Michael Brown: Civil Rights and Racial Justice for All

Michael Brown

Michael Brown’s picture in his graduation cap and gown, holding his Normandy High School diploma, from this online article.

Darren Wilson, has been named as the police officer who shot Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, on August 9, 2014. This shooting occurred 2 years, 5 months, and 14 days after an unarmed, teenaged Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch coordinator. Unfortunately, this scenario has become commonplace; an African American being subjected to police brutality, excessive force, and even death.

Perhaps this is why 42 U.S.C. § 1983, referred to as “Section 1983,” which is part of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, is still in use today. Section 1983 allows governmental actors, including police officers, to be liable for damages, declaratory, or injunctive relief for violating a citizen’s rights, such as the Freedom from Excessive Force under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Sadly, this legislation, also known as the “Ku Klux Klan Act,” which was used to prevent racial hate crimes in the 1800s, is still needed today to deter racial injustices, often at the hands of the police, who are supposed to protect us.

Functionally, Section 1983 serves as a method to deter governmental officers from violating citizens’ rights. This often comes in the form of making governmental officers pay money for inflicting personal injuries, including wrongful deaths, on citizens, when it was not warranted. Is any amount of money going to lessen the loss of the Brown family? Understandably not. And what good is deterrence after the fact? Unfortunately, this is just how our judicial system works in our society that values money.

Below are excerpts from articles involving Michael Brown:

“The ghost of Dred Scott haunts the streets of Ferguson,” was written by Amy Goodman with Denis Moynihan (ellipses omitted and bracketed information added):

Thousands have been protesting the police killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson. He was due to start college just days after he was shot dead in broad daylight. Police left his bleeding corpse in the middle of the street for over four hours, behind police tape, as neighbors gathered and looked on in horror. Outraged citizens protested, and police brutally cracked down on them. Clad in paramilitary gear and using armored vehicles, they shot tear gas, rubber-coated steel bullets and flash-bang grenades, aiming automatic weapons at protesters. Scores of peaceful protesters as well as journalists have been arrested.

Portrait of Dred Scott from this Wiki article.

The protests have raged along Ferguson’s West Florissant Avenue. Four miles south of the protest’s ground zero, along the same street, in the quietude of Calvary Cemetery, lies Dred Scott, the man born a slave who famously fought for his freedom in the courts. The Dred Scott decision of 1857 [Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 19 How. 393 393 (1856)] ruled that African-Americans, whether slave or free, could not be citizens, ever.

Scott was born into slavery in Virginia around 1799. Scott’s owner moved from Virginia, taking him to Missouri, a slave state. He was sold to John Emerson, a surgeon in the U.S. Army [and was subsequently taken to free states and territories]. In 1847, Scott sued Emerson for his freedom in a St. Louis court. In the U.S. Supreme Court’s majority opinion, Chief Justice Roger Taney, a supporter of slavery, wrote, “A free negro of the African race, whose ancestors were brought to this country and sold as slaves, is not a ‘citizen’ within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States.” Thus, the court ruled that all African-Americans, whether slave or free, were not citizens, and never would be.

The people of Ferguson demand justice for Michael Brown, including the arrest of Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson, who killed Brown. A number of groups are calling for a special prosecutor to take over the case, the removal of the National Guard and a Justice Department investigation into every shooting of an unarmed person of color.

On Monday, August 18, 2014, Democracy Now reported that 1,300 people packed the Greater Grace Church for a rally attended by Michael Brown’s parents. Brown’s cousin Ty Pruitt addressed the crowd: “So, before I say anything, [raises hands in air]. I just wanted to kick it off like that, because what I want you all to remember is that Michael Brown was not just some young black boy. He was a human being. He was a younger cousin. He was a son. He was an uncle, a nephew. He was not a suspect. He was not an object. He was not an animal. But that’s how he was killed.”

