Sunday, June 21, 2020

On Policing: Checking Up or Checking In

Two things happened recently that have me thinking about the nature of policing of one another beyond blue uniforms. It's that policing attitude I'm questioning.

#1. At an online meeting with an admin of my high school, we were told our marks are due Monday morning, a few days ahead of our typical schedule, and then it was suggested that we'll have to figure out how to continue delivering content to the end of the week even after the kids know their marks are in. In an earlier meeting, a colleague expressed concerns about students who finish their 3 hours of work in one day and have no work for the rest of the week. We have this weird idea that school is about keeping students busy so that they'll stay out of trouble. One reason for truancy laws is still to "Get kids off the street and get rid of daytime crime." In the classroom, we're cautioned not to let kids leave early or else we're liable for anything that happens to them until the final bell rings. The one thing that I absolutely love about distance learning is no longer having to track attendance and lates, and no longer being remotely (ha!) responsible for whether or not they're dressed appropriately or eating or playing a game on their phone during class. I just offer an opportunity for learning, and it's entirely up to them to seize the day! If the kids finish early, or if school finishes early, I shouldn't be expected to entertain them. They should be free to discover and develop their own forms of entertainment! There is a potential for creativity to flourish in the absence of make-work activities. I gave them their final marks last Thursday, even! Let the wild rumpus begin!!

There's also the possibility that the request to continue teaching right to the last day of June is to better track teacher behaviour. We're often reminded to make sure we aren't seen outside in such a way that could make the public question the effort we're putting into our job. I promise I'm not ripping off the taxpayers by ending class rather than dragging it out with extra projects to appease my admin. If I punched a clock monitoring my 8 hours of daily work, I'd be into next February by now.

However, there is another type of extra-educational monitoring that is absent during distance learning. A SickKids expert, Dr. Ronald Cohn, said that he's losing sleep over how important it is that we all be back in school in September because of consequences to kids beyond Covid19, which include, "delayed diagnosis and care for medical conditions . . . impacts on children's behaviour and mental health, and exposure to child abuse, violence, and neglect." People who work in schools, teachers, CYWs, admin, secretaries, EAs, and custodial staff, etc. are often the first to notice many issues that should be raised as concerns to the appropriate professionals. I really don't care if students wear spaghetti strap sleeves in the classroom, copying my fine example or otherwise, but I do care if students are wearing sandals in the winter because they don't have any boots. It's important that we are always noticing any signs of neglect or abuse or distress, and then checking in with them, but it's that policing of kids that I object to as a teacher.

#2. After staying up late to post my marks, I woke up extra early Friday morning to get in a bike ride before the official school day start time, but my plans were derailed by a strange figure on the lounger on my back deck. I waited a moment at the patio door to assess the situation. Seeing only the hair outside a blanket at first, I thought it was my daughter, choosing mosquitos over the heat of our second floor. But no. So, maybe a it was someone taking a break from stumbling home from a neighbour's party. My street is frequently full of music, loud talking, and the smell of weed about an hour after the screaming children phase of the evening. So I followed the tried and true "do unto others"  and asked, "Are you okay? Can I get you a cup of tea?" If I ever end up in slumbering in a stranger's backyard, that's exactly how I'd like to be awakened: a cup of tea and a bit of time to sort myself out before continuing my journey (like this Scottish dude).

Her first motion was to check if her wig was on correctly. It was about the same colour and length of my daughter's hair, but a second look revealed matted clumps throughout. "Sure," she answered a bit startled, "two milk, two sugars."

We were dressed in the same outfit: black lycra shorts and a long greenish t-shirt. My shirt was plain, but hers had a large flower on the one side.

I went back inside and instantly regretted my offer. The kettle was taking forever. A glass of water would have been so much faster. I glanced back outside and she was up and pacing now with her blanket/shawl around her, looking nervously in my kitchen window, but thankfully making no moves to follow me in. After about a million years, I brought out a cup for her and one for me, and motioned for her to please, do have a seat back on the lounger as I took a seat on my steps to the house. Covid completely slipped my mind at this point, but I gave my hands and her cup a throughout washing later, and the span from lounger to steps was easily 2 metres.

