Picking Our Battles in the War on Prejudice and Discrimination

Susan Rogers
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“Feel the reign of dignity—it feels like freedom!”

At Destination Dignity on World Mental Health Day (October 10), we marched, several hundred strong, from the Capitol Reflecting Pool to the Washington Monument — right down the middle of iconic Pennsylvania Avenue! As we marched, I heard the chant above and joined in. Actually, I heard — and chanted — “rain” instead of “reign,” although this made no sense under the cloudless blue sky. Never mind: The rhythm of our words kept pace with our steps in the sunshine! More than one passerby, attracted by our passionate voices, joined our ranks as we headed up the Avenue.

The overarching goal of Destination Dignity is “dignity and change” in the mental health arena. But where do we even start? The Destination Dignity website lists several objectives that we can work toward. While eliminating discrimination and prejudice entirely may be a tall order, we can focus our energies on specific battlegrounds.

So, in the 10 minutes — timed! — I was given to address the crowd, I talked about two of these conflicts: the struggle to stop the Halloween demonization of people with mental health conditions, and the fight to shut down an infamous New York City jail responsible for the injuries and deaths of many who languish in the belly of that particular beast.

We recently scored an impressive victory in the first conflict, although the war is far from over. The other battle — much more complicated — is still being fought.

The goal of the Halloween battle was to get two major North American theme park chains — Cedar Fair Entertainment Company and Six Flags — to cancel or revamp their hideous exhibits, which seemed calculated to ramp up the general public’s fear and ignorance of people with mental health conditions. (For details, see my blog about this victory.)

But just like in the Whack-a-Mole boardwalk game, up pops another mole: The Spirit Halloween store chain — which claims to have the “largest and best Halloween stores in the nation,” with more than 1,100 stores across all 50 states — is selling stuff so that people can make their homes look like asylums.

Spirit advertises: “Everyone is going to go crazy when they walk into your bloody home as you decorate using this Asylum Wall Kit! These dilapidated asylum graphic sheets hang on your walls as you accent it with blood covered hand and rat graphics. Perfect to freak out guests when they walk into your home! Dress as an asylum patient and it will bring the entire decor together!”

The company claims that “Spirit is devoted to…respecting the interests of each individual who visits our stores.” They invite people to express any concerns to their general counsel.

Action alert: I asked the crowd to call Spirit general counsel Kevin Mahoney at 609.645.5409 and tell him that Spirit needs to rethink their wrongheaded approach to Halloween. The number for their corporate headquarters is 609.645.5653. Or you can write to them at Spirit Halloween Superstores LLC, 6826 Black Horse Pike, Egg Harbor Township, NJ 08234. (Goblins, ghosts, or ghouls would be good!)

The second battle, in which lives are more immediately at stake, is the battle to close Rikers Island.

The push to close Rikers is having a moment: On September 24, hundreds of people marched in New York City, demanding that Mayor Bill de Blasio shut down this infamous jail. Even the mainstream New York Times has written, “The sensible thing to do with Rikers is to close it.” 

This is our battle! According to the Times, people with mental health conditions “make up nearly 40 percent of the population at Rikers, a total of 4,000 men and women at any given time, more than all the adults in New York State psychiatric hospitals combined.”

The group that organized the #CLOSERikers march is Just Leadership USA. It was founded and is led by Glenn E. Martin, a nationally known advocate for criminal justice reform who served time on Rikers as well as several years in a state prison. Glenn Martin has called the continued operation of Rikers “an abomination.”

This battle is urgent: Until Rikers is shut down, people will continue to die, whether by suicide or at the hands of prison guards.

When I spoke at Destination Dignity last year, I talked about Kalief Browder, who was arrested at the age of 16, accused of stealing a backpack. He spent three years in Rikers without being convicted. In jail, he tried to kill himself at least six times. He was released in 2013 when the charges against him were dropped. Soon afterwards, at the age of 22, he died by suicide.

He is not the only one who has died as a result of being imprisoned in Rikers. The New York Times has documented 129 cases from 2013 in which correction staff beat people so severely that they required emergency care. Seventy-seven percent of these people had a mental health diagnosis.

