by Reagan Jackson
It was a rare sunny day in January and the curtains in my dining room were drawn open to let the light in. I sat fidgeting with my sewing while on a Zoom meeting for work. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a man come into my yard.
He had a lean build and was of medium height, in his late 20s to early 30s, possibly mixed-race Black and Asian, dressed in dark loose clothing. My house sits on a hill, back from the street, with no fence bordering the front, but a chain-link fence neatly marking the division between my lot and my neighbor’s. In the summer teenagers from a house across the street had taken to sitting at the bottom of the hill by the sidewalk. I startled them mid-hang out when I went to water my plants, but we introduced ourselves to each other and established that as long as they didn’t leave garbage behind I didn’t mind them sitting on the edge of my property. It didn’t feel invasive since they were mostly on the sidewalk. If anything, during this time of social isolation, it was comforting to hear them laughing and giving each other shit. For a moment you could almost forget that it wasn’t a normal summer.
But this man wasn’t in public space. He had climbed the hill and entered my side yard and seemed to be heading towards the back, which dead-ends in another fence. Since March 2020, I’ve worked remotely from home and been occasionally surprised by people in my yard. It mostly turns out to be meter readers or my neighbor collecting his wayward chickens, but this was not that. I excused myself from the meeting, threw on some shoes, and walked out to the yard.
The man didn’t seem as jarred by my presence as I was by his. In fact, he glanced up at me, but didn’t say anything, but crouched down to examine my grass. I cataloged the layers of vulnerability to the situation. Here was this stranger, a man, possibly homeless, who seemed mentally unstable (because who just rolls up into someone’s yard like that?) and then me, a woman, home alone and unarmed in slip-on clogs, which are not the best shoes for a fight.
“Can I help you?” I asked.
“Oh I’m just feeding the birds,” he mumbled in a soft voice, not making eye contact. His movements were slow and stilted and I didn’t sense hostility, but I wondered if that would change when I set a boundary.
“I need you to leave,” I said.
He stood and looked up then, but not at me. I tracked his gaze to the bare-branched tree behind me that still held a few apples most of which, given the season, were rotting.
“Is it the apples? Is that what you want?” I asked. “I mean why would you come back here?”
“Actually I was just looking at this tree,” he said pointing to the pine in my front yard. But then he was looking at the apples again.
“You can have some if they’re any good, but then you’ve got to leave. You can’t be back here,” I reiterated.
So he walked to the tree and reached up to assess the apples and determined they weren’t fit to eat. I went into the house and got two apples from my fridge. He pulled a gray scarf over his mouth and nose when he reached for the fruit, which is when I realized I had forgotten to put on a mask. It was a strange moment to realize that this person who just made me feel so vulnerable was himself vulnerable and not just from COVID-19. I wondered what had happened in his life for him to end up wandering aimlessly into strangers’ yards in the middle of the day. Was he a sign of things to come? How many Washingtonians are a paycheck away from being in the same situation? But I also really wanted him to leave and he was not moving very quickly.
“You’ve got to leave,” I told him again and that seemed to piss him off.
“Oh I can’t be here?” he said aggressively. “Fine,” he added, and as I watched him descend the hill to the sidewalk I wondered how many times he’d been told that. I went inside, locking the door behind me, and sat by the window watching to see if he would really leave or if things were going to escalate. He moved in front of my neighbor’s house and reached down and threw something on the grass. It looked like a handful of dirt, but maybe it was seeds since he had mentioned feeding the birds.
I had my next meeting, but it was by phone so I sat distractedly trying to monitor the situation. I told my colleague what had just happened and that the man was still outside. I definitely didn’t want to call the police, but I wondered who I could call.
My colleague’s husband advised me to call 911 and coached me to ask for a mental health professional. He explained there was a program that got routed through 911 dispatch, but that I could request someone other than police. So I tried that, but the dispatch operator said that an officer would first have to come out to make an assessment before referring a social work intervention.
“I don’t want to do that,” I said. “Can’t you just skip that part and call the mental health professional?”
