What Happens When You Devalue People

N. M. Silber


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Trigger Warning: Situations described could cause a stress related response in individuals who have been restrained, especially those overcoming PTSD.

What happens when a group of people is systematically devalued? Society is given permission to treat them differently. They are denied organ transplants and medical care. When they are murdered people empathize with their killers. When they are unable to force themselves to look and act and react to a world that they experience and perceive differently than the masses they are mistreated, locked in closets, restrained, shocked with electrical current.

Once upon the time I was a public defender. (All the people who want to start leaping to conclusions about me should know that I survived having special ed “supports” as a kid.)  As I wrote, once upon a time I was a public defender, and I saw the criminal justice system up close. I SAW how people who were schizophrenic, bipolar, Autistic, or had other disabilities or differences were treated. I saw them devalued when they were victims. I saw them devalued when they were accused of crimes. I saw them warehoused awaiting psych evals, thrown into the general prison and jail populations where they were abused while guards looked the other way or abused them themselves.

I represented a man who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and an intellectual disability. I’m not a mental health professional and I can’t diagnose people but I am Autistic and I thought that he was too. He had been arrested because he was staying in a homeless shelter and another person stole something he valued and he hit that person. Someone called the police and they came and tried to restrain him. (He was also black by the way and there was plenty of talk about how “dangerous” he was even though the cops who held him down were bigger than him.) He tried to fight his way out of the hold. Now he was charged with a felony — assaulting a police officer even though the cop was unhurt.

It was hard to defend him because he did not communicate well under the best circumstances but when I saw him he was frightened and hurt. When we got to court I heard people laughing – cops, even a prosecutor — mocking him while he sat there restrained. They assumed he didn’t understand. People talked about his future, his freedom, like he wasn’t there and they laughed at him. I was very angry and I made them stop but I knew it would start again as soon as his “bitchy” lawyer left.

This man had struck out at a person who stole something of value to him. That person was also unhurt, incidentally, and he himself had a record for assault. I tried to get him out, but we had to wait until he could be evaluated. That took a long time. I arranged to get him a bed in a halfway house and I had people who would work with him but it didn’t matter. He had to wait.

When he was evaluated the psychologist testified that he could become violent again under similar circumstances — I guess he meant if he were held down by cops. So he was denied access to the halfway house. Nothing I said or did mattered. They wanted to send him to a state hospital with a lock-down for violent offenders. I fought for almost TWO YEARS to get him out and when I retired I turned his case over to another public defender.

So, no happy ending folks. Sorry. Why am I telling you this depressing tale? Because this would not have gone down this way if he had not been different. It wouldn’t have happened if he were seen as even just as valuable as the already devalued poor homeless person who he was.

I am going to implore people one last time — for that man, and everyone else who is different. We are not “broken.” We are not “lost.” We are not “LESS!!!” When you describe us that way you give people permission to treat us that way. My client wound up in jail because he wound up homeless.  It can happen.  It does happen.  Be a part of the solution. Assume that people understand and deserve to be treated with dignity. Then make sure that the word gets out.

Previously published at extemporarysanity.wordpress.com