Bland, McKenna, and the State’s Psychiatric Weapon

After Sandra Bland was found hanging in her jail cell from an apparent suicide, her mental health immediately became the focal point of discussion by police and the media. According to law enforcement, Bland had attempted suicide within the past year, but was no longer suicidal. As recently as October, she’d listed herself as suffering from depression. Marijuana was also found in her system, though that only indicates she had made use of it within the previous month.

Bland’s mental health is relevant in the investigation of her killing. But too often, law enforcement uses a victim’s alleged mental illness as a diversion from the underlying killing — even in cases that don’t involve suicide. Take the chillingly similar case of Natasha McKenna in Fairfax County, Virginia. McKenna was being transported from an Alexandria jail by six officers, her arms and legs shackled, when she apparently panicked and began acting erratically. In the ensuing mayhem, McKenna was repeatedly shot with a stun gun and was manhandled so badly that she had two black eyes and an amputated finger. These would be McKenna’s final memories, as she lost consciousness and died days later in hospital care. Her official cause of death was listed as “excited delirium associated with physical restraint including use of conductive energy device. Contributing: Schizophrenia and Bi-Polar Disorder.” No officer or institution has been held responsible.

It’s clear McKenna’s death was no accident, just as a woman who dies as a result of her husband beating her is no accident. McKenna’s physical condition leaves no doubt that her killers were out of control. The coroner’s report is misleading in its tortured formality. Neither McKenna’s schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, nor her “excited delirium” killed her. Police officers beating and shocking her into a coma did. Regardless of whether or not the coroner’s report was deliberately written to confuse, it’s certainly being used by defenders of McKenna’s killers to obscure what actually happened. It was her own deranged mind, her excited, irrational mental state, which killed her. It’s as if her own body turned on her, causing an uncontrollable death spiral, which police could do little to control. Her status as a psychiatric case is used as a weapon against her.

The same goes for Sandra Bland, whose death cannot and should not be separated from the circumstances that led to her arrest. Was it Bland’s assault and kidnapping by a police officer that led her to her death? No, it was her longstanding depression. Bland is reduced to a suicidal time bomb as a means of excusing the malicious behavior of law enforcement. She becomes a pure psychiatric object, devoid of social context, divorced from her very real, human and warranted distress.

We must question the narratives manufactured by institutions like the media, police, and their abettors in the medical establishment. Bland’s and McKenna’s killers wish to maintain an image of sterile objectivity who had no choice but to do what they did in just the way they did it. For they were dealing with crazy black women, you see. There are so many other victims of the state whose mental health is used against them. Unfortunately, the mainstream take on mental illness is that it is an internally self-perpetuating phenomenon, rather than one shaped in part by external social realities.

The actions of police officers killed Bland and McKenna. It’s insulting to them to pretend that their psychological states were somehow contributing factors. Absent their encounters with police, both women would still be alive. It is time to strike at the roots of police subjugation, the sinister criminal justice system and its continued use of psychiatry to justify, conceal and perpetuate injustice.

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