For Natasha: On the Intersections of Being Black, Woman and Mentally Ill

By Anna Gibson

The number of Black women who die in police custody continues to climb. A video was recently released of 37-year-old Natasha McKenna, who died in police custody in early February of 2015. McKenna had suffered from schizophrenia since she was a teenager and was having an episode in prison. The 45-minute video shows her staggering out of her cell, completely naked and clearly confused as a group of fully armed men, in hazmat suits and shields, pull her to the ground. They then proceeded to administer 5000 volts to her 5’3, 160 lb. frame. She was later pulled off of life support, and the cause of her death was listed as “agitated excitation.”

This raised many questions for the people who’ve watched the case unfold. Why was so much force used against a woman who didn’t appear to be a threat? Why are the police so quick to use police force against the mentally ill when escalation techniques are available? Natasha McKenna is not the only person with a mental illness to be treated with excessive force and she won’t be the last.

For instance, Anthony Hill was an Air Force veteran who struggled with bipolar disorder. He was shot in the chest by police while having what appeared to be a manic episode. Normally police officers would simply say that the suspect reached for his waistband or pulled something out of his pocket. However, in this case, he was completely naked, offering no excuse for their behavior. Witnesses say he posed no threat to the officers before he was killed.

Jason Harris, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, was also shot down. The video of his death (warning, pretty graphic) shows him standing casually in the doorway twirling a screwdriver. As his mother walked passed him and behind the police, only seconds went by before he was shot and killed. Police officers said that he charged toward them, but body cam footage later released told another story. He was clearly seen running away from them and to the left where he was shot by police officers who were equipped with tasers.

Police officers have already been shown to have twitchy trigger fingers around most people with mental illness, white or Black. However, the intersectional bias that Black people, especially Black women, with mental illness have to deal with can make encounters with the police particularly deadly.

There are a number of reasons why this is the case, many of which can be applied to the encounters that police have with Black people. To begin, it’s been proven that Black people are subject to racial profiling and police brutality at twice the rate of white people. While this is no surprise, research has found that this is rooted in the implicit racial bias that police have when interacting with Black people.

Police officers are already primed to see Black folks as dangerous. This is amplified by the lack of training in dealing with people with mental health issues. People with mental illness can be easily aggravated when confronted by police. As such, a special kind of training has been created in order to de-escalate the situation with the mentally ill. Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) helps police learn how to deal with people with mental health issues in a manner that both calm them if they’re having an episode and get them to a hospital for treatment rather than a jail cell. The problem is, while 48 states have a CIT-trained officer in each county, most police are given only a few hours of training. This is hardly enough to help understand what to do in instances where someone is having an episode.

This may be the reason why Natasha McKenna was sent to jail as opposed to a hospital for treatment, and how she, like many Black people with mental illness, was treated so harshly. This is clearly evidenced in the way she was restrained and even the manner in which police officers dragged her out of her room. There were more than six of them. Despite this, they all possessed shields and tasers, all of which were completely unnecessary to effectively restrain a 5’3, 160 lb. woman. This probably scared her, leading her to think they were coming to kill her and augmenting her already deteriorating mental condition.

The Natasha McKenna case reflects a deeper nuance than most cases of police brutality. Police racially profile Black people and routinely confront Black people with mental illnesses in inappropriate ways. However, Black women who struggle with poor mental health are in a particularly vulnerable position. They have to deal with racist, ableist, and gendered forms of discrimination that reach back as far as slavery.

In her famous speech “Ain’t I a Woman?” Sojourner Truth observes a very salient truth about how Black women were treated in contrast to their white counterparts. She says:
“Look at me! Look at my arm! I could have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman?”
Sojourner was referring to the poor treatment that Black women were subjected to both during slavery and years after slavery was abolished. In addition to being raped and sexually abused, they were also forced to help with the same kinds of labor that men were tasked with. Even today many women struggle with the ‘pack mule/savage’ stereotype. We find ourselves having to bear witness to our women and girls being manhandled, shot for knocking on doors, and, in Mckenna’s case, forcibly restrained like an animal.

In short, Black people with mental health issues represent the most vulnerable subset of our communities. A combination of the lack of adequate police training, implicit racial bias, and age-old stereotypes about Black women still affects us today and prove themselves to be deadly. The mentally ill are constantly being mistreated. Often, especially in police encounters, they cannot protect themselves.

Body cams have proven to be somewhat effective in bringing police officers to justice but there’s still work to be done. We need to start lobbying for adequate, easily accessible healthcare in Black communities and accountability for officers who have been caught treating our most marginalized poorly. If we don’t fight for the marginalized in our communities, no one else will help them. We need to be their shield.

Photo: YouTube

Anna Gibson is a freelance writer and blogger in Detroit who seeks to tell the stories of the marginalized. She hopes to bring greater awareness to the issue of mental health in our communities. You can reach her on Twitter @TheRealSankofa and on Facebook under the name Introspective Inquiries.

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