The Grand Jury indictment on January 21st of a Georgia policeman for the felony murder of Anthony Hill brought national attention to the intersection of Black Pride and Mad Pride. Hill, who was black and a veteran, was murdered in March 2015 while in an extreme state or “mental health crisis.” He was naked and clearly unarmed when shot by a white policeman.
The indictment — although far from a conviction — gives activists hope police will be held accountable for gunning down unarmed black men and women. According to Black Lives Matter more than 300 black people were gunned down by police in 2015. The New York Times reported that Anthony Hill’s family lawyer said: “This is a day in history. Hopefully, this will set a precedent for discouraging paramilitary policing.”
The indictment also brings attention to the failure of the mental health care system in America. A new Twitter hashtag #MentalIllnessIsNotACrime emerged from Rise Up Georgia’s vigil in front of the DeKalb County Court House. The “Grand Jury Watch” vigil began on January 18th — the Martin Luther King Holiday — with this statement from Rise Up Georgia:
Today, as we honor Anthony Hill, our fight for justice reminds us of a mighty legacy which transcends time. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a man known for his radical actions that disrupted the status quo of segregation and Jim Crow during his time, was once one of our greatest leaders. He was known worldwide as a charismatic leader and for smiling in the face of adversity. What Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is not known for is his bouts with manic depression. While entrenched in battle against the world’s intolerance and apathy, he suffered from mental illness. Throughout his life, Dr. King showed signs of depression: he attempted self harm in his adolescence and was even hospitalized for exhaustion. Many historians attributed his illness to his highly empathetic nature. They believed his illness was a direct correlation to his drive to be an understanding leader.
Those of us in the Mad Pride Movement resist labelling ourselves as “mentally ill,” but we know the label is all too often applied to us. I — for one — can understand why people of good will continue to use this offensive language. It expresses not only the pain we often feel but also the helplessness that sometimes comes over us. Anthony Hill, who had been in an agitated state hanging naked from a balcony shortly before, quietly bent over to face the ground when police arrived at his apartment complex. He remained there prostrate, as if in prayer, and naked in the parking lot for several minutes.
What was passing through Anthony Hill’s mind for those minutes as his death rapidly approached? Was he in the throes of mental illness? Was he on a spiritual quest? Did he see the impending threat advancing toward him? Was he afraid? Was he fearless? He was in a place that only he could describe. Now that he is gone, we will never know.
Like Anthony Hill, I have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and prescribed Lamictal (lamotrigine). Lamictal was developed by Smith Kline Beecham and aggressively marketed off label for nearly a decade from 1994 until 2003, before it was approved by the FDA for bipolar disorder (see 2012 legal complaint). To this day, the extended release (XR) version of Lamictal has not been approved for bipolar disorder, and yet it is widely prescribed by psychiatrists. Lamictal can produce multiple side effects; the most dangerous of which is a skin rash that can be fatal. Thankfully, I have never experienced side effects; however I have read the bold warning: “Seek emergency medical attention if you have a fever, sore throat, swelling in your face or tongue…” About five days before he was murdered, Anthony Hill reported that his tongue was so swollen that he fear that he could not breath. He immediately stopped taking Lamictal.
Much has been made of Anthony Hill “going off his meds.” We hear ad nauseum, from the Treatment Advocacy Center and other proponents of involuntary outpatient coercion, that those of us who go off our meds suffer from “anosognosia” (i.e. the inability to recognize that we are mentally ill). However, the facts of Anthony Hill’s murder tell a very different story. After fighting in Afghanistan, Anthony Hill was medically discharged in April 2013 with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. There is no evidence that Anthony Hill rejected his mental illness label or the treatment that came with it. To the contrary, Anthony Hill’s girlfriend Bridgette Anderson — who along with Rise Up Georgia organized the courthouse vigil — describes Anthony as waiting for as long as five hours on the phone to get a mental health appointment with the Veterans Administration. She describes Anthony showing up for his mental health appointment in Georgia only to discover that it had been mistakenly scheduled by the VA thousands of miles away in Texas.
The stark reality is that if Anthony Hill had not stopped taking Lamictal — as his tongue began to swell five days before his death — he might well have been dead long before the police shot him. That death would have been equally horrific but would not have made headlines. Lack of access to mental health care — not rejection of the mental illness label — was killing Anthony Hill even before the overt racism of a militarized police force shot him down in the parking lot.
It may be that the “mental illness” label has afforded Anthony Hill some modicum of justice after death not afforded most of the 300 other black people killed by police in 2015. Apparently a 27-year-old black man — naked and unarmed — labeled “bipolar” stands a better chance of getting justice for his murder than 12-year-old black boy killed by police after being labeled by 911 callers as “probably a juvenile” playing with a BB gun that is “probably a fake.” Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old victim of a December 2014 police shooting, was denied an indictment by a Grand Jury in Cleveland, Ohio. The announcement on December 28, 2015 of “no indictment” in Tamir Rice’s murder was patently unjust not only because the white prosecutor, Timothy McGinty, never asked the Grand Jury to return an indictment, but also because the Grand Jury never actually voted “no.” This travesty of justice for Tamir Rice is emblematic of similar cases across America where prosecutors — who should be defending the black victims — are instead defending the racist practices of the white police who killed them.