The operator reiterated that it didn’t work that way. Of course not, because the people who put this system in place obviously haven’t been traumatized by the police.
Officer Friendly stopped being friendly to me when I was a teenager and a cop showed up at my door at 10 p.m. with questions about some graffiti. My friends and I had discovered the gymnastics gym by my house had drop-in sessions where we could play on the equipment and jump in the pool of foam blocks. When I asked the cops why they were questioning me they said it was because they were approaching anyone who went to the drop-in sessions and wasn’t a regular … read: wasn’t a little white girl enrolled in their gymnastics sessions. They closed the gym to non-members after that and every time I walked past it I felt the weight of unwelcome, and the shame of being accused of a crime I did not commit.
Being accused of vandalism was actually one of my more positive encounters with the police. Mostly I do my best to avoid them, but almost every Black person I know (myself included) has had at least one awful experience personally or had a family member or close friend brutalized, criminalized, or worse. But if somehow you’ve been lucky enough to avoid the firsthand experience, Black Lives Matter has brought viral black death and the insidious state-sanctioned genocide to the forefront of our collective consciousness.
I refuse to watch the 8-minute and 46-second viral video of George Floyd being murdered by the police, but after Sandra Bland and Philando Castile, I can’t see flashing lights in my rearview mirror without my heart rate speeding up knowing that all of the parts of who I am, an educator, a writer, a daughter, a voter, or even the fact that I haven’t done anything wrong, could be rendered irrelevant by the assumptions made based on the color of my skin. That feeling: palms sweating, wondering if today is the day I become a hashtag and get posthumously tried in the court of public opinion for why I must have deserved it, is now just the everyday trauma of being ________________ fill-in-the-blank with your marginalized identity of choice.
I experience this as a Black woman, but I don’t think it is any less the experience of others who are visibly not white or don’t fit the gender binary.
So why, when it is OBVIOUS that many of us have been traumatized by the police, are they the designated gatekeepers for mental health assessments? Why are the police who we turn to when their very presence and uniform might be enough to cause a mental health crisis? Who wants to play that kind of Russian Roulette? Would I be able to forgive myself if the police came and harmed that stranger? Or if he ended up criminalized over rotten apples? Or what if they got trigger happy and came for me? We all know what happened to Charleena Lyles.
Also killed in their homes: Atatiana Jefferson, Breonna Taylor, Aurora Rosser, Stephon Clark, Botham Jean, Michelle Cusseaux, Janisha Fonville, Akai Gurley, Tanisha Anderson … and so many more. How many more will be murdered?
What should we do when the very people who we are told to depend on to protect us have broken our trust and taught us to fear them more than any criminal?
I watched the man double back and walk past my house slowly. He stood in front and threw a handful of something on my lawn again – maybe it was seed because shortly after a flock of blackbirds descended on the grassy hill adding a Hitchcockian note to an already surreal situation. He crossed the street to do the same to my neighbors before disappearing down the block.
I was left with several questions. What happens if he comes back? What happens if someone else comes? What happens if they aren’t just feeding the birds but trying to break in? And who can we call when shit happens?
I posed the question on the Rainier Beach Facebook page and sparked a wide-ranging discussion. My neighbors posted lists of resources, some more relevant than others, to deal with a broad variety of issues. Suggestions included the Crisis Connections 24-Hour Crisis Line, Union Gospel Mission, American Medical Response, the National Suicide Prevention hotline, 211, and more.
The moment had passed, but out of curiosity, I began to call down the list of numbers to see who was on the other end and what they could do for me. First I called the American Medical Response number (206-444-4444). It rang 8 times before someone picked up and when they did, they told me they could send an ambulance, but since there wasn’t a medical emergency that wasn’t what I needed. They told me I should call 911 to get an OSU officer (Operational Support Unit) … also not what I wanted or needed.
I called 211 and got a busy signal. I called again and got put on hold and their call back system never had anyone call me back, so I do not recommend this if you are having an issue that requires a timely response.