While the verdict is still a whiles away for Darren Wilson after a jury hears all of the evidence presented for the case, I fear that justice will get lost in our deeply rooted history of racial inequalities, that Michael Brown will not be portrayed as a human being, and that this will lead to race riots (like the 1992 Los Angeles Riots after the acquittal of the police officers, who beat Rodney King). I wish there were solutions to end racial injustices and oppressive policing. I wish that we didn’t need Section 1983 to remedy the wrongs that our government commits on our citizens. I wish our society would finally treat all of its citizens as citizens. For now, let’s keep our eyes on the prize and keep on marching towards our Civil Rights and racial justice for all.

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Remembering Robin and Rethinking Mental Illnesses

When my sister told me that she saw on Facebook that Robin Williams died this past Monday, I thought it was a hoax.  Robin Williams?  Severe depression??  Addict???  Suicide by hanging?????  No way, not the dramatic comedian we grew up watching.  Not the man behind the English teacher inspiring students to love poetry and seize the day in Dead Poets Society (1989); not the DJ finding humanity during a war in Good Morning Vietnam (1987); not the medical student/doctor who saw the person and not the condition in Patch Adams (1998); not Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)!

Red Eye artist on Robin Williams.

Red Eye article on Robin Williams.

Walking (or in my case, rolling) to work Tuesday confirmed Robin’s death, as we passed by newspaper racks with his face on the covers.  I learned more of the circumstances from Facebook, the news, and my sister.  Apparently, he was public about his addiction and sought treatment.  I began reflecting… Was there anything I could have done to prevent his suicide?  I realize that this is illogical since I never knew him personally, but that is how my mind works.

1999 picture of Robin Williams from this online article.

I had a similar reaction, except more intensified, when I learned that my able-bodied friend from middle school attempted suicide.  She loved Elvis and would tell me the gossip on the popular girl, who lived next door to her.  She wanted to live in Southern Illinois on a farm, because that’s where her dad lived.  I offered to join her.  She attempted suicide during our freshman year; we went to different high schools and we lost touch.  I beat myself over this.  I knew that she was having a tough time after losing her dad.  If only I stayed in touch with her, maybe she wouldn’t have tried to kill herself.  Was her transition to high school as lonely as mine?  Perhaps hers was lonelier.

What can we do as a society to equip people experiencing depression and suicidal feelings to survive?  I do not claim to be a medical or psychological expert.  However, in my non-expert opinion, there must be other options besides institutionalization, short-term rehabilitation programs, peer counseling programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, gun control, and our current options that don’t seem to be working well.  Perhaps we can start by improving access to mental health care and eliminating stigma attached to mental illness.

There also seems to be an unspoken tension between the disability rights community, embracing our disabilities, and mental health, including the consequences of mental illness.  While the term “mentally ill” clearly is inappropriate, “mental illness” seems like commonly use terminology, which I use here for lack of better language.  Additionally, it seems like mental health advocacy has been more of an afterthought in the disability rights community.  Logistically, it may have made sense to focus on physical access and integration since many of the first disability rights activists were people with physical disabilities and their families.  But that shouldn’t be the case today.  If the disability community did more to include people experiencing mental illnesses, who may already feel isolated, this may foster a sense of belonging for the individuals experiencing mental illness and bring diverse perspectives for the disability community.

In case someone reading this is contemplating suicide or knows someone who is, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or via TTY at 800-799-4889.  If you’re not in a crisis but just need to talk to someone, call the Illinois Warm Line at 866-359-7983 or find your state’s Warm Line at warmline.org and follow the prompts to speak with a recovery support specialist with mental health recovery experience.

It is problematic that we have so much sympathy and sadness for Robin Williams (although his national/global iconic status and contributions to the entertainment industry are major factors) and people like him, but we get angry and vengeful, towards people with untreated mental illnesses or other disabilities that may have been a factor in their violent actions, like mass shootings.

