Slow-Motion Emergency

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Everyone was well fed–Diane Adams made sure of it. The 56-year-old ran back and forth across the Woodlawn Mental Health Center so fast her long red and orange dress blurred into a comet. Though the lobby was filled with groups of people eating food and talking, reporters asking questions, and the sound of camera flashes, her question, “Have you eaten yet?” was impossible to miss.

Adams’s biography explains her fervor–she is a member of the Mental Health Movement and Southside Together Organizing for Power (STOP), and she is a patient at the Auburn-Gresham Mental Health Center. As with her own public facility, the Woodlawn clinic is scheduled to close on April 30. Though she was there to fight, the day was also a celebration of the clinic’s work–the free food made the live music that much more enjoyable. Before things became serious, Adams wanted everyone to have some fun.

This month the city began the process of consolidating their twelve outpatient mental health clinics into six. The process will save the city $3 million, and they have stated that private mental health firms will soon fill the void. However, since the transition began, the experience has been “chaotic” for patients, Adams claims. According to the Mental Health Movement, patients have had difficulty making appointments–they don’t know where to go and, if they are lucky enough to find a new facility, different scheduling procedures have caused confusion. Spanish-speaking patients have been especially affected due to an overall decline in the number of Spanish-speaking doctors. While private practices could potentially fill the void, the movement believes the cost of this transition period may be too high. Currently, there are no plans for a new private clinic to open.

The celebration was organized by a coalition of the Mental Health Movement, STOP, and Occupy Chicago. After commemorating the clinic, they planned to barricade themselves inside the building–a sign to the city that the clinic isn’t just an asset for the community, but a necessity.

Taking over the building wasn’t supposed to be easy, and they had a plan in place. Around 4:30 they would gather outside with a microphone and make their case to the city. Then the group would go inside–the doors would be chained shut, and cement would be mixed and poured to block the back and side entrances. The protestors had enough food for a month, and volunteers had signed up to stand outside as an added layer of defense. Before the doors were shut, they even planned to take out the trash. Only force, or a change in policy, would get them out. The plan began on schedule with a microphone and speakers outside the clinic.

When you hear someone involved with mental health as a patient or provider detail the effects the closures are having, the issue has only one side. By the very nature of mental health, it can’t be put on hold. In extreme cases, an individual’s world is turned upside down. Standing in front of the main entrance, a few moments before the doors were shut, N’Donna Carter made her case.

“We brought people together to tell stories and laugh,” she began. “People are safe when they’re at the clinic, but the city has skirted their duty.” She continued by relaying the sobering fact that “Chicago has had three patient suicides since the budget was passed. The day it passed, someone jumped off a Blue Line train.”

Adams spoke directly to Mayor Emanuel and his administration: “They think mental health patients are crazy people–well, we’re not! Mr. Mayor, you better enjoy your last term.”

Before beginning the sit-in, everyone inside the building was given a chance to get out. A few reporters and cameraman scuttled out after the final warning. One man rushed in yelling, “I have to get my mom out first!” Using a microphone on the inside connected to a speaker outside, a demonstrator warned the crowd, “If the police come, you will have to make a human wall to give us time.”

It’s good it didn’t come to that–the demonstrators needed about ten extra minutes to convince two people outside the building to surrender their bike locks to help secure the doors.  When the first police car arrived, they didn’t even slow down to examine the scene. As the microphone blared, “THE POLICE ARE HERE,” the statement was no longer true.

A few minutes later another squad car appeared, but the officers stayed in the vehicle a block away. One of them was working on a drink from Starbucks, and they didn’t seem to be in a hurry. Eventually, the officers sauntered over to the clinic. They smiled at the demonstrators who made room for them to approach the now-locked front doors.

Gently, one of the officers tugged it the full centimeter it was capable of opening. She then looked at her partner and walked away. On the sidewalk, a passerby approached the officer and asked what was going on. She explained how the city was beginning to close the clinics, and how these people wanted to keep them open. Her voice was full of sympathy–an understandable reaction from an employee of another underfunded branch of the city government.

