By Robert J. Hansen | OBSERVER Staff Writer
The first annual Stephon Clark Minority Mental Health Expo, organized by Stephon’s brother Stevante Clark, brought together dozens of advocates, leaders and professionals July 14 to the Mack Road Valley Hi Community Center to raise awareness of the importance of mental health in minority communities.
The expo highlighted many ways in which African Americans’ mental health is impacted, but three particularly: police brutality, homelessness, and its connection to reparations.
Mothers Of The Lost
They are five women bound by unimaginable tragedy. Sequita Thompson, Taun Hall, Wanda Johnson, Addie Kitchen and Stephanie Hatten all lost sons or grandsons to police violence. All shared at the expo how the trauma, anguish and pain of losing their loved ones is something they will endure the rest of their lives.
Thompson is the grandmother of Stephon Clark, who was shot and killed in her backyard in 2018 by two Sacramento police officers who claim they thought Clark’s cell phone was a gun.
“Each day I wake up, I think he’s still here,” Thompson said. “My therapist tells me I need to wake up. It’s like I’m in a nightmare.”
Thompson has found comfort in therapy and suggested that anyone seeking help find one they can trust.
Taun Hall’s son Miles Hall was shot and killed by Walnut Creek police officers in 2019 while experiencing a mental health crisis. She used her son’s death to create change for those who suffer from mental illness and was instrumental in passing Assembly Bill 988, the Miles Hall Lifeline and Suicide Prevention Act. The bill provides an alternative to 9-1-1 for those experiencing mental illness crises. Callers are connected with around-the-clock intervention resources, including mobile crisis teams staffed by trained mental health professionals and trained peers instead of law enforcement.
“Mental illness is not a crime but it’s treated that way,” Hall said. “The main thing is, the police can’t show up to these calls.”
Hall said if police are removed from responding to mental health crises, African American communities are more likely to keep their loved ones safe.
Wanda Johnson is the mother of Oscar Grant, who was killed by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle on New Year’s Day 2009.
Johnson said she dealt with guilt when her son was murdered because she suggested that Oscar take BART to watch fireworks.
“There’s no way to get around your grief,” Johnson said. “For me it was dealing with the guilt at first and having to realize that it was not because I told him to go. It was a divine plan that had to happen.”
Johnson had a simple suggestion for those in crisis: call a trusted friend.
“If you feel like you’re gonna be a harm to yourself, I encourage you to make a phone call,” Johnson said. “There wasn’t a therapist that I could identify with so I would leave the session worse than when I came in.”
Johnson said she had to overcome depression and guilt to refocus and become a change catalyst who reassures other families that they are going to make it.
“If we don’t stand up for justice, nobody else is going to,” Johnson said.
Addie Kitchen lost her grandson, Steven Taylor, who was killed in 2020 by two San Leandro police officers while experiencing a mental health crisis while at a Walmart.
Former San Leandro police officer Jason Fletcher faces voluntary manslaughter. He is the first officer to be charged in Alameda County since Mehserle was charged with manslaughter for killing Grant, Kitchen said.
“That’s 14 years,” Kitchen said. “My grandson wasn’t the only person of color murdered [by law enforcement] in Alameda County between 2009 and 2020.”
Kitchen said what makes reforming the intersectionality of mental health and policing difficult is getting police to follow new policies or laws.
“It’s not about the policies,” Kitchen said. “It’s about people doing their job and they should know their job when they put that uniform on. “We can have all the bills and can do all the protesting and go to the Capitol, but that doesn’t reach to where it needs to go.
“The bills are passed but does law enforcement abide by them? I don’t think so.”
Stephanie Hatten’s son Antwane Burrise was killed by Stockton police in summer 2020. The expo fell a day before the three-year anniversary of Burrise’s killing. Hatten shared how she copes with her trauma.
“When I got the invite, I was in the midst of – I don’t even want to say,” Hatten said. “But when I don’t engage I’ve learned that I have to use the strength that I’ve got from other people.”
