My passions (and vendettas) have led me to lend my talents and testimony to many local organizations fighting injustice. All social justice groups are flawed in some ways – we are only humans trying to help other imperfect humans. However, some orgs and non-profits with the goal of helping targeted minorities are inexplicably headed up, even in 2018, by white, cis, straight, able-bodied, neurotypical men.
Most of them start out with noble intentions. They have a transformative college class, an indirect experience, or read Chomsky and/or Zinn, and then the rage kicks in. Rage that doesn’t necessarily belong to them and they can’t ever fully understand. Unfortunately, when white men with no ax to grind get het up about injustice they assume the way to help is for them to be in charge of activist groups and efforts. And don’t think for a second that non-intersectional white women are immune to this impulse either.
At a time in my life before I was diagnosed with an invisible disability, I really wanted to help lift up the downtrodden because I felt my privilege put me in a unique position to do so. I went to school to become an “inner city” high school teacher, but in the teacher education program at college I found myself uncomfortable with how we were taught about economic and racial inequality. The tone was condescending and we were given assignments wherein we went out into predominantly black neighborhoods to study them like they were specimens or a different species altogether. From all the shade I saw the few black teaching students throw at our old white male professor, I could tell they disapproved as well.
It’s fine to utilize privilege if you are a luckier member of the same demographic, but cross-demographic advocacy, while vital, can be problematic. At some point I realized all high school kids are evil monsters and the black community doesn’t want or need my help. I dropped out of the teaching program with one semester to go and finished up my useless English degree.
Now I’m involved in criminal justice reform, not because I feel guilty about what people of color deal with, but because I’m an especially lucky member of another demographic also targeted by police and the system. I’m appalled at what black & brown people experience, but I can never truly know enough about their perspective to loudly insert myself into their campaigns for change – and the idea that a white person(s) would take charge of their activist space is disgusting, but it happens. A lot.
But because I’m an autistic woman, I’ve directly experienced police brutality and entrapment in various broken institutions. However, I’ve still had to convince the far less oppressed people in charge of activist efforts that I’m worthy of speaking and taking up space when it comes to these issues. Some of these “interviews” have been darkly hostile. For instance, not many white guys invested in helping black people are aware of disability issues and a few have been bigoted towards me – an intersectional feminist covered in police brutality scars.
Truly, there are no completely safe spaces yet. Say a social justice bro corners you in an inappropriate manner and shows you the kind of guy he really is when the other do-gooders aren’t watching: lots of women and minorities won’t say anything about it to other members for fear of thwarting the cause or being accused of doing so. Especially if that ableist white man is threatened, territorial, and totally in charge of the space.
Every time I join a new organization I go through this heartbreaking process of “winning over” the white male (or normal female) leader. It’s not like these are paid positions and most orgs purport to be accepting of all people willing to help – so why am I having to fight so hard? Why do I feel oppressed in places where everyone in the room has read Chomsky and Zinn? (BTW, Chomsky is also on the spectrum bros.) Speaking the social justice gospel isn’t the same as embodying it. Open-mindedness doesn’t stop at one or two new realizations – it means continual self-examination for missed blind spots.
So to the well-meaning minimally-oppressed out there: Thank you for your time, talents, and work, but the minute you begin setting requirements for participation and excluding those with a greater stake in the cause, you are falling back into the ideological mire you brag about having escaped.
Perhaps you’ll heed a message from a fellow white guy, so . . .
I attended the meeting of a local organization of different faith communities who are deeply concerned about the fact that poor people sit in jail due to lack of money for even the lowest bail bond, which amounts to poor and mentally ill people sitting in jail before being convicted of a crime. There were a lot of good questions and comments by a lot of good people, despite this being such a complicated issue.
Facts and figures were discussed, including the price of keeping one person in jail in our county for one day – $87. This was mentioned in passing, but this dollar amount must have made an impression on one older, very professional looking white man in the corner. He piped up and asked probably the best question of the evening: [paraphrasing here, he had all the math worked out] So if it costs so much to keep people in jail, why are we still doing so even though it’s not economically smart and the taxpayer loses money?