She couldn't manage the tea with one hand because of the shakes, and I found myself talking to her like I would one of my children, "Two hands, honey." It reminded me of a cook from a restaurant where I worked in my late teens, who needed a little extra something in his coffee each morning to help with the DTs. We teased him about it all the time as if his addiction was for our entertainment.

She apologized for being there. Apparently she often wakes up in weird places. I assured her, "Don't worry about it" and tried to fish for a home base or if she was aware of local shelters and the food bank. I didn't want to just come out and offer assistance when none had been requested; that seemed somehow disrespectful: "Hey! Nice to meet you; you look like you could use directions to the food bank!!" She listed off a few neurological conditions to explain her presence, and I noticed a hospital band on her wrist, "Do you need help to get back to the hospital? It's just around the corner!" I pointed the way, but she insisted she was fine now. Then she told me about her life, all the places she had lived, and the many famous men she had dated or been married to, and then she demonstrated how she can see through time.

"Do you have shoes?" I noticed her bare feet and tried to hide a sudden revulsion. Her hands were neatly manicured and often absentmindedly twirling her hair, but her toenails were long and gnarled. One toe appeared to end a little too soon in a large scab.

"Oh! My shoes! I have so many shoes, but I lose a pair every day!"

"It's nice to walk in bare feet sometimes," I reassured her as pleasantly as I could.

She asked me about my garden and my cats, and very politely asked if I happened to smoke. As she relaxed with me a bit, the blanket came off her shoulders, and I realized that big flower shape on one side of her shirt was not a design, but a wet mark. The lounger had one to match, but much, much larger. I think I could collect enough pee for a drug test by squeezing out that cushion.

And in light of her former relationship with Putin, I wondered if the neurological diagnoses were real or a way to rationalize addition and mental health problems, or both. It's still seen as better, despite so many many efforts to de-stigmatize mental health issues, to present with a brain disorder, as if mental illness is a moral flaw.

I listened a while, finished my tea, then told her I should get back to work and that she should probably be on her way. She graciously handed me her cup, and we said good-bye. And then I spent the rest of the day second guessing everything I had done and said and thought.

I called the hospital immediately to see if they were missing any patients, but no code yellow had been called. I considered jumping on my bike to find her with some fruit and a clean shirt. I wouldn't have a pair of shorts to fit or shoes, but I have many oversized shirts she could have chosen from. But I just stayed home, pacing in the kitchen. Biking up to her might have terrified her, right??

Was giving her tea a bad idea? Will she come back for more? Is it a problem if she comes back for more? Should I toss the lounger or leave it at the garage end of the driveway, behind the car, rinsed clean-ish by the rain, in case someone needs a bit of privacy and a comfortable place to lie down, or is that just asking for trouble - a too easy venue for fornicating teens?

Would offering a bucket of warm soapy water to soak her feet in, with all the symbolism that entails,  be an act of judgement or an act of kindness? What about toenail clippers? And now I'm finally back to that notion of policing from the first scenario. It feels like a healthy instinct to be repulsed by open sores and dirt and urine soaked clothes. And it feels like there's an instinct missing to be oblivious to a certain state of neglect. But I have a few favourite outfits with a small stains or a hole or rip that I continue to wear, and I know what it's like to have others scrutinize that decision. That droplet-sized memento of a past meal isn't harming anyone, but it decreases my status in our consumerist class structure, same with the mismatched plates in the cupboard, and the wild flowers in my garden some neighbours are itching to weed for me, and the scant groceries in my fridge, which could become an assessment tool for Family and Children Services.

Is helping someone by suggesting they need to clean themselves similar to when people help by randomly pulling "weeds" from my garden that I wanted there?? Is it like people who comment on someone's weight out of concern. Are they really worried about their health or just programmed to ostracize offending non-conformists like they're Donald Sutherland at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, pointing and screaming at any odd behaviour. My visitor seemed like a child needing tending, but that, too, is a condescending view of someone who's close to my own age. An adult making questionable choices needs to figure their path for themselves, but to what extent is it really a choice when they're so oblivious to their own self??