Picture of Adam Lanza

Adam and his father, Peter Lanza, on a hike when Adam was about ten from The New Yorker article from Peter’s perspective.

Adam Lanza was a young man on the autism spectrum, who refused getting therapy and stopped taking his Lexapro medication, commonly used to treat depression and generalized anxiety disorder.  You may know him as the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter, responsible for 28 deaths, including his own.  I am not justifying Adam’s actions, or the actions of other shooters, but the disability or disabilities involved should be considerations (this is why we have the insanity defense in criminal cases, despite its criticisms).  I am not saying that all people with autism or mental illness have a tendency to commit harm to others or themselves, which I have heard said in light of the Sandy Hook shootings.  As the public reacted to Newtown, Connecticut, demanding mental health reform and gun control, I grew concerned at the repercussions for people with mental illness.  Would we become a Minority Report (1996) kind of society, imprisoning people with mental illness for crimes we think that they will commit in the future?  Fortunately, we have not.

Adam’s story is becoming all too familiar, with other incidents of people who are untreated for mental illnesses committing mass shootings, like Aaron Alexis in the 2013 Washington Navy Yard shooting, who heard voices but never received mental health treatment besides for insomnia.  As my neuroscientist friend explained, “Our mental health as a society is really struggling. Whether it is environmental or genetic I am not really sure, but we need to find a way for our brains to be healthier.”

It’s outrageous to lump people who commit suicide, who just injure themselves and presumably scar their loved ones, with people who commit mass shootings, you say?  Well, the society that failed to provide the services and supports for the people committing suicide also failed to provide the services and supports for the people committing mass shootings.  I think that until we, as a society, develop better strategies, services, supports, and a better understanding and acceptance of mental health, we are just as responsible for the killings as the person who pulled the trigger or ties a belt around his neck.  Improving our mental health care system and our culture involving mental illnesses will improve our society for everyone, including people experiencing mental illnesses and those living in communities with them.  Hopefully, then we will be able to provide better community to people who have been isolated, who will in turn, be able to provide better community to others.

Bibliography:

Alice Park, Don’t Blame Adam Lanza’s Violence on Asperger’s, Time, Mar. 11, 2014 available at http://time.com/19957/adam-lanzas-violence-wasnt-typical-of-aspergers/.

Andrew Solomon, The Reckoning: The father of the Sandy Hook killer searches for answers, The New Yorker, Mar. 17, 2014 available at http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/03/17/the-reckoning.

Maggot Fox, VA: Aaron Alexis never sought mental health treatment, NBC News, Sept. 19, 2013 available at http://www.nbcnews.com/health/mental-health/va-aaron-alexis-never-sought-mental-health-treatment-f4B11199522.

Shout Out to GimpyLaw Readers: You Guys Blow My Mind!

I am amazed that the mad rantings of this Gimpy Law attorney actually has readers, let alone that it has so many readers around the world.  Here’s a summary of the Top Views by Country in the history of GimpyLaw, as of today:

Top Views by Country

253 United States views. 6 Canada views. 4 South Korea views. 2 Malaysia views. 1 Morocco view. 1 Philippines view.

In one of my college Rhetoric classes, Expository Writing, we read an essay about how a writer wanted to hand deliver individualized messages to each of her readers, old school Pony Express style.  I wish I could get to know each of GimpyLaw’s readers, their unique stories, what draws them to this GimpyLaw blog, and our communities, whether they be disabilities or ties to advancing justice.

But perhaps I should introduce myself first.  I’m a 30ish Korean American women with a disability.  I’m originally from the Northwest suburbs of Chicago, but lived in California for 9 years, where I went to law school at UC Davis.  I recently moved back to Illinois to participate in a program that will help me start my own law practice.  I’m also starting a non-profit housing cooperative, called Able Community.

That’s enough of a dating service description about me; I do not like long walks on the beach, by the way.  I’d like to hear about you, my readers.  Feel free to drop me a line in the comment section below!