A tepid silence fell over the room then, and since I abhor a vacuum, I softly muttered three words, “It’s an industry . . .” Several of the people doing most of the talking nodded and expressed grim agreement with me, but didn’t expound. The truth is that we didn’t have time to get into the particulars of bed quotas, the prison-industrial complex, political corruption on every level, and the apathy of those people not affected by criminal justice problems. I would personally recommend he delve into some Chomsky.
A disability activist I know went to a different meeting recently which aimed to start a dialogue about affordable, appropriate housing for the disabled, who are often homeless in my town. The mayor was there to answer questions and listen, but at the end he explained how his hands were tied as far as any housing solutions for us. The money and political will simply isn’t there.
I completely believe him about the lack of political will and concern for people like us, but there is plenty of money in our coffers. However, those funds are being diverted towards projects which directly target this population in a destructive way. I read the local paper and it is constantly crowing about new expenditures by the city, such as paving over and eliminating the one place downtown where the homeless and mentally ill can find shade from the southern heat and simply exist.
Or the new plan to spend tens of millions to expand the local CoreCivic (formerly CCA) prison facility capacity to “reduce overcrowding.” (Another way CoreCivic reduces overcrowding is by allowing people to die on their watch.) A tax hike was approved for this “public service” but no alternative or restorative solutions even make it up the ladder of power for consideration.
All the groups trying to change this stubbornly entrenched system of maltreatment and injustice towards the vulnerable have several big obstacles at the moment:
Republican control of pretty much everything right now – hence the lack of “political will” which just seems like garden-variety compassion to me
how to organize and who to involve – it’s been decades since the last round of sweeping civil rights reforms in America and we are rusty at this
lack of charismatic leadership in key communities – we (minorities and the disabled) are so beaten down and robbed of our power and credibility that it is difficult for community cohesion to happen
where to even begin – criminal justice problems are complicated and it’s difficult to find a chink in the armor of such a well-established system of institutions backed up by those with money, power, and many lawyers
But it doesn’t matter. These are times that define who we are and if we can’t find it within ourselves to correct atrocious treatment by our own leaders, locally and nationally, we don’t deserve our sense of American entitlement. We are no better than the multitude of countries we look down on for dystopian maltreatment of their citizens and those seeking asylum.
If you are concerned about these problems, roll up your sleeves, do some internet research, and call meetings in your communities. Don’t forget to cooperate with other helpful organizations in your area and share information. Show your local politicians that your city isn’t just about new businesses, nostalgia, and building projects for tourism and gentrification. Define your community by how “the least of these among you” are accommodated and saved from horrible circumstances.
We are now accustomed to seeing people of color suffering at the hands of ill-applied policing techniques on the nightly news. A lot of us are still trying to process incidents like these and others are actively defensive on behalf of the blue lives in our communities. However, we seem unable to see police mistakes and misconduct through any lens other than race in America at the moment, and that’s leaving out entire vulnerable populations who might not be people of color or people of color who are targeted for reasons other than (and including) race.
[PLEASE NOTE: I am NOT saying that we should stop looking at policing through the lens of race, but we do need to add other at-risk types of people to the conversation who keep suffering at the hands of law enforcement and the criminal justice system. I am also NOT anti-cop or unaware of the horrific shit police deal with on a grueling daily basis. I believe poor training and funding are to blame, as well as a criminal lack of mental health and disability services.]
For instance, being black in America instantly, visually places you in a marginalized underclass regardless of actual economic status or intent, but there are other ways to enter a targeted group other than having a different skin color. Being disabled or mentally affected in any way also puts a person at a greater risk of being victimized by a series of interconnected and deeply broken institutions. The other main groups affected by police misconduct are school children and very poor or indigent people of any color. God help you if you are some combination of the above.
While I have discussed the prevalence of police misconduct involving disabled people before, I’ve never talked about what the consequence frequently is when it’s not death: jail. Not being taken to a mental hospital or even a regular hospital. Not being connected with helpful services or a concerned case worker. Jail. The place where our society sends the people it doesn’t want to see anymore.
