What’s behind involuntary commitment? – a WW commentary

Eric Adams, a man who prides himself on bringing some “swagger” back to the New York City mayoral office, has seemingly made good on his promise. Near the end of November, Mayor Adams announced a plan to involuntarily commit homeless people to mental institutions. This is just another step in the ever-increasing power of the carceral state.

As more and more people become aware of the carceral state and the way it employs law enforcement in service, rebellions against police brutality and its harmful effects increased in the late 2010s and early 2020s. What isn’t known, however, is the way law enforcement and other organs of the carceral state weaponize involuntary commitment in order to punish people of color, especially if they are Black, in disproportionate numbers.

In 2020 in Florida, a tragic case involving a 6-year-old girl falling victim to the state’s Baker Act made headlines. This Act, employed to involuntarily commit individuals for 72 hours, was weaponized to traumatize an innocent child, who was trying to get an education, leaving her with a psychological scar that will likely never heal. A similar incident happened to a 6-year-old boy in 2022.

Six-year-old Nadia King, shown with her mother Martina Falk, was involuntarily committed for 72 hours under Florida’s Baker Act.

What makes the 2020 incident even more heartbreaking is that this girl was Black and had autism. Her traumatic experiences were indicative of the way children of color are treated, not only by law enforcement but by the same mental health system that purports to “make a difference.”

The terror of involuntary commitment Black people often face harms far more people than it claims to help.

Hitting close to home

Involuntary commitment has impacted someone I know. A while ago, a victim of sexual assault in school and being demonized and blamed for it by teachers and counselors, they decided to run away from home in order to spare their family the shame and embarrassment.

Being underage and not being able to acquire a job, they asked for food stamps, naively thinking they would get them. What followed was a campaign of “gaslighting,” coercion and psychological subterfuge to find any reason or excuse to involuntarily commit them into a psychological institution.

This went as far as violating the rights of their family in order to “secure custody,” in order to ship them off into an institution where they had to endure months of more sexual abuse, lies and manipulation, all the while being force-fed multiple antidepressants against their will.

Looking back, they did not perceive it as helpful and beneficial in any way, shape or form. And as a matter of fact, they still suffer from PTSD as a result of having had their civil rights violated in despicable and unnecessary acts.

And they are not alone in experiencing this. People institutionalized against their will report not being helped or comforted but rather being violated, abused and manipulated by the “treatment” they received in inpatient mental health clinics. Which begs the question: What’s the purpose of taking people and stripping them of their rights and their autonomy?

Punishing children, activists

The purpose is to demonize and further oppress marginalized people who are the most vulnerable. There have been numerous reports and stories about involuntary commitment being used on people of color. What is more horrifying is that disabled and neurodivergent people are frequent victims of involuntary hospitalization. The aforementioned case of the 6-year-old with autism is an indicator of how the system treats neurodivergent children.

Children on the spectrum are up to six times more likely to be institutionalized than children who are not on the spectrum. (National Library of Medicine) And this is happening as neoliberal-influenced school districts across the country are gutting funding for “special education” programs.

Beyond targeting vulnerable people, involuntary hospitalization has been used as a tool of power to disarm and silence dissenters who have either rebelled against the U.S. capitalism paradigm or fought for racial equality.

During the Sanco and Vanzetti trials of the 1920s, when two Italian immigrant anarchist activists were executed following a sham of a trial, a young activist named Aurora D’Angelo was forced into a mental asylum for protesting the injustice.

In 1958, Pastor Clennon King, registered as a student at the University of Mississippi, was sent to a mental institution, because, according to the Jim Crow laws of the time, “only insanity could make a Black man think he could apply to the university.” (reddit.com)

Imagine anyone thinking that pursuing a higher education renders you a threat to yourself and others around you!

With the wave of anti-LGBTQ2S+ laws sweeping the country and the persistent demonization of trans people in the media, anyone who challenges the patriarchal cultural paradigm in any way, shape or form is especially in danger of being committed in today’s political climate.

One cannot go one second without hearing a “talking head” on the news ramble on about how “gender ideologists” are “mentally ill and corrupting the youth.” This pontification will likely lead to trans people bearing the brunt of what will likely be increasingly draconian institutionalization laws.

Combine this with the fact that transgender individuals are more likely to be homeless than other populations, the target on their backs will be even bigger, including in Adams’ New York City.

Involuntary hospitalization is seldom talked about as a violation of a person’s humanity, but it is another form of violence as police brutality. It is time to bring this inhumane practice into the spotlight and call it out for what it is: another form of repression.

Olujimi Alade

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Olujimi Alade

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