One of them was Jason Echevarria, who was 25 years old when he died after swallowing a toxic soap packet and, according to a federal jury, was ignored by jail staff for hours as he pleaded for help. New York City settled with his family for $3.8 million.

Another was Carlos Mercado, 45, who died of complications from diabetes within 15 hours of being brought to Rikers. A video shows him falling to the floor and lying there for three minutes while correction officers step over him. That lawsuit has been settled for $1.5 million.

New York City has also agreed to pay $5.75 million to settle a lawsuit stemming from the death of Bradley Ballard in Rikers. Ballard, who had a mental health condition, was found naked and covered in urine and feces after being locked in a cell without running water for six days and deprived of diabetic and psychiatric medication.

The city medical examiner ruled that Bradley Ballard’s death at the age of 39 was a homicide; and a city official said his treatment was “so incompetent and inadequate as to shock the conscience.”

So, why was Bradley Ballard in Rikers? He was taken into custody on a parole violation for his failure to report an address change, the lawsuit said.

What can we do to put an end to such tragedies? To start with, we can support organizations that advocate for criminal justice reform. There are many people and organizations working on shutting down Rikers, prominent among them people who have experienced incarceration.

Just Leadership USA, which is leading this battle, is dedicated to cutting the U.S. correctional population in half by the year 2030, while reducing crime. I’m proud to be a member.

If we really want to honor the memory of Kalief Browder,” Glenn Martin has said, “then you stand up and spend the political capital to make sure there’s never another Kalief Browder. The only way you do that, in my opinion, is by shutting down Riker’s Island, and creating a more fair and human jail system here in New York.”

Action Alert: At the Destination Dignity rally, I asked the crowd to contact Mayor Bill DeBlasio and tell him to shut Rikers down! There is no time to waste: The mayor has just announced the construction of a new jail on Rikers Island, projected to cost $596.4 million. Tweet to him @BilldeBlasio; write Mayor Bill de Blasio, City Hall, New York, NY 10007; or call him at 212-NEW-YORK. You can also contact him online using a form available on the nyc.gov website.

Those closest to the problem are closest to the solution,” Glenn Martin frequently says. When I looked around on October 10, I saw a lot of people—people like myself who have been locked up on psych wards or in psychiatric institutions and/or have been incarcerated in penal institutions—who are closest to the problem of how to make radical improvements in the mental health and criminal justice arenas! I call upon us to work toward the solutions!

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14 COMMENTS

  1. If someone want to decorate his room with asylum wall kit-so be it.
    They have right to do so.And you protest,because of this halloween
    market sensation?Mental Health system insane policy,take each day
    thousands of lives,also from your country.And this is more important
    reason for protest,then asylum wall kit.Certainly whit such leadership,
    which will also protest more for criminals,then for those who suffer
    just because they are different,my crazy kind is utterly doomed on
    global scale.You won’t save even your own people,with such insanity.

  2. I’m concerned that the two keynoters at this event should be a mental health commissioner and a judge. It strikes me as, in itself, rather disempowering. I also worry about the elite that this kind of action might end up fostering. I don’t see a government led movement as much of a movement. I remember when we used to have an movement independent of the government. This kind of collaboration I find worrisome indeed, and some of that worry is directed towards the potential victims of it.

    I see it has some good goals, housing first programs for example, but it also has some goals I don’t think are worthwhile. Channeling money into the community, for instance, doesn’t necessarily make the state hospital go away. No, you have to shut it down to get that. Instead what you end up with are two systems, the state hospital system and the community treatment system. There are ways in which the community system, for instance, resembles the state hospital system in that you end up with a network of mini-treatment facilities beyond the state hospital itself. Some of these treatment facilities wind up being as restrictive as what you see in the state hospital.

    • Pardon me for any criticism I may be making. I’m looking for ways in which we might be able to work together. I don’t see this kind of event as being as inclusive as it might have been. If a person doesn’t hold a medical/disease model view of “mental health”, what would they being doing at such an event. I don’t see an answer in what is going on there.