Sometimes I think there’s just two types of people in the world – those who’ve been held captive by a hostile force and those who haven’t. Either jail is something that makes your favorite shows more interesting to watch or it’s something that changes the course of your life forever. And makes all those shows look dumb as hell afterwards.
I’ve been to jail a few times. OK, more than a few. I’m not going to go back over why I ended up there, so let me tell you what there is like. People with autism have traits that cause serious problems in a captive situation:
The need to be in control of what is happening to us and our environment
Difficulty understanding and immediately responding to questions or commands
The need for medications to be administered in a timely manner
Not understanding unspoken rules
Jail is a sensory nightmare even for completely normal people who can mentally block some sensory input and regulate their emotional response to it. To me it was bright, loud, hard, and so very cold. All the time. Day and night it was buzzing artificial lights, slamming metal doors, clanking chains, people screaming and vomiting and weeping and laughing, COs shouting stuff I might need to hear. The smells and tastes ranged from pitiful to foul. The lights were never off and everyone had to put tube socks (called eye-socks) over their eyes to block out the light to sleep. I didn’t sleep.
This input alone caused my blood pressure to go into dangerous territory during all my stays. It was never treated although they were aware of it and concerned.
In jail you (and your concerned family) are never told what’s going on, what’s about to happen, where you will be taken, or who can be of help. The jails are not running a customer service model, in other words. Your concerns about what’s happening to you are purposely ignored, even exacerbated. This utter confusion and lack of control is horrible for anyone to endure (in fact, used by the Nazis as torture), but imagine you are someone who depends on a strict schedule and/or familiar surroundings to keep from having a serious meltdown.
Trust me, don’t ever have an autistic meltdown in jail.
In jails around the country, any person exhibiting recalcitrant, repetitive, or any unusual or simply annoying behavior can be put in four or five- point restraint chairs and tased to within an inch of their lives. I still have my scars. I was in no way a danger to myself or others at the time, I simply, very politely asked for some time to calm down before they started sticking needles in me. They didn’t grant me that wish. I’d already told them I was having a “mental health crisis” which was the best way to describe it at the time.
In law enforcement lingo, this is called a “pain compliance technique.” Nice.
Strapping someone down for any reason and tasing them is still apparently legal even though the UN Council on Human Rights and Amnesty International have roundly condemned this practice in the USA.
Y’know. Because it’s torture. That’s right, America. We don’t just torture in Guantanamo Bay and other “black sites”; it happens in every city and county in America right in the middle of your community to the most vulnerable people you can imagine – the mentally ill and disabled. Because we can rarely fight back literally or legally. (No one believes what we tell them, if we can tell them, anyway.) So they get away with stuff like this and a million other malicious slights and dangerous inefficiencies.
Like denying vital medications even when breathless family members rush them to the jail with instructions about administering them in a timely fashion. This also happened to me with an anti-convulsant and several psych meds that one should absolutely not be suddenly taken off of. Or in many cases humiliating the physically disabled by not providing the most basic medical supplies they need.
The point of jail is not to keep you away from society to keep society safe: it’s to insert you into an economic system that profits from you being there, as long as you are someone who lacks credibility and agency. As long as you are a warm body that can be kept barely alive (if not entirely sane), you are treated like a product to be processed as efficiently as possible by understandably depressed and scandalously under-paid, under-trained staff.
Right now in my town which I love so much, a young autistic man is being held in jail after an altercation (domestic assault) with his aunt who couldn’t calm him down. This young man is underserved and now sitting in an environment that will traumatize him for years to come, without his family, surrounded by a bunch of tough customers who will not know how to deal with his differences. (Did I mention that jail is also a socially brutal place?) He is being denied needed medications and the jail is keeping his mother in the dark about his condition.
I’m very concerned that the above story will be the last we hear about this boy. When, O when, will we stop and take a look at the larger, more frightening portrait of American criminal justice and realize that absolutely anyone who is powerless or misunderstood is unsafe? Jailing is an industry and, as such, needs to both grow and find new sources of “raw material.” When you are sick or disabled, and therefore can’t either produce or consume enough for the economy, you become the commodity itself.
