I am a disability justice attorney, and my mentally ill stepbrother, Marzeus Scott, was killed by the police while in crisis in Blytheville, Ark. Watching the Walter Wallace Jr. shooting, and seeing his mom’s predicament, reignited a feeling of helplessness that is all too familiar to my family. I think back to times where calling the cops felt like my only option for getting my stepbrother the help he so desperately needed. In truth, it was the only accessible option for a working-class family unable to afford the appropriate private inpatient care and services.
It is not lost on me that Walter Wallace’s siblings called 911. I can’t stop thinking about how not too long ago I would have done the same, and even with all my legal training and knowledge of the system, I’m not sure my decision would be any different now.
Just two weeks ago my mom called me panicking about my nephew, who also has a severe mental illness and was in crisis. My mom was afraid that he would harm himself or others, so she did the only thing she knew to do – call the police. She called with the weight of knowing that only a year and a half earlier my stepbrother was murdered by the police while in crisis. My mom called me asking for advice on options. After all, I was now a disability justice attorney.
But I couldn’t help her, because other options don’t exist. Before calling me, my mom tried calling everywhere she knew to get him help. No one could help her. Only after exhausting all other options, backed into an unfortunate corner, did she call the police.
Now she was calling me asking what she could do differently. I knew the conundrum we were in, and the answer was there was no alternative available to her. What was there to do but call the police when a society has underinvested in financially feasible community mental health services and completely ignored all other alternatives for de-escalation and safety? What is the right thing to do in a situation when the threat of self-harm or harm against the other members of the family is high? What options do you have when the system has failed to even attempt to train families in de-escalation techniques? My mom chose the only option available to her, a poor Black woman who is doing the best for her family.
This is the situation a lot of families find themselves in. My mother is Walter Wallace’s mother. I am Walter Wallace’s siblings. Until we really appreciate the dire circumstances families find themselves in regarding our broken mental health system, we will continue to see harm to one of our most vulnerable populations. If given the opportunity and the resources, I am 1,000% sure Walter Wallace’s siblings, and my mom, would not have made that 911 call. However, as a society, we refuse to give families the resources necessary to help our loved ones, because maybe underneath it all the fullness of Walter Wallace’s identity wasn’t important to the public before he died.
Walter Wallace wasn’t just a Black man who experienced police violence. He was a Black man in a severe mental health crisis who experienced police violence.
The intersection matters because the intersection of disability and race is deadly, and families are left to make unimaginable choices.
If the Walter Wallaces and Marzeus Scotts of the world truly matter to the public, I am asking as a family member of a mentally ill Black man that you show they matter beyond this heightened moment by organizing and pressing your local and federal governments to invest in mental health services and alternatives to law enforcement involvement with mental health crises.
Kee Tobar is a disability justice attorney at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. She has an expertise in the intersections of race and disability and age. Before becoming a disabilities justice attorney, she worked as a civil rights attorney focusing on juvenile justice and national child welfare issues.