OPINION | The Banality of Injustice

by Marcus Harrison Green

Content Warning: This op-ed discusses suicide.

The following is an edited transcript of a speech given at the 2022 Reimagining Behavioral Health Conference: Race, Equity, and Social Justice. Prompting the speech was the question, “What does justice look like when navigating mental health?”

Good morning. Thank you for joining me virtually today, or should you be listening to this recording, whatever day you found convenient to play back this speech.

I want to confess that a recent incident made me slightly shift the focus of my speech today. It seemed to provide a stark metaphor for where I think we currently find ourselves at this moment in our history.

You see, a few weeks ago, while walking from my office in Pioneer Square, I passed by what I thought was an empty wheelchair, stained with human feces, and a bundle of blankets in a heap next to it. 

I walked a few more feet and then stopped in my tracks as my brain reprocessed the image it had actually seen. It wasn’t a heap of blankets lying at the foot of the wheelchair, it was a man wearing an oversized shirt and jacket covering his torso and naked from his waist down to just below his knees where both of his legs had been amputated. 

Thinking he was sleeping, I put my hand on his shoulder to see if he needed help back into his chair. All the while, people passed by disinterested, their earbuds in and eyes forward. From the looks of it, people had been passing by this unconscious man for quite some time.

I repeatedly asked if he was okay until my soft-spoken appeals grew into a pressing shout once I realized he was non-responsive. 

Even with that, I hesitated to call 911, we were both two Black men, and I couldn’t help but wonder if my story of happening to come across him would be believed. I didn’t know if I’d automatically be tagged as the person who caused him harm and was still a danger.

But even with that fear, I went ahead and dialed 911 knowing that every moment counted for the man’s life. I ended up transferred to an EMT dispatcher and told him our location as well as the scenario that I found the man in, which was nearly catatonic, on a concrete sidewalk, with his genitals exposed and the sun beating down on him on an unusually sweltering September day. 

To that description, the dispatcher asked me if the man was comfortable. 

I was in stunned disbelief at the question. It took me a moment to gather myself to respond back with basically, “What the hell do you think?” The dispatcher then told me that comfort might look different to the man than it did to either me or the dispatcher, i.e., a normal person.  

I replied that no, the man didn’t look comfortable sprawled out limp on the sidewalk a few feet away from his own feces. 

Between the eight minutes of me hanging up with a dispatcher and the medics finally arriving, dozens more passed by me and the man, the majority of whom said nothing and did nothing except darting a quick glance of disgust at the both of us, before going on with their day, not inquiring if the man was okay or being attended to, or even alive.

Look, I am not trying to stand in judgment of anyone. Had I not seen the wheelchair and it would’ve just been a man lying on the street, I don’t know if I would’ve stopped or joined others in resuming my walk, thinking all was okay and someone else would help. 

But as I would later come to find out … the man had some severe mental health issues, and I couldn’t help but wonder how much someone continually walking by in life, and I don’t just mean that day, had helped deposit that man to where he lay that day, in a state of crisis, where the only ones who could help him were actual crisis responders?

As indisputable as it is that we are in a mental and behavioral health crisis, I couldn’t help thinking about the multiple colliding factors from mental health to poverty, to racism, to insufficient education, to family trauma, to a cascading personal tragedy that had crafted that man’s life, that had contributed to what had helped erode that man’s mental health. 

I am a huge advocate for more access to mental health care, and a robust behavioral health care structure. It is no secret that 130 million people (more than a third of this country) live in communities deficient in mental health providers. My diverse community of Skyway is one. This is why I am an ardent supporter of King County’s plan to build five much-needed crisis centers around our region to address behavioral health.

Just as true is that we continue to live in a society that says it values equity but does not. If it did, we would not have a 16% child poverty rate in this state. If it did, police in our city would not stop and use force against Black and Indigenous residents at far higher rates than they do white people.  If it did, those same Black and Indigenous residents would not make up nearly 40% of our homeless population while combining to make up only 7% of our entire city’s population.

I don’t have to tell this audience this, but I will because it perhaps bears repeating: We know that poverty, racism, discriminatory policing, and economic precarity can and does contribute mightily to the deterioration of someone’s behavioral health.

And yes, we can, and obviously should, adequately fund and provide treatments and services for mental health conditions and illness, but we must simultaneously treat the foundational environmental causes that can inflame our mental health conditions. 

Look, I do want to stress that I am not at all dismissing the mental health issues we face that are a function of our biological conditions and predispositions. It is not an either-or conversation. 