So it’s happened again like we knew it would. Another “lone wolf” kid shot up a school and killed a number of people. Also like we know already, thoughts and prayers will be offered, but oversight of the weapons industry is utterly off the table. And, of course, people with mental illnesses or neurological conditions are scapegoated and targeted.
Mass killers such as Eric Harris (Columbine) and Adam Lanza (Newtown) have been suspected of being on the autism spectrum, but those assertions reveal a vast ignorance of the defining characteristics of autistic people. The biggest myth about us is that we lack empathy. This perception is due to the difficulty neurotypical researchers have seeing the world through our minds. A neurotypical observer may presume that we lack concern for others because the process of extrapolating the thought processes of others is impaired in us. The reluctance of clinicians to listen to what we tell them about ourselves exacerbates this. This “lack of empathy” is explained by a lack of Theory of Mind, and not maliciousness. We are overwhelmed by the suffering of others and that we possess an excess of empathy for those in distress. SO much so that we are also distressed, and “shut down” which simply appears to be cold.
Whatever anyone’s particular constellation of symptoms may be, however, autism is not associated with brutality. Failing to intuit certain aspects of other people’s inner experience does not equate to disdain for human life. The wish to hurt others is tied not to autism but to psychopathy, which manifests in a deficiency or absence of empathy and remorse . . . Tarring the autistic community in this manner — like presuming that most black people are thieves or that most Muslims are terrorists — is an insidious form of profiling. It exacerbates the tendency for people with autism to be excluded, teased and assaulted in childhood and adulthood.
The definition of psychopathy is a “a personality disorder characterized by persistent antisocial behavior, impaired empathy, impaired remorse, bold, disinhibited, and egotistical traits.” These traits can lead to violence in some cases, but not all. Psychopathy is a spectrum as well and some people on it may not feel emotion for other people, but manage to stay out of trouble. For instance, an obscenely high number of psychopaths are corporate CEOs, lawyers, politicians, surgeons, and media personalities – those who have found a less violent means to demonstrate ego and lack of concern for others. Psychopaths are glib, grandiose, manipulative, and lie a great deal. As David Cullen, author of the definitive history of the Columbine massacre said of psychopaths (which Eric Harris really was), “Psychopaths don’t lie to you with their mouths; they lie to you with their lives.”
They wear a mask, but it serves a different purpose than the “pretending to be normal” that autistic people frequently engage in. First of all, we aren’t all that great at pulling off our pretending – people still notice we are struggling and strange. We’re abysmal liars and it rarely occurs to us to do so. Secondly, we pretend with the purpose of having meaningful emotional relationships with other humans; psychopaths pretend so they can get something out of someone, but have no desire for emotional connection. Psychopaths are very talented at building a false persona in order to get close to people for their own plans, convenience, and gratification, but feel no remorse or even embarrassment at being caught out.
There are at least two types of empathy and it’s vital that we explain the differences and make sure the general public is aware of them: autistics lack cognitive empathy or the ability to figure out why someone is upset even though we would do anything to fix their pain so that we don’t also feel it. The kind of overwhelming empathy we feel is called affective empathy or the ability to be affected by the emotional state others. Affective empathy is exactly what psychopaths lack and autistics have way too much of.
Psychopaths have few emotions besides frustration and gratification while autistics are empaths who feel the pain of others to an excruciating degree. Functioning MRIs have been performed on the brains of clinical psychopaths as well as autistics and the primary difference is in the emotional centers, the limbic system and amygdala. Psychos show little or no activity in this part of the brain; in autistics it is overactive and operates differently. You can’t have both no activity in this part of the mind and too much simultaneously.
Therefore, autism and psychopathy are mutually exclusive. One person cannot be both.
Much of the confusion between these fundamentally different neurological condition awkward social skills (especially when young), and be prone to perseverative obsessions. We can both appear to have a “flat affect” or facial expressions that don’t match the situation. We can both have deficits in executive function. Both psychos and autistics (and a great many other people) can be solitary or weird. But correlation does not confirm causation.
