Friday, March 23, 2018

Stephon Clark, guns, and feelings that aren't facts

On Sunday, Sacramento police officers killed Stephon Clark in his own backyard. He was unarmed. They shot him 20 times. Afterwards, police said they "felt he had a weapon" and that they "feared for their safety." No explanation -- and certainly no blog post -- will make this ok. Not for Mr. Clark. Not for his family and friends. Not for his children. Not for our society. My heart is breaking, again, today.

When I was in the hospital during the period of mental health crisis I write about in my book, there was an adage that several people shared with me:

"Feelings aren't facts."

The idea was that, while the feelings I was having -- feelings of isolation, of self-hatred, of suicidal ideation, of devastation, of fear -- felt very real to me, they weren't necessarily accurate representations of the reality around me.

This was a really difficult thing to process, and still is. At times, it makes me doubt myself, doubt my own sense of things, my own instincts.

It's also a statement that bears some helpful critique. Your feelings aren't facts, but the fact that you are feeling them matters, should not be harmfully dismissed, and probably has some good data for you about what's going on internally and in your environment.

Still, there is important truth in the statement. "Feelings aren't facts." My feelings weren't factual. I wasn't really alone. I wasn't really a horrible human being. The world wouldn't really have been better off without me.

And as long as those feelings were leading me to be a danger to myself -- which, to be clear, they indeed were -- the right thing for me to do was to be in a safe place, under the care of people who could help keep me safe, while I (with lots of help) got my brain back to a place where it could accurately perceive reality.

Feelings aren't always facts. And when our feelings make us dangerous -- dangerous in the sense of "prone to causing actual physical harmd" -- to ourselves and others, then we need to learn to recognize that, and be somewhere safe.

And definitely not have access to a gun.

Even, and especially, a state-sanctioned gun.

Sacramento police say they "felt" Stephon Clark had a gun. They say they "feared for their safety" from a man with a cell phone in his own backyard.

But feelings aren't facts. That's what I learned on the psych ward.

And if you don't know how to manage your feelings, to the extent that they lead you to kill somebody, you need to be somewhere where you can't hurt anybody. And you definitely shouldn't have a gun.

The "feeling" that Stephon Clark had a gun was wrong. It was inaccurate. The feeling of fear for their safety was not an accurate reflection of reality. Their feelings were not facts.

Of course, going along with the story that the police "felt" Stephon was a threat or had a gun conceals more than it reveals. Stephon was a black man. The "feeling" that someone is a threat to you needs to be interrogated. Is this "feeling" actually racism? Bias? The way that implicit bias, not to mention overt and systemic racism, affect the behavior of armed police officers toward African Americans in this country continues to be revealed, in ugly and violent ways, over and over again. And it will keep doing so until we do something, actually a lot of things, about it.

Here's one thing we could do: hold police officers to the same damn standard I was held to when I was in the psych ward.

Feelings aren't facts. And if your feelings are going to get someone, yourself or someone else, killed, it's time for you to be under care, in a place where harm can be minimized.

And certainly not carrying a gun around.

Even -- and perhaps, because of the power and the sense of authority it gives you, especially -- if you're carrying that gun on behalf of the state.

Feelings aren't facts. Not for me. Not for Sacramento police officers. Feelings aren't facts. But the fact of the matter is, unmanaged and unhandled, feelings can kill.

So: will we decide to hold police accountable for the potentially deadly results of their "feelings"? It's the standard I, someone with a mental illness, will be held to for the rest of my lives. Shouldn't it be a minimum standard for police officers, as well?

And if you're going to tell me my feelings aren't facts when I'm suffering, you better not be giving cops a pass for killing an unarmed man because they "felt" he had a gun. 


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