This also happened to me a couple of years ago when someone I knew was exiting a DV situation and needed to find a shelter. I called 211 to get referrals and spent 6 hours on the phone just to be told there wasn’t a free bed from Shoreline to Tacoma. Many people have recommended this resource to me, but when I tried to use it, it did not work. Imagine being a person in imminent danger, having the courage to finally leave only to be confronted with closed doors. That person is safe and doing much better now, but only through their own scrappiness AND NOT BECAUSE THEY WERE ABLE TO ACCESS HELP THROUGH ANY OF THESE SYSTEMS.
Next, I called the 24-Hour Crisis Hotline (866-427-4747). Someone answered on the second ring, which felt reassuring. They asked for my name and zip code then we talked about the situation. Even though it had already been resolved, it felt good to talk it through. The operator suggested I connect with my neighbors to do some safety planning. But that is a complicated task, navigating our varying levels of comfort and cultural practices around conflict management not to mention the logistics of trying to get together during a pandemic in an area that is rapidly gentrifying. The Crisis Hotline echoed what everyone else had: that for removing someone from my property, police were my best and only resource.
So where do we go from here? We as a community have been vocal about defunding the SPD because, for many of us, it is a resource that has traumatized us. But what do we do in the meantime?
One thing I noticed during COVID-19 is the proliferation of mutual aid popping up across the city. Nowhere was it more visible than this summer during the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest. The CHOP was by no means a utopian experience. It was gritty and weird and complicated, but also incredible. Medics set up first aid tents and did triage for injured protestors. Restaurateurs donated food so that anyone from any walk of life could get something to eat. Social workers and therapists set up resource tents. There was even a security force that came to our assistance when we organized a Juneteenth Blackout and Proud Boys showed up. As needs arose, the community stepped in to meet them. Again, I am not trying to idealize CHOP, but that energy of people coming together to organize systems of support on all levels is what we need moving forward.
While the police may have cleared out the CHOP, displacing homeless people and scattering organizers, they can’t erase the networks of people who answered the call of community and came together to build something different. Imagine a mutual aid of safety that is rooted in community care and restorative justice practices. What if instead of police being the ones to assess the situation, a team of crisis specialists was called instead? People trained to deal with mental and physical health situations with mediation and de-escalation tactics in addition to first responder training.
I want to live in a place where I can call a number and know there is someone on the other end who will actually help me. Don’t we all deserve that level of safety? Isn’t that an inalienable right? I want to be able to call someone if I feel unsafe without having to worry if making the call itself will put me at further risk. And I want people to stop pretending that all of us get that in the current iteration of the status quo.
The insurrection on January 6, 2021, did a lot to throw that into sharp relief. After our summer of tear gas-filled protests, simply to have this country and our police recognize the validity of Black lives and to advocate that justice be served to the murderers of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Toni McDade, it was infuriating to see the gentle handling of white supremacist terrorists bearing confederate flags and nooses laying siege to our Capitol to steal the last remnants of our broken democracy. In the same way Dylan Roof got a trip to Burger King after slaughtering 9 church parishioners, we witnessed video footage of those Capitol Police opening the gates, just as we watched police show up in full riot gear for every Black Lives Matter protest. And noticeably absent was the footage of Capitol Police shooting Ashli Babbit. Ask yourself how many videos of Black death have you seen? I don’t fault police or journalists for trying to have some sense of respect for human life, I just question the hypocrisy of when these standards are applied.
We know which side you’re on. Your white sheets are showing. And this is part of the reason King County declared racism a public health crisis. I feel insane just having to write this article. I feel insane to think that I live every day without any expectation of ever being safe, not even in my home, and that is my normal. Fuck this shit.
Since March 2020, our whole lives have changed in ways we probably could have never imagined were possible. And now, even when life feels surreal, we have a unique opportunity to advocate for the society we want to live in. Though it can feel overwhelming, not knowing where to begin, I just can’t help thinking that we deserve better. The rage, trauma, and grief we carry is too great a burden. It is time for us to create the systems we deserve.
Reagan Jackson is a writer, artist, activist, international educator and award-winning journalist.
Featured image attributed to Vural G. under a Creative Commons License.
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