Very very few people with autism may have comorbid disorders which are associated with violent behavior. Such disorders are schizophrenia, psychosis (delusional thoughts and not the same as psychopathy), and, more commonly, substance abuse disorders. I want to point out here that even those with the mental illnesses I just mentioned are rarely violent and are far far more likely to be victims of violence. There is no greater incidence of violence among autistic people than in the general population, so we really need to think extremely hard about why certain people feel that the 3.5 million-plus people on the spectrum in America are a convenient group to blame.
Unfortunately, autistic people know a great deal about being scapegoated, misinterpreted, and targeted. We are the most vulnerable people in any society, and the only gun violence we direct at others is directed at ourselves. We attempt and succeed at suicide at a phenomenal rate and access to firearms makes it much easier. The type of gun deaths we discuss the least are suicides. Over 60% of gun deaths are suicides. Let’s not forget that the police kill us with guns, too. Autistic people are prone to self-harm or lashing out when attacked or interfered with, but there is no evidence whatsoever that we commit premeditated violence on others or have malicious intent, which is the hallmark of lone wolf and terroristic violence.
I’ve known both psychopaths and autistics intimately throughout my life and no one on the autism spectrum has tried to hurt anyone to my knowledge, and, in fact, will put themselves in danger to protect others. I have one Aspie friend who would insert himself into situations when a man was publicly abusing a woman and he’d end up with a black eye more often than not. The psychopaths are more of a mixed bag.
Me myself and every other Aspie I’ve encountered online or in real life are deeply concerned with justice and fairness and would tear themselves apart if they knew they hurt someone even unintentionally. The Autism Society released a statement a few days ago attempting to clear up this gross misapprehension.
Let’s look to more promising interpretations of the recent shooting in Parkland, Florida. What we do know about him is that his social media was lousy with violent thoughts, images, and threats. He posted pictures of weapons and ammunition. He was known to abuse young women and was ordered to not come onto the school campus with a backpack before he was expelled. All the students who knew him already speculated long before the attack that he might shoot up the school. All the signs were obvious and easily accessible, but no action was taken by any of the agencies who investigated his suspicious behavior. Although he has been described by many to be “weird,” his oddness could certainly be explained by any number of mental states other than autism.
Criminal and forensic psychologists (those who interpret the mental states of criminals for the justice system) agree that for someone to become a serial killer or mass murderer there must be a “perfect storm” of issues in an individual. Cruz had lost a parent, been uprooted to another state, had latched onto white supremacist ideology, had an apparent break-up with a girl, and had been expelled from his high school three days prior to the tragedy. If he was already a budding psychopath, all it would take is a string of precipitating incidents to set him off. A closer look at any mass shooter is always baffling and complex: no two are the same.
If we begin targeting, monitoring, and marginalizing every weird, lonely boy in school, we are heading down a bonafide slippery slope which leads us ever further into dystopian dilemma of the 21st century America.
There are better ways to approach gun violence and reduce it if we all put our heads together and tap into our own affective and cognitive empathy.
My first memory of thinking for myself politically and socially was the Anita Hill, I want to say “trial,” because that what it looked like to me. Really it was an inquiry into the history of Supreme Court nominee and later (like in the next day or two) justice, Clarence Thomas. My grandfather, in a few ways a “deplorable,” had choice things to say about Anita Hill’s credibility, gender, and race. Some of the rare epithets he used were epic and never repeatable. But I couldn’t help but find her very cool and credible under questioning of that nature. Also very smart and patient with a cadre of old white sexist pigs. We used to call them chauvinists.
Although her testimony was considered a “watershed moment” by Time magazine and others, the discussion seemed to stall out and then we were on to the whole witch-burning that was the Monica Lewinsky mess. In fact the 90s and early 00s was the age of “I’m not a feminist, but . . .” statements. Among the few girlfriends I had the party line was “While acceptable to acknowledge that things are difficult for us as women, don’t get all political about it.” In other words, lean on your sisters for support, but don’t join forces and try to change things in an activist manner.
It’s truly remarkable that it’s taken this long for us to circle back around to the pervasive problem of how men treat women and how the powerful exploit anyone they can. An awesome history prof in college announced to us one day that the Internet would change the world in ways couldn’t predict.
