the elements described I have observed in the hospital setting. Might be me but it was almost as if the staff were ‘prepping’ patients so that the ‘illness’ was at it’s peak when the psychiatrist was ready to examine the patient. In much the same way as the guards at Abu Ghraib ‘prepped’ the prisoners for the interrogators.

        Must be my illness lol

        Report comment

    • boans,

      “Staff provoking confrontations with targeted patients,” I personally witnessed this. It happened to a black guy named John Believe Pagan. He was big, but so nice and gentle. They provoked him, then restrained him, and dragged him off to be injected. It was a terrifying spectacle for the other patients to watch.

      “He then summoned the king’s executioner and, despite the king’s protests, had the two concubine commanders beheaded. New commanders were appointed from the ranks, and this time when Sun-Tzu gave the order, the concubines performed the required drill movements perfectly. (When asked why he did not heed the king’s request to spare his favourites, Sun-Tzu replied, ‘Once a general is directing his troops, he should reject further interference from his sovereign.’) While shocked by the loss of his favourites, the king was nonetheless impressed by Sun-Tzu’s character and understanding of warfare, and appointed him as a general.”

      And you’re right, the way psychiatric practitioners treat their patients is as if they were at “war” with them. I just posted this on, but it works to explain why this is happening here, too:

      “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other….” Matthew 6:24 “Doctors should be patient advocates, not industry apologists.” This biblical wisdom does give insight into why the doctors are treating their patients as if they despise them.

      It seems the psychiatrists are at war with, despise, their patients because they desperately want to protect their and their industry’s reputation, but know there is no scientific credibility to their “mental illnesses,” and their drugs harm the patients. It’s an example of “the best offense is a good defense” in action, but not an example of “appropriate medical care.”

      What a deplorable mess the defensive psychiatrists have made of today’s medical industry. The magnitude of the abuses of power are staggering. I agree with Sera, “there’s an unfortunate number of police, prison guards and psychiatric staff who pose just such an imminent risk.”

      I still pray for the kind hearted John, hope he survived. Mainstream psychiatric care is disgusting.

      Report comment

    • Boans: figuring out the rules is indeed a tall order. I had the pleasure of being confined at two different institutions in the neighboring states of West Virginia and Maryland. When you play baseball in the American major leagues the rules very slightly from park to park, but it is still baseball. For example why was I de-loused at one institution and not the other? Also why was one hospital segregated by sex, but not the other. Why were my vitals taken every hour at one hospital, but hardly at all at the other. Moreover, why was giving my money away sign of mental illness for me, but classified as disorderly conduct for the guy that gave away 100$ bills at the board of trade? I am convinced that psychiatrist are completely clueless how this comes across for the average person.

      Report comment

  3. Allowing people with power to justify their violence is a core principle of our society, and it runs from a parent physically abusing a child “for their own good” right up to starting wars with foreign countries because they are somehow “a danger to the world community.” As usual, you have hit the nail on the head, Sera, and we need to really get past bias toward a particular group and see the similarities in all of these varied situations. People in power need to be held accountable or they are capable of horrible things, even those who are not horrible people. Nazi Germany, Abu Ghraib and the Milgram experiment all tell us that no one has to be evil to do evil things when the system allows or encourages it. Perhaps it’s authoritarianism that is at the base of it all and that’s what needs to be attacked.

    Another mind-blowingly powerful post, Sera! Thanks as always.

    —- Steve

    Report comment

  4. I don’t doubt there are problems with law enforcement and the legal system in the USA but it goes the other way also.

    From someone outside looking in I think that things look messed up, what is the rule over law over there anyway ? Why is it ok for the president of the country to comment on an ongoing case for instance ? A person’s guilt or innocence shouldn’t be getting influenced while the case is ongoing. It’s just shoddy to me, it seems unprofessional.

    It appears that often times you have the idea that ‘cops hate black people’, and then there’s a case that can potentially confirm this ‘narrative’ and whooa hey, everyone’s talking about it, it’s all over the news, every black media personality chips in their 2 cents and really does it look like the details matter anymore ? Do things like guilt or innocence matter ? No a political point just needs to be made. This worries me a lot, people should be able to believe in the system.

