Defund the Police: Black Lives Matter
BY KALI MUNRO, M.Ed., Psychotherapist, July 2020
I’ve been working with people in distress, as a counsellor and clinical supervisor, in community services (in Toronto and Winnipeg), and as a trauma psychotherapist, for over thirty five years. I began this work young, at the age of 23, in the early eighties. I was aware, then, of systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia in the police force, criminal justice system, and psychiatric institutions (to name a few). One of the first protests I attended, at 19 years old, we lay in the street to protest police raids at men’s bath houses.
As a counsellor and psychotherapist, who has worked with a lot of vulnerable people, I have never called 911 because I knew that I would most likely be putting my clients in more danger than the situation they were in, even if they were suicidal. I was committed to helping people navigate through their distress and their pain; to stay safe, alive, and in their homes, as they wanted it. If that took our talking every day, that’s what it took.
For decades, I felt alone in a sea of mental health providers who believed it was their duty and legal and professional obligation to call 911 if they believed their client was “a danger to themselves or others.” I felt strongly that it was my professional obligation to protect clients from the systemic racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia in the police force and psychiatric institutions. I knew there was systemic violence built into the very fabric of the systems purported to help people in distress: the police; RCMP; the criminal, immigration detention, and prison systems; child welfare; and institutional psychiatry.
These systems arose out of colonialism. How could they not be violent, particularly toward Indigenous peoples, Black people, and People of Colour? They always have been.
What I’ve learned over the past few decades, working with adults and youth who suffered a multitude of traumas and oppressions, is this: oppression is trauma. From the seemingly small but routine and frequent micro aggressions to the extreme examples of overt violence, sexual assault, murder, incarceration, and removal of children, to name just a few, systemic oppression has traumatized entire populations, and continues to do so every day in Canada.
To understand and respond to traumatized oppressed people, particularly when in distress, we need to be informed about oppressions and trauma. Informed about how different oppressions/traumas are experienced, expressed, and what people need to feel safer and calm. With all trauma, a goal is to feel some safety. There is no one who, while experiencing a traumatic episode, will feel safe by the presence of armed police barking orders at them. Their bodies will have an automatic traumatic response of fight, flight and/or freeze. Fight, flight, freeze are involuntary and automatic responses to trauma, whether occurring in the present and/or triggered from the past.
For example, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a young Black-Indigenous woman who died when the police were at her home for a mental health call, was likely terrified of being alone with armed police and fled to the balcony to escape and fell to her death. If the police hadn’t been the ones to respond, Regis Korchinski-Paquet would most certainly be alive today.
Ejaz Choudry, a 62 yr old man of colour, diagnosed with schizophrenia and suicidal, would have been overwhelmingly terrified by the shouting and armed intrusion/invasion by the police, who were responding to a mental health call, and would have been certain they were there to kill him. And, they did. The police response is never a way to respond to scared, traumatized, oppressed people in distress. It’s adding more trauma and oppression on to traumatized people and their families and communities. How can we defend this?
In my early twenties, I worked in a halfway house for men who had been institutionalized in psychiatric and prison settings for most of their lives. There were a number of times when a resident became distressed and threatened violence. With profound respect, compassion, and understanding, we were able to prevent violence by talking it out. We did not threaten, physically restrain, or call the police to address their distress. We were committed to handling it as a community of counsellors and residents. My tools were always to keep my distance, stay calm, be respectful and kind, and reach for their humanity. It worked.
The question is: how do we want to be treated or how do we want our family and loved ones to be treated if we/they are in distress? What are our guiding principles for responding to our fellow human beings? Because the truth is, all of our freedom is bound up in this moment. Let’s come together over this.
That is why I felt inspired when I heard the call from Black Lives Matter to defund the police and offer compassionate responses to human distress, including those who commit crimes (which is often rooted in trauma and oppression), and to address problems at their source (affordable housing, guaranteed income, trauma and oppression informed services, etc.)
It makes sense to take funding from a system that is not only racist, sexist, homophobic and transphobic, but, in truth, is seriously limited in its effectiveness to serve or protect people because of its force, and violence.There are other ways to respond to people, even when they are behaving in a threatening manner, than to taser, threaten to shoot them, or worse, actually shoot them. It’s shocking to me that in a so-called civilized society, we think this is ok or normal or inevitable. We can treat people in a caring and respectful manner and be far more effective than the police. First responders, like nurses, doctors, paramedics, and community counsellors are all responding to distressed people, even armed people, with kindness and respect and successfully help people to feel safer and calm.
The problem is the model of service, the guiding principles, not individual police. The model is what needs overturning. I know that might sound scary but why would we even want to keep systems in place that are rooted in white supremacy and other oppressions? The truth is that all of our systems are rooted in racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism and ableism. They all need to be defunded. Starting with defunding the police and offering, among other things, trauma and oppression informed services to people in distress is an excellent place to start. Thank you, Black Lives Matter, for making this call. It’s a practical and viable way to move forward.
Defunding the police does not mean “anarchy” nor that we do nothing to address human distress and crime. Quite the opposite. It means removing money from a system that is hurting people and using that money to 1. increase funding to existing community based services that do meet the needs of people; 2. fund initiatives that address basic human needs (housing, income, shelters, etc.), and 3. create new services that address human distress and crime from a place of compassion and respect. Defunding is about how we want to respond, not whether to respond. For mental health calls, for example, we could have teams of women and men, from different communities in Toronto, trained in trauma informed services and non violent interventions who are available 24-7 to respond to people in distress. This is all possible.
In terms of psychotherapists calling 911, the new regulatory body for Ontario psychotherapists, the College of Registered Psychotherapists of Ontario, sent an email out last week (July 2020) stating: “Recently, public awareness has grown about the sometimes tragic outcomes for people, in particular Black, Indigenous and People of Colour, who experience a mental health crisis in the community. Some RPs [Registered Psychotherapists] are requesting clarification around the need to call 911 for a client who is in crisis….There is no explicit legal requirement to involve emergency services.” [italics are mine]
Times are changing, thankfully. Let’s keep moving forward with a compassionate vision for human services.