      I do think that closing Rikers Island is a good goal to strive for, and that’s something people can and should work for, however more for human than “mental health” issues. Of course, closing Rikers Island is not going to end the turmoil experienced by people in the criminal justice system in NYC, but it’s not likely to make things any worse than they are, and it should, in fact, mean some kind of improvement all the way around.

    • Frank’s maybe pulling some punches here but since he’s opened up some valid issues guess I’ll pile on a little.

      What in the world good does it do to declare a goal such as “50% less prisoners and less crime” without the slightest analysis of how this is to be accomplished, other than appealing to the reasonableness and good intentions of those who run the prison system and profit from the prison/psychiatric industrial complex? Isn’t this like running on a platform of “free cars for everyone and lower taxes”?

      Mimicking the 1963 Civil Rights March in the name of some illusory concept of “mental health” disrespects and devalues the real struggle against racism and imperialism, as well as that against psychiatric oppression, and ignores the many political prisoners in the U.S. gulag who have been imprisoned for decades for fighting this system at its core. While of course Rikers should be closed, we should at the same time beware of those who try to push their own opportunist agendas using legitimate struggles such as this as a way of drawing people in. Just sayin’…

  3. “Until Rikers is shut down, people will continue to die, whether by suicide or at the hands of prison guards.”

    I was in Rikers, in the 6 building at the same time as Little Wayne (who was in protective custody) 4 main I believe I know it was 4 . I also was in the psych section, also 4 something I believe, for a week when they decided I should quit Clonopin cold turkey. I went to hell. Horrible they had these “SPAs” Suicide prevention aids, inmates acting like guards, that should never have been allowed. THAT should be a major focus in any action against Rikers Island.

    Another problem with psych in the 6 building was people who were not safe in general population due to just being despicable horrible disgusting human beings who absolutely 100% belonged in jail would fake mental problems to hide in psych and then harass the people with real problems. Real problems e pacing back and forth talking out load or ranting morning to night to pass the time. Another guy was always rocking, always. Those people were NOT well. I was gone too, I believed I was in hell but came out of it after days of withdrawals. Those memories I should forget.

    Spent a week in that little section of hell on earth in the 6 building, I get it.

    Again the focus should be on the psych conditions cause in general population it was not that bad, I did have friends, protection mostly from the Bloods but once I gave phone time to that Crip kid who was funny as hell and in the bunk next to me. He went and fought these four little punks at the same time over that but then I had to go to a new dorm, that was actually a good thing but at the time it sucked. Most of the violence was over the direction of the dorm fan in the hot summer, that was something to fight about and I almost did too when this fool was pointing it up at the cieling and telling me the air “bounced” off the ceiling into my section. No, wind does not “bounce” off anything. Balls bounce , light kind of bounces but airflow does not.

    I worked in kitchen , went to law library then the “best” part of the day was if I got some tobacco and rolled one up and lit it with an AA battery and a piece of wire from the headphones. I read alot of books, science books were the best. Einstein and relativity the 1919 solar eclipse …

    It was in Rikers I met a psychiatric survivor that told me about MindFreedom Int and anti psychiatry.

    So many people I met for “trespassing” in their own buildings. Total crap like that and like Eric Garner people in for selling loose cigarettes but the police of course did not kill them. Then that guy in the law library who when we were bitching about the place and the system who said “its better then a shelter” we were like your kidding ? But he was not.

    And again focus on the mistreatment in the psychiatric sections of Rikers, THAT was just plain EVIL like the Devils kind of evil not just as a strong adjective for bad.

  4. I am going along here with Frank and Oldhead, and with Cat too.

    The way I would say it is that I think it a mistake in anyway to take on a mental health label.

    Everyone of us has our history, it’s just matter of how we relate to it that is at issue.

    I don’t at all go along with the concept of mental illness, so I would never apply it to myself or anyone else.

    And so I believe that in using it, all people are doing is asking for pity, and that that is always a mistake. Even more so because our society is deliberately setting large groups of people up as scapegoats. So Frank had used the word ‘fodder’ to describe what people become when the take on such labels, and I agree completely.