    You say this is big, I can tell you I look at the world today and i’m worried, I’m worried people don’t really care about the ends justifying the means anymore, things are out of control and it’s BIZARRE.

    I could mention more specifics here, things that are really hard to refute but i’m an idiot with nothing, that might mean I can say whatever I want but i’m tried of being the guy with nothing saying things so other people don’t have to.

    Report comment

    • Barrab, Thanks for reading and commenting. I do think it’s all complicated. I’m not exactly sure what you’re referring to re: the president and current cases and all, but I will say I agree that sometimes a certain ‘case’ becomes a sort of ‘poster child’ for a cause, and what’s true anymore doesn’t so much matter. I’ve certainly seen that happen. HOWEVER, when I’ve seen that happen, it’s generally because there’s a much larger problem going on that that situation represents… And even if it were to turn out that that particular situation isn’t the best representation of the problem (as does sometimes happen), the problem is still there. Take, for example, this article from Mother Jones: … The truth of that article certainly doesn’t mean that all people of color are innocent and all cops are just out to get them. Certainly, there are people of ALL races and backgrounds who commit crimes (though why some of them commit the crimes that they do is worth further conversations)… And yet there is still a SERIOUS problem around people of color, people who have been psychiatrically labeled, etc and how they are routinely treated by those in power…


      Report comment

  5. In one sense to question the police and the sanity of their role, is tantamount to saying your insane.

    Many years ago, in graduate school, one of my professors told me that her job was to give psych tests to police recruits. The testing was biased to select for paranoia. Because it was felt that those with a slight paranoid personality would survive better in the streets.

    There you have it…

    It may well be that certain types of personality disorders favor the role of being police. Certainly the paranoid personality person does survive better, however that cannot be said for those that he or she comes in contact with.

    That being said, the police shouldn’t have to be in a position to deal with someone suffering from mental health issues. That should got to mental health professionals. The police have enough to do already.

    Send a therapist or someone whose been there instead, it will be better for everyone.

    Report comment

    • Interesting, to know, Prisoners Dilema! I wonder what their tests look like these days…

      I wonder about your last paragraph, though… Given the potential for anyone to be in emotional or mental distress and given the reality of the number of people who get to that place in some point in their life… Doesn’t *EVERYONE* “have to be in a position to deal with someone” in that place at some point (if not many points)? The idea that x professional should only ever have to deal with person type a, and y professional should only ever have to deal with person type b, etc, also suggests to me a much more boxed in, concrete way of life than is our reality, no?

      In any case, thank you for taking the time to read and comment 🙂


      Report comment

    • I thought that the average psychology expert (hold it in barrab) ahem decided that black and white thinkers were best for the police force.

      Ohhh but only a certain … type get those labels, why waste time ? Just jump straight to that big boy label, helps to … smash things.

      Report comment

  6. I wrote this piece about five years ago, and I have been meaning to come back and comment on it as a sort of update/clarification.

    My primary message to be added on at this time is as follows:

    I wish I hadn’t written this, at least not in the way I did… It is not something I would write today. Why? There are actually lots of this piece that I *do* like. I wish I could pull all those pieces out and reform them without the problematic parts. However, as a white woman, I really have no business appropriating ‘Can’t breathe’ for my won use or coming as close as I did to comparing what I have been through to what Eric Garner and so many others (George Floyd, and so many more) have experienced as black people in this country.

    In some ways it is true… Oppressive systems are crushing the air out of all of us. But how I approached this went too far in pulling from what is happening in the world to black and brown people and pulling it into my own frame.

    I am sorry for doing that, and will do better moving forward.

    Report comment

    • Dear Sera;

      I am glad you apologized, but only because it led me to your essay. I needed this today. This is the best thing I have read on MIA to date.

      I do not wish to start a debate about language or appropriation. I just do my best to translate the pictures in my head without too much misunderstanding. Please hear my heart not my words.