Hatten said she gains strength from engaging with fellow victims of police brutality.
“I take all of that and I store that because I know that I am not healed and I believe that I never will heal,” Hatten said. “But I will stay functional as long as I appreciate those that extended a hand.”
Black Attorneys Take On CARE Court
Four African American Sacramento attorneys engaged in a panel discussion on the impact California’s Community Assistance, Recovery and Empowerment Court will have on those battling substance abuse and mental illness within the homeless community.
By December 2024, family, close friends, first responders and behavioral health workers will be able to place basically anyone under conservatorship in CARE Court by petitioning the court on behalf of a person with untreated schizophrenia spectrum or other psychotic disorder.
CARE Court is Gov. Gavin Newsom and lawmakers’ solution to get homeless and substance-addicted people off the streets and into hospitals.
“California is taking a new approach to act early and get people the support they need and address underlying needs – and we’re going to do it without taking away people’s rights,” according to the state.
But Sacramento attorneys Keith Staten, Mark Harris and Eric Harris argue that taking away people’s rights is exactly what CARE Court will allow.
Eric Harris, an attorney with Disability Rights California, said the rationale behind CARE Court is “they [homeless people] need help and don’t know what to do, so we’re going to help them.”
“We’ve seen that play out in the Black community, we’ve seen it play out in the disability community, the mental health and the drug addiction community,” Harris said. “We’re going to get rid of them so you can’t see them anymore.”
Eric Harris said similar approaches have been tried and that he doesn’t think CARE Court will benefit the African American community.
Of the more than 10,000 unhoused people in Sacramento County on a given night, about 40% are Black, according the county’s most recent point-in-time count. Black people make up about 10% of the county’s population.
Although attorney John Burris acknowledges the issues of CARE Court, he is not entirely against the idea.
“There are really sick people out here,” Burris said. “To me the issue of CARE Court is due process.”
Burris, whose nephew is homeless, proposes a standard by which someone is placed under conservatorship.
“There are a lot of people out there and my nephew is one of them. I would prefer that he was taken in and my sister would be able to get conservatorship over him and get him into a program,” Burris said.
That doesn’t mean it would work for everyone, Burris said. “I don’t know that,” he said. “All I know is that it’s new.”
Mark T. Harris spoke passionately in opposition to CARE Court.
“This is a multibillion dollar exercise that’s about to take place,” said Harris, an attorney and law professor. “It’s not about the money being there or not being there, it’s what you do with the money.”
Mark T. Harris said the CARE Court system is being rolled out despite the state not being prepared to house those forced into the program.
“Talk about deprivation of due process,” Harris said. “They’ve already said you’re not going to have the same due process rights.”
He said conservatorships within loving, tender and thoughtful families was helpful for his family, but that such will not be the case for those in CARE Court. “Some people we have cast out,” Harris added. “You better reclaim them or you might not see them again.”
Mental Health And Reparations
Reparations activist Chris Lodgson said there are five key elements of reparations: direct compensation, restitution, rehabilitation, a guarantee of non-repetition and satisfaction.
Rehabilitation, he said, includes free education, free medical services and free mental health services.
“The direct compensation has to be a part of it and the other things have to be a part of it in order to call it reparations,” said Lodgson, lead organizer for the Coalition for a Just and Equal California. “One of those areas is the harm to … our mental health.”
Lodgson said specific recommendations are needed to address free, direct mental health services. Under recommendations made by the Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans, reparations eligibility requires that a person be directly descended from someone emancipated from slavery and that they have lived in California for at least six months.
Lodgson said he is guilty of overworking himself at the cost of his mental well-being. Lodgson said he and many others who work as advocates and organizers always remind others to take care of their mental health, but rarely do it for themselves.
“We rarely get to do it and I could be doing better, to be honest with you,” Lodgson said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: If you or someone you care about needs help related to their mental health, call NAMI Sacramento at 916-890-5467 or in crisis, please call or text the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988.