From the May-June 2017 issue of News & Letters
Berkeley, Calif.—On April 8 a forum “Responding to Mental Health Crises without Police” heard from a number of local groups attempting to organize our communities to deal with mental health crises. As in the case of Kayla Moore (see Prisoners: “Shout Their Names” Mar.-Apr. 2017 N&L), we have seen again and again that calling police, usually the only “service” available after hours, results in the death or imprisonment of the person needing care. If you call 911, even if you request paramedics, the first on the scene, especially in heavily policed neighborhoods, is police.
Mental health in jail is an oxymoron. Yet it does not stop the Alameda County sheriff from asking for millions to build a “mental health” addition to Santa Rita jail. Cities provide no meaningful mental health intervention, only the police to enforce laws that criminalize mental distress such as sleeping on the street during the day.
It was obvious to most of the couple hundred people in the room that we need to protect people in crisis from police. Police are an arm of state violence, going back to patrollers out to catch runaway slaves; they are meant to extinguish resistance of any kind. It may not have been quite so clear what to do in a crisis.
Mental Health Association of San Francisco is a peer social justice organization dedicated to getting people with mental health issues to do better. They advocate normalizing the idea that people should have a say in ways they can be helped. There is strength in human compassion and vulnerability. Two members told their stories: as a homeless person (partly because of various mental health conditions), I was used to being invisible. One day, while having a nervous breakdown right on the street, a man stopped and asked if there was anything he could do. The answer at the time was “no.” But the exchange was transformative. He gave a gift of compassion, respect and dignity that I never forgot.
Another person recounted an incident that had happened while he was standing on a bridge, clearly contemplating suicide. A woman pushing a cart stopped and calmly said, “There is a place across the street that may help you. And if it doesn’t work out, the bridge will still be here.” This reached my common sense. And even though that place did not work out for me, I never forgot her compassion.
It is society that is making us sick. Multiple crises in a community prove that it is the society that needs changing, not the individual to adjust to the sick society. The fact that there are no good options was borne out when Kayla Moore’s roommate reached out to try to help her.
The case against Berkeley police for the murder of Kayla Moore is going to trial on October 23. The judge saw merit in claims that officers violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). If they are convicted, it will set a precedent. You can follow the case on https://justiceforkaylamoore.wordpress.com.