Because those conditions crash head-on with the material and societal conditions and stressors that are intensifying our mental health crisis. They are inextricably linked. It is why we will have a hard time addressing equality, inclusion, and the problematic narratives we find in behavioral health if we do not address those same deficiencies of justice within our society. 

These past two years following George Floyd have shown me that we love talking until we are blue in the face about equity, change, and transformation. But when it comes to the everyday hardship (and it is damn hard) of actually actively trying and failing, and trying and failing, and trying once more to bring about actual equity and transformation, it remains stubbornly easy to walk away again, and again, and again … until we become numb to the pathways of pain and suffering others find themselves traveling. Pathways that can be partially blocked. But yet politically, I still largely see us — with notable exceptions — focusing primarily on our crisis and not its catalysts. 

Now, what I’m saying today shouldn’t be misconstrued as someone who is an outside observer of mental and behavioral health tribulations. 

No, I have lived with bipolar disorder for nearly the last decade of my life. It was something that I did not want to accept until I was forced to. 

When I first received my diagnosis, I immediately rejected it. I’d embrace a conception of masculinity still prevalent — though a little less so than it was — in our society that equated mental struggle with weakness and an inability to either pray, will, or affirm your way out of mental health misery with a deficiency of strength and character. 

What makes it harder is when you are a Black man in this country and you know that your professional success is predicated on not carrying any additional social stain on you than the one you were born with and its consequences of lower life expectancy, lower financial wealth, and lower upward mobility. All while having higher chances of being incarcerated, dying at the hands of a police officer, and living in poverty. 

In my days in the investment world, I read the room and realized that to various degrees being someone of color, particularly Black in this society, you are largely allowed a narrow spectrum of emotions as a human, which in and of itself is dehumanizing. 

It was a spectrum that for me ranged from — always amiable to ever measured — meaning that you must plaster a smile on your face 24/7/365, or risk being ostracized in a profession where you were already underrepresented. 

I had to mask my discomfort at being tokenized as the person my workplace peddled out as a living insurance policy whenever they were called out for a lack of diversity. 

I’d have to hide my rage at a society that says it hears my concerns as people who share my pigmentation continue having their deaths at the hands of law enforcement or neighborhood watch vigilantes chronically justified.

So I answered all of that social injury that I knew wasn’t solely caused by someone not working hard enough, wasn’t solely caused by someone not being respectful enough, and wasn’t solely caused by individual shortcomings … I answered it the only way I know how: with a dismissive smile at both individual and social pain. 

I tried to accept the narratives that our society serves us prepackaged around individual grit outmatching foundational systemic failures and mental health calamities. But I soon learned, bitterly, as we all do, that there is no lie that is ever strong enough to heal our individual and collective suffering forever. 

That smile I wore could only do so much when challenged repeatedly by the drumbeat of individual racism and systemic death and destitution of People of Color that roared too loudly to be ignored. 

It brought with it pain and heartache, and I eventually tried to fill every crack and fissure of that pain with alcohol and hard drugs that only worsened my mental health condition.

In a span of 18 months, I tried to kill myself four different times.

After one attempt, my mother asked me if I loved myself. I responded to her that I wasn’t sure because I didn’t know if I’d ever tried. 

Thankfully, I never had to doubt if she loved me or not. 

About five years ago while walking in downtown Seattle with her, I suffered from a mental breakdown. 

My brain felt as if it was encased in fire, I was spastically punching the air and vacillating between incomprehensible gibberish and shouting that I wanted to die as we walked down a busy avenue. 

My mother cried as she tried to hold my hands. At 95 pounds and 68 years old, she was unsure of what to do with her adult son with his vacant expression who was nearly a foot taller than her and 65 pounds heavier, and who babbled on about wanting to harm himself. 

She considered calling the police but then reconsidered. What if I didn’t cooperate when a police officer asked me to stop what I was doing? What if he felt threatened as I blurted out the words of “die” and “kill” and he thought the best course of action was to shoot me?

Instead, she called an Uber and we got home, based on her judgment and the grace of our Uber driver. 

But it still haunts me to think how close I came to joining Manuel Ellis, or Charleena Lyles, or Ricardo Munez, or Walter Wallace. All people (People of Color) who struggled with mental illness only to be killed by police who were initially there to help pacify the person they ended up killing. 

It’s why although I’m glad we’ve made strides in investing in a national 988 line to serve as an alternative to 911 and are working on the framework for a localized alternative here in Seattle, I also recognize that those measures still require a caller willing to view someone having a mental health crisis as in distress, as opposed to the perpetrator of violence. 