Against this nationwide backdrop of white prosecutorial misconduct, why was the prosecutor in Anthony Hill’s murder able to secure an indictment? More importantly, is there any real chance that Anthony Hill’s murderer will be convicted and, if so, what does this say about the intersection of Black Pride and Mad Pride in America?
Against the odds across America, the prosecutor in Anthony Hill’s murder is black. Not only is the District Attorney of DeKalb County Georgia, Robert James, black, he is an elected official in a county that is 55% Black and 30% White (non-hispanic). Even so, the Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC) said that — through this indictment — Robert James “achieved something last week that is more rare than an earthquake in Georgia.” Anthony Hill’s shooting was among 184 police shootings documented by the AJC in Georgia since 2010. Nearly half of these individuals were either unarmed or were shot in the back. About half of those killed were black, but when considering the population, blacks were twice as likely as whites to be shot by police. Not one of these killings — black or white — got to an indictment, not to mention a conviction. The AJC concludes: “The long odds that James bucked in securing an indictment will become much longer as he seeks a guilty verdict.”
Although a conviction is extremely unlikely, Rise Up Georgia and other activists will continue to focus on Anthony Hill’s murder at the intersection between Black Pride and Mad Pride. As I write this, the new hashtag #MentalIllnessIsNotACrime has had 500 posts in the past three days — since the indictment — posted by 380 users reaching 730,000 viewers. By comparison my favorite hashtag #RealMHChange has had just 60 posts in the past ten days (some about Anthony Hill from the twitter handle @mpower_org) posted by 12 users reaching 9,500 viewers.
Of course, the hashtag #MentalIllnessIsNotACrime can play directly into the hands of Murphy Bill proponents who want to implement involuntary outpatient coercion and otherwise decimate community-based mental health. One of the many website supporting the Murphy Bill is entitled “Brain Disease: An Illness, Not A Crime.” As I have argued elsewhere, locking us up in psychiatric institutions instead of prisons is good for business but a horrible idea for people like me who have been labelled by psychiatry. The slogan “Docs not Glocks” developed by Rise Up Georgia is easily co-opted by the Murphy proponents. So what should we do about Anthony Hill?
The challenge faced by national organizations such as the Campaign for Real Mental Health Change and local organizations like M-Power is that although we have a comprehensive list of talking points, we lack the clarity of focus found in the Black Lives Matter movement. The Washington Post reported that 124 persons with mental illness were shot by police in 2015. This was fully a quarter of the 426 people shot by police last year, 300 of whom were black. It only took 25 committed activists from Black.Seed — a black, queer liberation collective — to shut down the San Francisco Bay Bridge on Martin Luther King Holiday last week. They called for “the immediate termination of the officers involved in the murders of Richard Perkins, Mario Woods, Yuvette Henderson, Amilcar Lopez, Alex Nieto, Demouriah Hogg, Richard Linyard, O’Shaine Evans.”
When black lives and mad lives intersect, as they did in the police shooting of Anthony Hill, where do we stand? Nine days after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Kajieme Powell — a black man with mental health challenges — was gunned down by police four miles away in Saint Louis. Unlike Brown’s death which set off riots and propelled the Black Lives Matter movement into national prominence, those of us in the Mad Pride Movement (or whatever you prefer to call our struggle) said little about Kajieme’s passing, even though he clearly was in an extreme state as he challenged police. Leah Harris — a leader of the Campaign for Real Mental Health Change — wrote an excellent article on Kajieme’s execution at truthout.org and I established the justiice4kajieme.org petition campaign through the @justice4kajieme Twiiter handle, but neither of us went to Ferguson as deray mckensson @deray did to build allies and face arrest. Today, the Campaign for Real Mental Health Change @RealMHChange (a recent startup of course) has 144 followers on Twitter. Leah @leahida has 2,100 followers, and deray has 287,000 followers.
A Twitter hashtag does not a movement make. Organizing happens on the ground. You may like #MentalIllnessIsNotACrime or you may hate it, but the reality is that Rise Up Georgia turned out demonstrators who vigiled in the cold for four days until a guilty verdict was returned. We may never know what impact these demonstrators had on District Attorney Robert James’ resolve to obtain an indictment, nor can we count on him to secure a conviction, but we can be sure that without our feet on the ground, we will never build a movement worthy of the 124 human beings — of all hues — living through extreme states who were gunned down by police in 2015 because they were “mad” like us.
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Please respond with ideas for direct nonviolent action @mpower_org using the hashtag #RealMHChange or suggest another hashtag that better defines the intersection between Black Pride and Mad Pride.
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.