They didn’t shoot me — or kneel on my neck until I stopped breathing — even though I didn’t comply with their commands. I’m a Black man in the South, alive because I was treated like a full-complex human being made in God’s image and worthy of respect.
A 32-year-old white man named Tony Timpa is dead in a different part of the South, a region known for centuries-long mistreatment of Black people at the hands of those trained and paid to protect us. He died at the hands, or I should say knee, of Dallas police and in the presence of other first responders who mocked him as he took his final breaths.
Black men are killed disproportionately by police. And yet, this Black man is alive — while that white man should not be dead.
I’m a professor at Davidson College in North Carolina and a writer for McClatchy. On Sept. 10, I suffered a first-ever seizure at the age of 50, likely stemming from decades-deep personal trauma, a seizure so severe my muscles pulled my left shoulder out of its socket and fractured it.
On another September morning seven years ago, Timpa, a schizophrenic off his meds who had ingested illegal drugs, called for help.
I am alive. While recovering, I’ve been receiving free home-cooked meals from concerned colleagues and have been the subject of prayer chains initiated by those who know me well and those who don’t.
Timpa’s parents recently completed an exhausting court battle that led to a $1 million settlement for their surviving grandson, though their fight for real justice for their son continues.
It’s one of the most underappreciated and under-discussed aspects of the ongoing debate about policing in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, which sparked unprecedented civil unrest in 2020. Chronic illness, which can occasionally blossom into an acute mental health crisis, is a major driver of chaotic encounters with police and other first responders that end in death.
Because of race, or the way people like me have been racialized, the roots of my mental health emergency are decades-deep, centuries even, though chronic illness isn’t only the result of race.
I wasn’t taught to just grin and bear whatever life threw at me, but to count everything as a blessing, even the things that hurt, especially the things that hurt. They were opportunities to demonstrate a deep-abiding faith in God. It’s not coincidence that Black people are the most religious group in the country, particularly Southerners. It helped us make sense of a world, one in which we were lynched in the public square and deemed lazy after being worked literally to death on plantations, that didn’t.
The development of Black grit wasn’t a luxury. It was necessity. That grit wasn’t borne entirely of a nobility to be my best self, but an attempt at escaping racist stereotypes that thrust me right into the arms of potentially-lifelong or fatal health maladies.
Public health researcher Arline Geronimus of Michigan University wrote in “Weathering: The Extraordinary Stress of Ordinary Life in an Unjust Society, “My research shows that pervasive racist and classist ideologies activate biological processes that wear out the physical and mental health of people of color across all economic classes, if to different degrees.”
The whispers are unrelenting.
Black people are lazy.
Black people make too many excuses.
Black people want everything handed to them.
I was also trying to outrun the effects of decades-deep personal trauma: watching my dad beat my mom; my hero-oldest brother going to prison; living in deep poverty in a region that treated the wearing of dark skin like an unforgivable sin; investigating why my youngest brother’s girlfriend was murdered in a drive-by shooting; speaking with a severe stutter and being deemed too dumb to talk; and watching a gaggle of aunts and uncles die young from every scary disease imaginable.
We spend our lives trying to outrun racism and its effects, often successfully, if only superficially. That drive landed me in an elite private college as an undergraduate, and later as a professor. It got me invited to Harvard University for a year, allowed me to teach at Ivy League Columbia University, led to my writing multiple books and being published in numerous local, regional and national outlets. By every reasonable definition, it has thrust me into the privileged class, one in which I don’t worry about a $400 emergency the way millions of Americans do.
“In a particularly perverse irony, Black people who have achieved a measure of socioeconomic security or upward mobility — those who most actively counter the concrete threats of racism to their well-being and live in sync with core American values of ‘working hard and playing by the rules’ — face unique assaults on their health,” Geronimus has found.
The most prolific thief of healthy Black life isn’t intra-race violence or encounters with police. It’s chronic disease with roots in the weathering effects of oppression at the societal level.
“This shocking disparity was attributable not to guns or needles but, much more importantly, to chronic disease,” Geronimus found. “In subsequent research, we found the odds of a young Black person in a high-poverty area (or their white Appalachian counterpart) reaching age fifty alive and able-bodied was a mere 50 percent; the vast majority of US white youth can expect to both survive and be able-bodied at fifty, with decades of healthy life ahead of them. In the disinvested high-poverty Black and white locales we studied, we found that those who hadn’t died by middle age spent as much as 30 percent of their lives disabled.”
Despite a diagnosed PTSD, a chronic-illness triggered brush with death a decade ago and that Sept. 10 seizure, I count myself among the able-bodied. I’ve been celebrated as one of the overcomers, a person to be looked up to for having endured.
But I’d rather be healthy than fodder for an inspirational story. I’d rather have lived in a country where equality was the reality and institutional racism wasn’t. Civil rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer famously said she was sick and tired of being sick and tired as she fought the scourges of discrimination. I’m just sick and tired of being sick.