    So I feel that we have to understand what the underlying issues are, like economic, and the ways that the bulk of the population, and almost all wielders of power, use the middle-class family to give themselves social legitimacy and status, and then we need to strike there.

    As we have tangible victories, we gain for ourselves new types of identity, and so we then are no longer the objects of pity.

    Also, many are going to feel that without the mental health label, that they have no identity. Well I say that that is what the abusers have intended. This is how the mental health system operates, and it is how the middle-class family operates. They deliberately set it up so that you will be pressed very hard to eventually submit.

    So when one first starts to fight back, they find that they must establish and defend a no exceptions privacy wall, not giving out of personal or biographical information, or they are just helping their abusers.

    Nomadic

  5. Good to see critical thinking challenge affirmation journalism. I’ll be even more cynical, some activist “movements” are paradoxically designed to limit positive change. Identity issues are used to hide real inequality. Race, nationality or a mental health label – business as usual simply does not need these tools to inflict damage. Unfortunately, MIA seems to be following the disingenuous formula that’s seen all over the web – a manipulative focus on identity politics.

    What is legal in America – the real swindles – that force people out of jobs, out of homes, out of families, into desperation and worsening health – aren’t typically challenged or investigated with any discernment. These intolerable outcomes, which people have far less control over than is acknowledged – drive them to extremes, and sometimes the “law” is waiting for them, to supply yet another American industry.

    Business as usual does make people “crazy”. Discrimination and prejudice not required. Whether folks are black, white, latino, gay, convicts, suffer from any number of health troubles, you, me or anyone else anywhere – we have much in common.

    It may feel good to parade – but sustained happiness transcends shallow public relations. Stunts that are designed (narcotic like) to produce an emotional response don’t last. I’ll go further, it will feel depressing at first to see how empty some efforts actually are, but ultimately empowering and liberating, and before you know it, some happiness.

    • Genuine movements don’t grow by ignoring the very real pain and problems that people go through simply because of the way they look or who they love, in addition to the common struggles that particular movement addresses. Many of the issues addressed here are grossly exacerbated in communities of color in the US.

      Apathy and greed, rather than lack of knowledge of the problems we face, led us to this predicament. I hope those actively involved in the battle against Big Pharma and social control, can wake as many people up as possible before we cross the bridge of no return.

      This is one of the battles of our time, and we need to embrace our differences, rather than stifle them, to succeed.

    • some activist “movements” are paradoxically designed to limit positive change. Identity issues are used to hide real inequality…Unfortunately, MIA seems to be following the disingenuous formula that’s seen all over the web – a manipulative focus on identity politics.

      Welcome friend — you are absolutely correct. This system is the enemy of life itself. So-called “identity politics” is a form of tokenism and has little to do with fighting racism, sexism, homophobia or anything else, and seems like a strategy to keep oppressed groups at each others’ throats.

      • I refuse to use the term identity politics. It’s not a term that I identify with any movement that I support.

        Singing kumbaya, are struggles are all the same, let’s smash authority without acknowledging that certain communities have faced disproportionate harm due to what they look like and who they love, and that these communities have the right to affirm and embrace their uniqueness doesn’t make sense. You cannot destroy any of these issues by using the homogenizing, one-size fits all, social justice model. Look at how well that worked for the mainstream feminist movement.

        Vulture capitalism keeps people at each others throats. And the elites will use any tool possible to keep people from recognizing it as the true enemy. Embracing difference isn’t one of them.

        • let’s smash authority without acknowledging that certain communities have faced disproportionate harm due to what they look like and who they love

          Not what I’m saying at all. People need to understand each other’s oppression and support each other’s attempts to overcome it. There are differences in how the system manifests its oppressiveness in different segments of the population, but there are also common dynamics. Both need to be recognized. To me “identity politics” (which is not the equivalent of “separatism” in my book) seems to focus on differences first and on commonalities as tangential; hence “intersectionality,” posed as a series of chance encounters in a maze of randomly connected highways, rather than a collection of colonized subgroups all functioning to support the same masters and the same goal, i.e. the consolidation of wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer people.