I considered calling the cops, but didn't, and I wondered how much of my decision is due to recent events. And then I read this: "A recent review of the use of conducted energy weapons by Canadian RCMP officers (2002-2008) found that stun guns were deployed in 50% of mental health/suicidal incidents [76] compared to 39% of non-mental health cases" (32). And this: in the U.S. people with an overt mental illness make up 25% of all fatal police interactions. This all happened a day before the case in Mississauga, where the police were concerned about Ejaz Ahmed Choudry self-harming, and they ended up fatally shooting him. And I hadn't yet heard about Regis Korchinski-Paquet or Chantel Moore.

I hit up social media for other ideas. Many said I should have yelled at her to keep her off my property. This anger seems to be in part from a perceived violation of territory regardless her intention or the ability to have an intention, and in part from fear. What if she were dangerous? It just took a second to figure out she was completely non-threatening. I could be wrong, but I could be wrong about everyone I meet, and there's a cost to living defensively.

The Really Controversial Bit

By late afternoon, I was finally convinced by friends who thought I should at least call the non-emergency police number in order to "track" her whereabouts, and in case she moves in to the neighbourhood. I didn't want to put her under extrajudicial surveillance, but I called in case the police could offer more assistance. They said they couldn't do anything now that she was long gone, but the dispatch officer assured me they could offer her immediate access to mental health agencies in the region if she comes back.

It doesn't make sense to avoid agencies that have a set of expertise in these areas, but I'm also affected by complaints about racist or cruel social workers and family case workers. And any time police show up, it just makes everything a little more frightening. In any profession, there will be some people who enjoy the power they have over people. It's terrifying in the police force because they come armed, so I'm all for reducing their capacity to kill others. But it's also terrifying in family care if a misperception leads to reduced access to children. There was that NYU incident of blatant racism between social work students. Prejudice is everywhere, so of course it's going to end up in these fields as well. Every field has their worst offenders, so power has to be in check and monitored by unaffiliated organizations. Or something!!

After all my sharing of 'defund the police' posts, this was an excellent hands on experience to see who else can help. Someone suggested calling 911 and requesting a paramedic, but it doesn't work like that, and it wasn't an emergency. Right now, there is no mental health agency that will come to the scene. There's no CYW to call who will follow up on any concerns like we have at school. If we really want to decrease the scope of police services, we have to massively broaden mental health services, get them out on the streets, and train them with an anti-racist lens.

And I also wonder about getting more general training for everyone on how to talk to someone in distress and how to recognize real danger instead of just telling us to stay away from anyone a little different and to let the experts handle it. As Disability Justice Organizer, Stefanie Kaufman-Mthimkhulu, argues, we need more peer supports and community response networks, like Project LETS that trains peer support workers. Here she quotes Morgan Page and Anne Thériault to help explain her position.
“'Replace the cops with mental health workers!” is a really well-intentioned statement, but the current mental health system is also a white-dominated, violent, coercive, and unaccountable structure that disproportionately harms people of color.' . . . . 'There is so much harm, disempowerment and dehumanization that can be done to you “for your own good". . . . Psychiatric institutions are, in fact, part of the carceral state. This means that they are part of the many systems that function to: contain people, take away their locus of control, offer surveillance, isolate them from their communities, and limit their freedom.' . . . Peer support means that people who share aspects of identity or lived experience can offer culturally and socially competent, accessible, and unique forms of mental health care through support and advocacy services."
My visitor wasn't posing a threat to themselves (beyond a rash from wet shorts) or to anyone else, but I am worried about her, and, like when kids are learning online from home, there's no real monitoring available, no face-to-face check-ins to make sure things are actually okay and then attending to them, to give them our attention, not our scrutiny. It's a tricky line to walk, and impossible to implement after you provoke them to walk away.

Something like that.


Lorne said...

Thanks for posting. You have obviously given a great deal of thought and reflection on how to respond to a situation that mirrors some of today's uncomfortable realities, Marie.

Marie Snyder said...

Thanks, Lorne.