Eventually more police arrived. Squad cars blocked off the road, and a police sergeant began a dialogue with the protestors. At the end of a meeting between three officers and three protestors across the street from the clinic, one of the officers reassured the protestors, “We understand your cause.”

The two groups went their separate ways. Standing around in the street, one of the officers flashed a big grin every time a camera was pointed in his direction. He asked one photographer to make sure he was shooting in “high definition.” A group of four men in fluorescent green hats that read “National Lawyers Guild: Legal Observer” looked bored. Having arrived to “protect people’s constitutional rights,” they found little to do.


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At 12:30am the police used chainsaws and bolt cutters to enter the clinic. Twenty-three demonstrators were arrested, 11 of whom were released without charges. Carter was one of those arrested. A day after being released, Carter related her alleged mistreatment by the police, a story that illustrates why the clinics are so desperately needed.

“I was denied my medication for three hours,” Carter claimed. Even though her name was on the prescription bottle, the police told her they were not allowed to medicate anyone who was being held. Finally, three hours late, she was allowed to take her medication.

“I was patted down by a man, even though I asked for a woman,” she continued. Her voice vibrated with anger as she claimed, “They touched my private areas.”

Carter’s story–if true–illustrates an important point made by mental health advocates: with fewer resources available, some of the more severely ill mental health patients will inevitably end up behind bars. Police are not sufficiently trained in caring for or understanding mental health issues and are not legally allowed to offer the assistance these patients require. In light of this, the need for a public mental health plan that makes up for the gaps in the proposed system seems especially acute.

Ronald Jackson was also arrested that night. A former marine who has lost some mobility in his legs, Jackson’s experience reveals one of the infinite ways a non-violent inmate in need of special medical care could prove problematic for police officers.

He smiles when he tells the story, but it’s a horrible account exposing the inadequate services the CPD are prepared to offer. “When I have to go to the bathroom, I have a few minutes time before it becomes an emergency,” he laughs. “So I tried to get in there, but my hands were locked together. I struggled to get my pants down,” he continued. “When I was done, I was holding my pants up with one hand, but I couldn’t zip up. The officer would unlock me, but then I would have had to drop my pants. I told him, I wasn’t wearing any drawers. We just stood staring at each other for a long while.” If the police are not even able to help those who suffer slight physical handicaps, one must be concerned about their ability to interact with the mentally ill.

At a press conference across the street from the clinic on Saturday, Jackson had sharp words for the mayor. “Somewhere in between the idea that you are a king and a lord of lords, you were voted to keep the trust of the community,” he bellowed.

According to Carter, Alderman George Cardenas had told the Mental Health Movement that he couldn’t stand up to the mayor because he didn’t want to “bite the hand that feeds.” After sharing this anecdote, Carter roared, “I’LL BE DAMNED. I’M THE HAND THAT FEEDS. IT’S OUR MONEY.”

Hopefully Carter’s message, the last thing she said to reporters, won’t be overshadowed by her alleged mistreatment. On Thursday, some members of the crowd seemed excited by the prospect of blocking the police–they wanted conflict. But Carter’s mistreatment isn’t an example of the mayor exercising malice. It is the expression of a police force that is underfunded and undertrained. While jails aren’t perfect–a sad reality that’s pointless to argue–the police still have a role to play. When the clinics close, their jobs will only get harder.

If the police are asked to handle the outflow of those in extreme need of mental health care, there are bound to be mistakes. Chicago’s South and West Sides were once described as an “emergency in slow motion” by former University of Chicago sociologist William Julius Wilson. While no single, great issue exists, the list of individual tragedies–shootings, lost jobs, failed tests–can overwhelm a community. The clinic closures won’t drastically alter the South Side, but we do know less mental health care will only complicate the emergency.

For this state to end, the clinics don’t only need to reopen, they need more funding. If the private clinics can expand upon what was previously offered, that may be a silver lining. But will the transition cost any more lives? Either way, if the movement redirects its energy against the police, hope may be lost.

Adams had a solution in mind, one that would help the police and the clinics–“Tax those yachts!” While her suggestion may at first seem to have more charm than reason, it’s certainly not a bad idea. The city only needs $3 million to keep the clinics open–there are yachts worth quite a bit more tied up in the lake.