A tale of two “equal” men

Both of us men, in our 50s and wearing short, scruffy beards, were in Safeway tonight, shopping on our own, perusing the aisles for whatever it was we needed.

Both of us had taken a beverage from a shelf and were unabashedly drinking it as we made our way down the aisles.

However, one of us was confronted, over-policed, and ended up on the floor face bloodied, yelling, being restrained by three men—one security guard knee-to-back, another security guard with hands pushing head-to-floor, and one in plain-clothes forcing plastic handcuffs on wrists desperate to stay free.

What were the differences between us? Can you guess?

If you guessed that one of us was Black and the other white—you would be absolutely right.

Citing a 2016 study published in the BMJ journal Injury Prevention, the LA Times reported, “African Americans and Latinos — especially men — are far more likely than are non-Latino whites to be stopped and questioned by police.”

Source: LA Times

If you guessed that one of us was displaying outward signs of untreated mental healthcare and perhaps addiction and the other possessed adequate healthcare, including full mental health and treatment services, through his employer—you would be right.

The American Psychiatric Association reports that “Racial/ethnic, gender, and sexual minorities often suffer from poor mental health outcomes due to multiple factors including inaccessibility of high quality mental health care services, cultural stigma surrounding mental health care, discrimination, and overall lack of awareness about mental health.”

Source: American Psychiatric Association

If you guessed that one of us appeared to be both housing insecure and hungry while the other obviously hadn’t missed a meal and was assured of the security of a warm home in a safe neighborhood—you would be right.

The Nation reported that “Food insecurity is stratified across racial lines, affecting less than 9 percent of white households in America, but nearly 22 percent of black households and 18 percent of Latinx households.”

Source: The Nation

So when you consider that the other man was Black, was expressing some delusional or intoxicated behavior as well as hunger, and appeared to be unable to pay for his beverage, the horrifying narrative of over-policing we hear almost every day is bound to be repeated.

Now to be fully transparent: It was about 9:30 at night and I had noticed the man in the store earlier; I noticed his slightly erratic behavior—he seemed harmless enough—and recognized he might be homeless. He had a glass bottle of beer. I had a protein smoothie. Later, I heard him screaming across the store but didn’t realize he was in trouble until I got closer. I ran over and started recording with my phone; another customer, a young Black man, was yelling at the security guards for how they were treating the man. One of the security guards was white, another was perhaps Arabic, and the plain-clothes guy was Black; he’s the one who was wrestling the victims hands to finally cuff him. (Oddly, as the plain-clothes guy was leaving, he patted me on the back as I recorded. What the heck?!) Blood from the man’s face was all over the floor; he had bitten the white security guard on the arm. (He came over later to show me the teeth-marks.) They were verbally berating the man until they noticed me filming; they backed off a bit and started speaking to him more kindly, while also loudly stating the details of what had supposedly transpired—for the record I suppose. There was another white man (a store manager?) walking around taking photos with his phone. The victim was erratic for most of the time. A third security guard—perhaps Middle-Eastern—came up to me and told me to stop filming; I politely declined.

I stayed as the El Cerrito police and Fire Department teams arrived. One Asian officer and a white officer were the first to respond. I suspect they knew I was there but were oblivious to me (whereas the other security guards were very concerned about my presence). They were so respectful of and kind to the man and were able to get his name and get him to calm down. The FD officers were gentle to him as they tried to treat him and later helped him up off the floor and onto a stretcher. They spoke calmly to him and were able to take off the handcuffs. Then they took him to the ambulance.

Later, the two security guards were talking to one of the store managers near where I was being checked out. The white man initiated a conversation with me; I walked over and introduced myself as a pastor and told him I was sorry about his arm but that I had to be a witness for that man as he had no one looking out for him. He thanked me and called me “Pastor Todd.” I introduced myself to the other officer; he gave me his name but said nothing. The white security guard called out to me as I was leaving, thanking me again.

I record this witness for several reasons. One is to confront my privilege yet again, dare I ever try to forget it or pretend I don’t have it.

Yes, it’s true: you can’t drink a beer in the store—but that’s not the point. All things being equal, perhaps I should have been confronted for drinking something I hadn’t paid for. But I wasn’t and I won’t ever be.

The point is people with untreated mental healthcare issues are at greater risk of being over-policed. Black men and Latinos are over-policed. Homeless and poor people are over-policed. And when you’re Black, displaying mental health issues, and are homeless—you have a trifecta of characteristics that might as well paint a mark on your back.

…and likely cause you to be face down on a cold cement floor with a knee in your back.

People need access to healthcare—especially mental health services!
People using drugs or alcohol to the level of addiction need access to treatment if they want it!
Hungry people will do what they have to to get food–wouldn’t you?
Impoverished, housing-insecure, addicted people do things that they likely would never do if they had access to living-wage jobs, affordable housing, and healthcare!
And Black and brown men face bias that as a white man, I will never know.

Finally: I record this witness to urge you to be a witness. Don’t walk by and ignore what is happening. Don’t fear it’s none of your business. Don’t be intimidated. BE.A.WITNESS.

You never know when you might save someone’s life.

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