It requires someone to recognize the human ordeal and suffering that is taking and has taken place with a person. 

And it requires someone, some people, to know the difference and importance of treating not just a crisis but its catalyst. 

That thought is affixed to my mind as I continue to reflect on the man who I came across that day, thinking of all the people who walked by him and me, not just that day, but every day leading up to that one. 

And when I say walking by, I mean what we choose not to see when we review our current predicaments. 

Because as much as we bemoan the fact that we have so few mental health professionals of color (with only 2% of psychiatrists and 4% of psychologists being Black) I wonder why we keep walking by the economic impediment that is educational debt that halts many People of Color from entering into this field where they can provide culturally responsive behavioral health care. 

We wail at the increase in people needing behavioral health services, disproportionately People of Color and poor white people, but why do we walk by the income inequality that they face, the economic precarity they struggle with just to stay put in a city where housing affordability is an endangered species?  

We decry the increase in youth suicide, particularly in our Black, Brown, and trans children, but continue to walk by their treatment in our schools. Schools where they are more likely to have their actions interpreted as hostile as early as kindergarten. Schools where they are more likely to be suspended, expelled, and become involved with the criminal justice system setting many on a trajectory with that system that they will never escape from. 

We see the brokenness of human lives on our streets, of visible poverty and mental illness, but we walk by the opportunity to welcome mental health facilities in our communities to house our struggling neighbors. 

We can also see the substance abuse in our Indigenous Black, Brown, and Asian Pacific Islander communities and walk away from the racial and generational trauma passed down again and again. 

Our mindset allows us to lament those who can’t afford or access adequate behavioral health care but doesn’t allow us to ask how we can alleviate the stress, strain, and pressure of what it is to just survive economically in this day and age. It doesn’t allow us to question too long and too loudly why as a society we provide no floor for people, one which they can’t fall beneath. Why instead is there a void which they can plummet deeper and deeper and farther and farther and down into with no end in sight?

As a friend of mine said during a recent conversation we had when he called me because he was thinking of committing suicide and leaving behind his wife and newborn child … he said:

“Marcus, people have all these signs in their storefronts, in their home windows, proclaiming how much my life matters, Black life matters, queer life matters, trans life matters …  And yet why, why, why is it so damn hard to live?” 

My answer is that we live at times with the banality of injustice. 

What is a threat to the health of this nation isn’t so much insurrectionists storming our capitals, it isn’t so much a radicalized fringe of supremacists and their fables of superiority, it isn’t so much the devotion to lusting for lies over truth…

It’s the everyday social structures that we tolerate, it’s every day that we walk away from the hard work of addressing deteriorating factors in our society that adds up exponentially. It adds up to the powerful always winning and the poor always being powerless. That adds up to racist outcomes, that adds up to a crisis in homelessness, that adds up to youth being more prone to suicide than genuine connection, and fuels our behavioral and mental health crisis. 

So where is justice, we ask? How do we bring it to ourselves, to each other, to our city, to our communities, and to our behavioral health field?

We stop walking away from the hard things, the things we don’t want to look at too closely because they’re too painful, because they challenge our societal habits, and because they remind us of our own pain.

They remind us to question our impacts on others, not just our intentions, and remind us to not forfeit our responsibilities to each other, to be ever vigilant to the consequences of what we allow to fester by saying nothing and doing nothing.

Because you see, examining our society reminds us of a hard truth that we can not have equity anywhere without justice and that we. are. justice. Not some rigid laws, not political decrees, not our courts. Those are just outlets of justice. 

If there is to be justice, then it is us that must refuse to walk away from our challenges, however hard they may be, however uncomfortable they make us, however much we must relearn, we must stand stalwart. 

What are you willing to not walk away from?

The South Seattle Emerald is committed to holding space for a variety of viewpoints within our community, with the understanding that differing perspectives do not negate mutual respect amongst community members.

The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the contributors on this website do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the Emerald or official policies of the Emerald.

Marcus Harrison Green

Marcus Harrison Green is the publisher of the South Seattle Emerald. Growing up in South Seattle, he experienced first-hand the impact of one-dimensional stories on marginalized communities, which taught him the value of authentic narratives. After an unfulfilling stint in the investment world during his twenties, Marcus returned to his community with a newfound purpose of telling stories with nuance, complexity, and multidimensionality with the hope of advancing social change. This led him to become a writer and found the South Seattle Emerald. He was named one of Seattle’s most influential people by Seattle Magazine in 2016 and was awarded 2020 Individual Human Rights Leader by the Seattle Human Rights Commission.

🎨 Featured illustration by Vlad Verano.

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