A positive consequence is the way in which all people can have access to one another and we now truly have a public forum to tell our similar and awful stories. As amazing Aspie Malcolm Gladwell writes in The Tipping Point:
“If you want to bring a fundamental change in people’s belief and behavior…you need to create a community around them, where those new beliefs can be practiced and expressed and nurtured.”
This particular tipping point is about behavior, obviously. The belief being nurtured at the moment is “Women are credible and this shit happens all the time.” We are expressing our outrage at the sexually exploitative culture that has been protected and ignored. What need to practice is communication and empathy. We need to shuffle off the silence. Due diligence is very important, but numbers don’t lie even if you think women do.
I have this gut feeling that the Cosby exposure was a precursor to the Weinstein thing. Recent documentaries like The Hunting Ground (campus assault), The Invisible War (assault in the military), Audrie & Daisy (assault in high school) have shined a bright and honest light on the pervasiveness of what has been going on this whole fucking time. And they’re available on Netflix so they’ve reached a wide audience. Enough exposés in print media have covered sexual harassment and assault in various milieus like national parks, the cannabis industry, state legislatures, and media outlets too numerous to link. Yeah, bitches can be crazy but that dysfunction you are seeing is the consequence of a good percentage of the population quietly dealing with trauma and deep disrespect on a daily basis. It wears you down and makes you mistrustful. So does the gas-lighting.
Well-publicized trials of rapists have also flooded the news in the past couple of years. Rapists who don’t get much of a comeuppance. Brock Turner, the (white) Vanderbilt gang rapists, Bill Cosby, Roman Polanski, Donald Trump, Bill Clinton – there’s a long list of people who have yet to face the music for their actions and the subsequent cover up of those actions.
And now there’s a simmering resentment even among women who have been apolitical. The Creepening will become the Reckoning.
These last few months have been harrowing even if you’ve never personally experienced any kind of harassment or discrimination. How many men I admire will break my heart? Which means it’s been rough for nearly every woman on the planet because it’s a rare women who doesn’t have a few stories. I talk to women who claim they’ve never had anything bad happen to them, but then they’ll tell me about “this one time” when a situation got really weird and it messed them up for a while or they lost an opportunity.
The Women’s March marked the official start of a new wave of feminism. One that, hopefully, will change some policies and attitudes for the better. One that addresses the intersectional difficulties of the multiply oppressed. I’m no idealist who thinks that perfect equity (different from equality) is achievable. Human beings are also naked sex monkeys who are hardwired to assert dominance over one another and establish hierarchies. I don’t see that changing any time soon; in fact, it will be our downfall and the reason we will never populate the stars. ( . . . find new life and new civilizations.)
This time is important, but I can’t help wondering if it will peter out with only minor changes. Here’s hoping it doesn’t.
“Rough rides” are commonplace. It happened to me. More than once.
So it appears that the Department of Justice is not going to file charges against the six officers involved in the death of Baltimore resident Freddie Gray. I’ve been looking back on the details of this case today and it still makes me angry. Yet no one else familiar with American policing tactics is surprised by this.
The moment I first heard this story break I was 100% certain what had happened. I still am. Because it happens all the time and it happened to me more than once.
To refresh your memory:
Two police officers on bikes began to pursue a young black man in a poor neighborhood when they “made eye contact with him” and the man promptly fled on foot. From personal experience, police officers are very serious about making eye contact with random people and immediately responding to any “furtive movements or body language.” I can personally attest to a glance that ended in my being arrested.
He was apprehended, recorded being placed into the wagon, and at some point in his transport he sustained a neck injury that led to his death several days later.
Why Freddie Gray ran upon seeing the cops is a bit of a mystery. He had a knife on his belt, but the last time I checked that wasn’t a crime, even in a bad neighborhood. Although the police report says it was an illegal “switchblade,” it turned out to be a “spring assisted” blade which is perfectly legal there according to the Baltimore City DA. I’m going to speculate that Mr. Gray had a history of being stopped and frisked or just plain hassled by cops in his area. He grew up dreading them. I’m willing to put money on it that he wasn’t entirely sure if his blade was legal or not. Even if he did know it was legal, he understood that if the cops noticed it, legality wouldn’t matter for him.
