Thursday, August 21, 2014

I am privileged, and I see what is going on here.

I have spent a great deal of my adult life working on my sensitivity.

It was with great reluctance that I posted this essay here. I do not want to be insensitive, or seen as jumping on any bandwagon. I hope I am more successful and evolved than some of the people I have seen sharing their thoughts - and I am using that term very loosely here - about two events that happened last week. These events may seem wholly unrelated, but a single, important fact connects them: two people died and left their families heartbroken.

The first event was the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager walking on the street outside his grandmother's house in Ferguson, MO.
The second was the suicide of Robin Williams at his home in unincorporated Tiburon, California.
(And seriously, they need to get incorporated so that we can just say "Tiburon" because really, do you care if they are incorporated or not? Me neither. /tangent)

I can't stop thinking about them, these two people who were here, until suddenly they were not. Judging by social media, other people can't stop thinking about them either. And that is a good thing.  Their lives had value. Both of them. Their deaths matter. Between the ice bucket challenge videos, there are Robin Williams quotes and people sharing their personal experiences with depression or offering support to others, and there are also photos of what appears to be a militia taking the streets of a town in the middle of America, Americans with their hands raised in the air on the street outside of their home chanting "Don't shoot" and video of children and journalists being hit with tear gas.

I wince as I look at my computer screen lately, through the tears and the anxiety attacks that seem to come in waves as I scroll. People are dying all over this world, and the planet is looking pretty bleak these days, but the two people whose deaths are affecting me and my life the most right now, and making me feel the most helpless and hopeless and confused, are Robin Williams and Michael Brown.

Full disclosure, lest you feel the need to call me out for discussing subjects I know nothing about - I hear you. I am not a mental health professional, nor do I have any experience interacting with law enforcement, aside from a few parking tickets. I am not going to hold up my six degrees of separation to try to gain some credibility. I am white, and currently my mental health is stable, I am married to a man, and I am not living in poverty. Things are good, for me and my family.

And that is precisely why I should say something. Because I am privileged, and I see what is going on here, and I refuse to wear blinders to continue on my happy way.

Here's what I do know:

1. Depression can be as deadly a disease as cancer. You do not need to be a mental health professional to know that much, but sadly I fear that this is not an acknowledged fact in the mainstream. Robin Williams died because he was ill. His death was a direct result of mental illness. Period. Just because he wasn't homeless, just because he had a family who loved and cared for him, just because he had access to healthcare and medications, doesn't make him any less ill than the guy sitting on the corner begging for change, barefoot and months from his last shower. Just because he died at his own hand, rather than at the hands of someone else, does not make it his fault, or his choice. (Side note: the numbers vary across the country, but generally speaking a significant portion of the people killed by police each year are mentally ill.)

2. And speaking of police killing people, let's talk about that. I expect police officers to hold their fire until they are staring down the barrel of someone else's gun and they have no choice - no other alternative - than to draw their weapon and be prepared to defend themselves. I mean, are cops in Ferguson not schooled in self-defense? Is there really no other way to protect and serve without shooting unarmed people? I have friends and relatives who are cops - some in in NYC, which I think we can all agree is a pretty good place to use as a reference for this conversation - and I know that they have been injured trying to subdue a suspect without using their weapon. And it is terrible that they were injured in the line of duty, while serving and protecting their community, but the bottom line is, even when they were faced with a very aggressive individual, they did not shoot them. In an ideal world - the one in my dreams - I thought this was how it was everywhere. A fictional sheriff from Mayberry said it best:

This is not the reality. I knew that on some level, but when I saw the armored vehicles rolling up to a line of peaceful protestors, I realized that things were much further from how I thought - and dreamed - they would be in this day and age.

I know that these events deserve much more than a blog post. But I have no idea what to do, or how to help, other than letting people know how I feel. The bottom line here is that both of these deaths were not unavoidable, and they are both symptoms of much bigger problems: In this wonderful country of ours, people discriminate all day every day. I feel fairly confident that every person has experienced some form of discrimination, felt some shame or helplessness. And I can assure you that there is discrimination against both people of color, and people with mental health issues.

I know this is true, because just last night I was at work and a couple walked in the door - he was black, and she was white, and from my vantage point behind the bar, I personally witnessed other customers look over their shoulder to watch them walk in.

My god you would think they were walking in naked, the way that people turned to look, and then quickly looked away again.

Then just the other morning at the therapist's office, as I waited for my appointment, I kept my head down. I did not make eye contact with anyone but the receptionist and my therapist the entire time I was in there. And as I was walking out through the waiting room, I saw someone I recognized - and as soon as I did I averted my eyes so as to avoid acknowledging that we were both in an office to see someone about our mental health.