      Take words like “privilege” and “white” away for just a moment: You were 5 years ahead of everyone else, sounding a clear warning! SHAME ON THOSE WHO DIDN’T LISTEN, not you. No one OWNS the metaphor of being crushed by oppression. Yes your story is different, but that image of “can’t breathe” is appropriate. I have faced long term institutionalization and am mixed race. So what? If you breathe you belong!

      I am sure there is some language nuance or social justice issue I am missing. Maybe I’ve once more missed the boat completely. (am I allowed to say that?) Please don’t try to enlighten me. I can’t absorb any more “rules” without losing my ability to speak completely. If I could protect the world by predicting, policing and punishing myself, it would of worked by now.

      Words are not hearts. Words are tools.

      If I was a superhero my power would be to expose people. (That didn’t come out right.) To expose hearts so we didn’t have to guess about motive or intent. Kind of a cut-the-crap power. Life is complicated enough already. And I haven’t even left my bedroom yet.

      I’m told smiley’s help. 🙂

      Rage on Sera! I need you.

      Report comment

      • Thanks so much, o.o. I think for me, it’s just that I was clearly taking the ‘Can’t Breathe’ frame that became so well known after Eric Garner’s death that has been in my head as a point of unease for a long time. But, I hear you, too. So many of us are being crushed by different types of power and oppression, and they all mean something and are all worth hearing. 🙂



        Report comment

        • I think our nagging unease is there for good reason. Best to listen to our guts. 🙂 Anyways… cool essay.

          I adopt words and sayings too easily.

          My grandmother had a photo in her purse of the grandfather who never got displayed with the family photos. This picture only came out when it was just us. “There was a N in the woodpile” she would say lovingly. I grew up in a white farming community thinking the N word was a term of endearment. Thankfully the first “real” POC I met at 25 was gentle and could see past my WORDS. It’s really hard to figure out such a strange mix of pride and shame and ignorance. I mostly keep my ancestry a secret just like my grandmother did. The danger is different now, but the fear and confusion are the same.

          “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.” ~Sera

          Report comment

    • Sera: Once something is spoken, where to hear and comprehend what was or is being said, is difficult and requires a certain knowledge, the richest I believe for me came from the Alternatives, NARPA, NAMH, Civil Rights Activism. One of the strange experiences I have is to speak, in public at a podium or to a panel of “experts”. For at a gathering several years ago, at a conference in Portland, as I began to speak a fellow c/s/x came up from behind and encouraged me to “just breathe”. Often, the mood of meetings can hijack or drive a crowd to be more vocal, which can or cannot be a better outcome for the long haul. E-typing and sharing of information, has increased the sharing of enormous volumes of information; though to understand the structural aspects by which fouled air and attitudes are causing problems requires a better focus. For those who have ever been committed or treated against their will, we know and have experienced the brutality along with the deaths that I just have a hard time accepting. Create a great 4th and let us move forward.

      I heard this morning on the Black Gospel Station of how the Minister in living in Arkansas experienced the time the Brother found the lost White Child and was bringing him to the authorities. When the crowd saw the man carrying the child, they took up their weapons and the man would be killed running away. So, when one asks, what is your favorite movie and the response is “To Kill a Mockingbird”. Remember who would take the hit for the murder as Hollywood was discovering the power of communication through film and memory. Look at what has been edited out in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. Same story. Perhaps with better information, design, a change can be made not just from within but also for others….

      Report comment

  7. Correction: the child was not a him but a her. A young girl. If there are trailers to films, which have been edited out, then check those out. For the prevailing image of the times, has to dealt with and as Hollywood knows, as well as celebrity culture, the industry manipulates the truth to where the scales of justice seemingly become more like a Ferris Wheel.

    Report comment

  8. Oh my gosh, glad I saw this too via Sera’s new comment. Great article and I don’t find anything offensive as you acknowledge how much more difficult these circumstances are when you are a POC. And because this applies to so many who are being crushed by different types of power and oppression.

    I love your closing thoughts and I’m sure Sam Plover will too! I have the same thoughts as to what is wrong with the people who so easily carry out or agree to conform to such vile abuses of others.

    Report comment