Ironically, he might have been afraid of being shot and killed. So Freddie freaked out and took off, and the consequences were all out of proportion anyway.
Above is a map of all the confirmed stops the police van made before he was taken to the station. Notice they took the time to do some errands and made a lot of sharp turns along the way.
Freddie was somehow injured and/or just too upset by being chased down by cops that he couldn’t get up into the van without assistance. In that video I see a terrified young man, hurting and having an emotional meltdown. I also see inconvenienced cops. Some officers assume that any difficulty you might have following their orders is intentional so as to make their night worse. Every “perp” is a diabolical liar who acts pitiful to manipulate the circumstances. I’m not saying this is never true, but it’s far less common than is generally assumed by police and corrections officers.
The van pulled over in order to shackle him because Gray had become “irate” in the back of the vehicle. So he was either having a physical/emotional crisis or giving the cops lip. There was no way he could hurt them in that position though. After that, they picked up another arrestee and went to the grocery store for some reason.
Likely in that long, strange trip, the cops took the turns not-so-gentle and did so in a frustrated frame of mind. Freddie Gray had the same kind of neck injury that occurs if you dive headfirst into a dry pool. The amount of force necessary to do that degree of damage suggests that the police were intentionally trying to knock him around. Only six days earlier the BPD had issued new rules about safely securing prisoners in transport. It is more dangerous for them to lean in and secure an upset arrestee, and better solutions need to be explored, but they don’t have to drive like maniacs.
I am no stranger to being unable to keep your feet under you while being transported in shackles. I’m not sure exactly how Freddie was bound, but the backs of those vans are slippery steel boxes with a narrow shelf bolted to the inside as the only “seat.” In order to prevent getting slammed around, one has to “surf” the curves and turns they make. This means you have to be able to place your feet wide apart and grab onto the walls with your hands. This is impossible with hands and feet bound close together.
Several times riding in the back of the “train” as we call it in my town, the level of safety has devolved into a dark cavalcade of slapstick comedy. Everybody has to physically brace themselves by grabbing onto other inmates who may or may not go down with you anyway. Sometimes one person will have to yank someone by the back of their shirt or pants to keep them from smacking their heads on the wall or floor – or ceiling. Keep in mind that frequently the prisoners are ill, injured, or disabled in some way, in addition to being bound hand and foot.
Other times, instead of not enough passengers, they cram way too many of us in those things. The last ride I took, we were packed in so tight, hip to hip, that each woman in turn had to lean way forward or way back because our arms and elbows were too wide to fit. I was leaning forward as I recall, and there’s a particular sudden swell in the freeway on the way to court from the jail. The van accelerated and bumped up on one side which cracked the back of my head against the inside wall so hard I was nauseated and the other women cried out in angry alarm.
“Hey! You throwin’ us around back here!” yelled the goddess-sized black lady who’s side I was stuffed into. We all saw the two COs up there look at one another and burst into laughter. Then they just turned up the radio and chatted in a self-satisfied manner while a few of the girls quietly cursed and asked me if I was OK.
Blessedly, I was OK, but Freddie Gray had no one and nothing to brace himself against the casual cruelty tolerated by American policing and corrections.
Although there have been manyvalidexplanations for why we have an opiate epidemic on our Drug-Warring hands, I have not yet heard anyone mention what the primary reason actually is, so I’ll tell you what it is:
And I’m not talking just about the physical kind – I’m talking about the mental and financial and social kinds of pain which are more devastating than physical pain. The vast increase in prescribing opiates is certainly a big driver of the crisis, but many people take opiates for the duration of an illness or injury and then stop taking them. They don’t become addicts; but a lot of other people can’t get off them ever again.
I had the dubious benefit of “attending” court-ordered drug treatment (in my case it was for alcohol) in my Southern state. I took careful notice of the people I met and spoke with in both jail and treatment, and I was shocked to hear the stories they told about their lives. Absolutely every woman was a survivor of some kind of repeated sexual assault, sexual abuse (by a family member, caretaker, or significant other), violent trauma, total estrangement, or sexual exploitation. Most were mentally ill. All were very poor and underserved if not completely unserved, because of the many institutional system failures in America.
