My brother Monte was 19 years old when he was arrested for joyriding for what we are now sure was a manic episode. I didn’t know then that he was living with schizoaffective disorder. I didn’t know 19 was the age for onset of psychiatric disorders for many young Black men. I didn’t know how he would be tortured like so many others at the hands of the LA County Sheriff’s Department. My brother was stripped, starved and beaten and no one in in my family knew that either until he finally was returned to us after 99 days in LA County Jail, and then another four years in prison for resisting how he was being abused by law enforcement.
What I knew then, at age 16, was that my best friend, the person I first came out to as Queer, was disappeared somewhere in Los Angeles County’s notorious Twin Towers jail and no one helped my family find him. What I knew then was that I was scared, fully caught in a despair for my brother, my family, myself, that would over the years, spiral into my own struggle with depression directly tied to the criminalization of the people I loved. It’s a depression borne of the stunning experience of witnessing something you never imagined could happen that leaves you alone and feeling like now, anything could happen. It’s secondary trauma what we who bear witness to great harm are left to carry.
The world we knew–the world I knew–was already burdened by police that had moved in like an occupying force and a crushing poverty that left us hungry too often, and feeling as though we had no power to change the circumstances of our lives. With Monte snatched up and away just like that while the world continued on around me, around us, like everything was normal, left us stunned, bereft, isolated and with a devastation sense of insecurity. If Monte could be disappeared, what else could be? Was anything safe?
Telling Monte’s story is never easy. Each time I do, I am right back there, all that terror and pain present as though it’s happening all over again. But I do it because I want anyone within reach of my voice to know what I didn’t, anyone to feel less alone and isolated. Think of this as a love letter. Think of it as an embrace. These are the words that I and my family needed all those years ago, words we never got. I give them to you from the seat of my heart.
Mental illness is not the problem. In fact, I was never scared of my brother’s condition. He’d never laid a hand on anyone, never hurt anyone. The problem was the lack of infrastructure to care for him in his unwellness. The problem was the pain borne of knowing how little LA County cared about people who lived with mental illness. The problem was the stigma and it was the lack of information. It was the absence of research that to this day provides for medical interventions that literally have evolved little beyond what was done in the 1930s. The problem was that law enforcement was the designated first responder, not doctors. Can you imagine that? Imagine someone collapsing before you because they have cancer. Do you want a doctor or a cop?
As this year’s mental health awareness month comes to close I need to say that having a mental health disorder does not make a person wrong and it does not make their families wrong. Wrong is the absence of care and compassion. Wrong is the erasure of dignity. Wrong is not having treatment on demand, access to 24-hour care beyond emergency rooms, support groups, up-to-date research and public investment in all of these. Wrong is not knowing if your family member will be safe.
Two years ago when I began the Reform L.A. County Jails Campaign, an effort that has won more support from voters than they gave all of our County Board of Supervisors, combined, I did it from the deepest place of love for my brother, my family and all the families like ours who have been harmed and marginalized. I did it because I know we need decentralize mental health facilities that offer real care, not a jail. I did it because when we win in March of 2020, we will set the stage to move the single largest dollar amount out of corrections and into public health and provide the civilian oversight commission subpoena power something that will not only save money, but save lives. I did it because above all, human beings deserve to be treated with dignity. We deserve to be care for.
Please visit reformlajails.org