“They’re here,” my wife told the 911 operator as she was bathed in the red lights of emergency vehicles in the parking lot outside our window that Sept. 10 day. It was about 3 a.m. My wife pointed the small contingent of white men in uniforms to the second floor where my nephew was holding my head in a position to assure my breathing passage was clear. He was visiting while on leave from the military where he had learned first aid.
My wife followed the emergency crew up the stairs. They asked her my name. She told them. My then-21-year-old son bowed his head and silently prayed.
I tried to get up out of the bed. The first responders urged me not to. I did not comply, wanting them to leave me alone. I got aggressive and loud when they tried to measure my vitals. My left shoulder had been dislocated and fractured sometime shortly before they had arrived. Their touch was like torture.
They did not know about the excruciating pain. They could not have known.
No one could tell them, not even me. I was in a dream state, unable to communicate.
I had just experienced the first major seizure of my five decades of living, possibly a trauma response that dates to when I was a little boy. I’ve since learned I had been having mini nonviolent seizures for more than the past year.
I remember little about the seizure. This retelling is mostly from the recollections of my wife and others in the room. I wouldn’t fully awaken until in the emergency room at a hospital in Charlotte. That I got there at all was the miracle.
I didn’t know it at the time — because I was literally out of my mind — but that early September morning, I was the central character in a scene that has too many times ended in outrage and with hashtags.
My wife had called 911 after hearing me make strange noises in bed. She shook me but couldn’t bring me back to full consciousness. Within minutes, a gaggle of first responders was in the apartment complex’s parking lot, firefighters and EMTs armed with medical equipment, and a Davidson College police officer armed with a high-powered weapon.
It happened during an era in which it isn’t uncommon to hear police officers argue in favor of a comply-or-die standard or for most of the public to agree with that sentiment, an era in which too many calls for help have ended with the distressed person dead — like Tony Timpa, who was knelt on and forced into the prone position on the ground for 14 minutes.
The rush of electrical activity that exploded in my brain during the seizure rendered me incapable of following any commands. I had no say over my fate, which was fully in the hands of the men who showed up at my apartment. I couldn’t save myself. I couldn’t help others save me.
Instead of putting a bullet in my head or a knee on my neck, they tranquilized me, carried me out of the room on a tarp and got me into an ambulance. I suffered no harm beyond the dislocated-fractured shoulder caused by the seizure. Everything that could have gone wrong went right.
I was the former football player-looking Black man defying commands, the kind of stranger who has too often been killed or hurt by first responders who later claimed they meant no harm but were only bracing and protecting themselves just in case the stranger was a threat. Because they must get home safe to their families. Because they’re lives matter. Because it’s unreasonable to expect them to not protect themselves – just in case.
The grieving parents of Tony Timpa don’t get to tell the story I’m getting to tell. Their 32-year-old son was having a medical emergency. First responders laughed and joked while he slowly died face down in the grass. It took several years before Timpa’s parents were allowed to see the bodycam footage and sue those involved. Not one of the cops or first responders involved in the incident was charged or disciplined.
“Tell your children not to call 911 when they need help,” Vicki Timpa said after a civil jury determined her son’s rights were violated by the cop who knelt on her son but that he was shielded by qualified immunity.
Threat to justice
The EMTs who showed up at my apartment didn’t mock my disoriented state. They explained to my wife everything they were doing to me. As she rushed to follow the ambulance to the hospital, Davidson College police officer Stephen Fabros reminded her he would help in anything he could.
There was a compassion in their actions, my wife later told me, as though they wanted to relieve her burden as much as possible, or at least not add to it. “It seemed like they understood it was scary for us,” my wife said. “They were kind.”
The cop whose knee was on Timpa’s back as life slowly leaked from his body said he did nothing wrong.
The odds suggest I was more likely to die than Timpa because unarmed Black men are three times more likely to be killed than white men during such encounters. I’ve written about those stories, taught them, know them well.
What’s even more true is that people with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed and account for between a quarter to a half of all such deaths, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center.
The weathering effects of racism means a higher proportion of Black people will suffer from chronic illnesses, including the kinds that trigger acute mental health crises. But there’s no reason to be surprised that even a white man like Timpa can be killed during such incidents. It means that the fight to ensure Black lives matter is neither separate from nor in tension with the one to ensure that all lives do.
As Martin Luther King Jr. told us long ago, a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. It’s not happenstance that since before the founding of this country, Black people have been on the wrong side of disparities. Finding an effective treatment for that illness would make us all healthier, safer from dangers known and unanticipated.
How I wish Timpa had received during his most vulnerable moment the caring response I received during mine. How I wish everyone who feels compelled to dial 911 in a scary moment is greeted by first responders like those who showed up at my apartment – equal parts compassion and competence — no matter their race, no matter if they are a college professor at a wealthy high-profile private college or a schizophrenic acting erratically in public.
That I’m here to tell you this proves it’s possible.
And, no. It’s not lost on me that I’m celebrating having not been killed during an incident in which I wouldn’t comply because I couldn’t. The bar has been set that low.
It’s a crime we’ve allowed it to remain there for so long.
Issac Bailey is a McClatchy Opinion writer in North and South Carolina.