Most people got locked up on paraphernalia charges, theft under $500, probation violation, and/or insolvency. The people in treatment with me (some of whom I also met in jail) were suffering from some of the worst life experiences and situations I’ve ever heard of. Even though some people exaggerate for sympathy, if you have to drag someone’s tale out of them after laying groundwork over weeks in stir or intensive group therapy, they are not making that shit up.
In jail, I slowly got to know another woman there who finally told me she was a “trick baby” and didn’t even know what ethnicity she was. (Asian? Native American? Kinda like the rock.) She was also epileptic, mostly deaf, an addict, and a member of the hidden homeless. These are the “precariously housed” meaning, at least for her, that she had to submit to sex to crash on various guys’ couches. She complained in her innocent way that what she hated most was always having guys “bothering” her when she just needs a place to sleep other than her car.
Every human has a breaking point when they will seek out ANY relief from unbearable pain, and everybody has a finite amount of resources to battle it.
Notice that being disabled or known to be mentally ill overrides white privilege. The most punishable offense to many cops is lack of a prompt response, difficulty following or understanding orders, and perceived disrespect. Lots of cops are delicate, but thuggish, flowers who require deference and unquestioning obsequiousness at all times.
But back to our national love of getting high.
I figured out that substance abuse is directly related to the degree of isolation and trauma a person has experienced, and the more you have suffered the less able you are to summon the considerable internal and external resources that are absolutely needed to heal from the severe issues at its root. Addiction is a symptom of other serious conditions. If you put a someone in rehab or jail but don’t address the financial, familial, mental, social, housing, employment, and physical problems they have, you are setting that person up for relapse or death.
Here’s a helpful TED Talk about why people (and other animals) develop maladaptive coping mechanisms when they suffer isolation and pain which reflects current evidence-based research. Our “moral” and “disease” models of addiction have at the very least been harmfully inaccurate.
By far, the worst thing about my entire odyssey was the degree of toxic shaming we were subjected to. Initially trying a drug is your fault because you chose to “make a bad decision” and break the law. You’ve sinned. Relapse is really, really your fault because you are supposed to know how to resist temptation with the (largely useless) advice they gave you about “avoiding triggers.” The 12 Steps used in most American treatment programs is outdated, ineffective, poorly studied, and loaded with negative, shaming attitudes and more bad advice. The addict is always solely to blame rather than the life conditions and intractable illnesses they deal with.
Here’s the bottom line:
Fifty percent of Americans in 2017 are struggling to pay for housing and having enough to pay for food and sundries. A health care or car emergency can utterly wipe them out. These are people who take out loans for college and well into adulthood the jobs they studied for have simply not materialized. Their debt exceeds their assets. These are also people for whom the dismantling of the mental health system by Regan has left them without a place to get help and has simultaneously criminalized the sick, the poor, and the different.
I could go on. Things have been getting worse for average Americans so gradually that we didn’t realize we were being cooked alive and quietly robbed of more and more of our rights and political agency. The labor unions were broken, the push for women’s rights stalled, and anyone requiring social entitlements was demonized. What we DON’T need is more tough love, shame, religious censure, and socially conservative policies.
What we DO need is:
MAT (medically assisted treatment)
nonjudgmental, sympathetic counseling that addresses the specific reasons women and all other predominantly non-violent offenders (men, the disabled, LBGTQs, POC) end up in the system
comprehensive mental and physical healthcare (good luck on that one, I guess)
the 12 Steps replaced with a recovery philosophy that uses evidence-based methods rather than faith-based ones
safe rental housing we can afford
better jobs that pay enough to live on
an end to the Drug War and the decriminalization, Portugal-style, of personal substance possession and use
forgiveness of past non-violent drug-related offenses or at least removal from background checks so to prevent the stigma that leads to un- and under-employment (and relapse)
prompt, free legal help that doesn’t suck or favor domestic abusers
childcare and community supports
better treatments for chronic pain
Tall order, am I right? This is true:
Every human has a breaking point when they will seek out ANY relief from unbearable pain, and everybody has a finite amount of resources to battle it. Even the people who are “living the right way.” Thanks for being honest, Mo!