As though there was some shame in getting help. In healing, and hopefully recovering. I was choosing not to share this experience, not to find an ally in this long and exhausting journey.

In both of these instances, the silence was deafening. It pulsed and it grew between us. Everyone in the room was aware of it, but no one was willing to take responsibility for it. To own the truth.

When Robin Williams died, his family and close colleagues knew he was battling depression. The rest of us were completely unaware, until it was far too late. And that is because depression is not always easy to spot. At times it is completely silent, a dormant volcano with the pressure building as all outward appearances remain unchanged. What is sad to me is that his beloved family were left so powerless. They had loved him and supported him and encouraged him to get treatment. Aside from standing next to him 24 hours a day - which is no way for anyone to live, and would not have helped his depression one bit, I'm sure - they had been there for him. Let him know he was loved, he was needed, he was important and valued. But the pressure was so great that it blocked out everything, like having a terrible throbbing migraine that impacts every moment of your life while it is there inside your head.

The same goes for racism. It can be a silent, unspoken, equally dangerous threat. 

Michael Brown was killed in a town where, a lot of people seemed to know there was a problem, an abuse of power within their police department, but no one outside of Ferguson seemed to know, or care, until someone's child was shot and killed in the middle of the afternoon a few steps from his grandmother's house. Racially, Michael was in the majority. The easy thing would be to believe he was enjoying the security and privileges that would come - one would think - from being in the majority. But perhaps it actually made him even more of a target. The police officer was white, and knew he was in the minority, and by all accounts, he claims he was afraid. And I have no idea why he was afraid - I was not there and neither were you, most likely, but even if he was afraid, there is still no excuse for shooting that boy. It is a damn shame that he felt he was not able to do his job without shooting an unarmed kid in the middle of the street. That he had so little training, and so few resources, that he instinctively reached for his gun, rather than, say, simply asking the kids to get on the sidewalk as he drove by. He didn't even need to stop, he could have just slowed down and said something like "Hey guys, use the sidewalk!" with a smile and a wave, and then driven away. There is no other excuse or explanation for what came next, except utter cowardice. And he lashed out with unforgettable, unforgivable violence, because of his fear.

And that is the essence of these two stories. Fear. 

People throughout this world experience racism and depression, and both of these appear to be rooted in fear. It remains far too easy to leave that fear silent between us, hoping that if we ignore it for long enough, it will go away. 

I am here to say that is not true. 

We need to be brave. We need to raise our voices - and not just across social media. Sure - it is easy enough to share a link or click "like" and think your work is done, your position known. That is not enough. We need to bring the discussion to our day to day lives, in our conversations with our children, our friends, and our neighbors. We need to let them know that we care. We need to stand tall and speak the truth. 

Before that dormant monster Fear rears it's ugly head.

Before someone else is killed by the unspoken, pulsing beast that is right there. Growing right in front of all of us, every day, gaining it's power through our silence.

I will add more links here as I see them, it is frustrating to me that most of what I am reading is a numbered list. People, life is not the David Letterman Show. I do not need or want a top ten list for every crisis. I welcome one solid piece of advice from anyone. Feel free to add your own in the comments. I also have a "depression" tag for some of my posts, so you can find some of my previous writing about my personal experiences with depression.


Nancy R said...

This whole awful situation has really opened my eyes to media 'spin'. The National news media jumped on the account of Brown's friend, which is looking like it may not have been true. It's good that it has opened up necessary conversations about race and privilege however, I fear if it comes down to the officer defending himself as a last resort no one will ever believe it and the situation will erupt with a greater force.

The national news is focusing on the "B team" they refer to here. If you look around that local news site you'll find stories of Ferguson residents, local community leaders, and police working together:

The national (and social) media are so quick to judge the police response, but the residents seem grateful for the protection, and those officers are working 10-12 hour days. The heat index was 102 degrees here today, miserable humidity, and a "poor air quality" day.

This is an organization that should be able to receive donations:

Daffodil Campbell said...

Thank you Nancy for that link! I agree that the coverage of the Ferguson event was spotty at best in the beginning, and has frequently been misleading and/or inaccurate, and I definitely don't want to pick sides. I am always grateful to law enforcement, first responders and our military. My point in writing this post was to say that regardless of the many contested details and versions of this story, Michael Brown was not shot in a scuffle, not shot by accident, and he was unarmed and not touching the officer in any way when he was shot in the head. I believe that there was absolutely no reason to shoot him - never mind kill him. There are many ways a police officer can do their job without using their gun, but especially in this situation. However, I also understand that everyone has their own opinion, and thank goodness this is America where we all have a right to say our piece. Or at least, we certainly should.