When a 9-year-old girl is pepper-sprayed by New York police officers, don’t ask me why I fear having children

I’ve experienced firsthand what it feels like to be handcuffed and taken to a state psychiatric hospital. I also cried out for my father as I strained against the handcuffs that chained me to the back of a police van

Nylah Burton
New York
Monday 01 February 2021 19:45 GMT
Rochester police pepper spray 9 year-old in body camera footage

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a powerful desire to be a mother. However, I’m a Black woman with bipolar disorder, so I’m scared to bring children into this world. 

For a long time, I thought this fear meant my illness rendered me unworthy of both creating and nurturing life. During a mixed episode — mania mixed with depression, the most dangerous episode a bipolar person can have —  a little over a year ago, I repeatedly said, “People like me don’t deserve to have children.” 

Then, this morning, I found myself watching a video of a nine-year-old girl in Rochester, New York being brutalized and pepper-sprayed by police officers in response to her family’s reports that the girl was “suicidal” and “wanted to kill her mother.” Grown adults — most of whom appeared to be men — with guns and tasers and chemical weapons treated a Black girl in psychological anguish as if she were an animal. 

At that moment, I was reminded that most of my fear of bringing children into this world is not because I’m ashamed of myself. It’s because I’m fearful of my children having my illness, and being stigmatized, brutalized, or even killed for it. 

For mentally ill Black children, their age and lack of power is of no consequence. 

In the video of the incident, one officer says, "You're acting like a child."

"I am a child!" the girl responds. This little Black girl was stripped of her right to compassionate care, her right to be seen as she is — a baby, a minor, someone precious and vulnerable. 

The world shows no grace to Black people, and it shows even less grace to Black women, girls, and other marginalized genders. If you’re a little Black girl with mental health issues, the world often treats you like a beast to be tamed. And if you cannot be tamed to their satisfaction, then sometimes, they try to put you down. 

I’ve experienced firsthand what it feels like to be handcuffed and taken to a state psychiatric hospital, all because I was tired of living and wanted to go home and lie in bed with my stuffed animals. Like that nine-year-old girl from Rochester, I also cried out for my father as I strained against the handcuffs that chained me to the back of a police van. 

When I think of that incident, my heart breaks. I never want any child of mine to experience that. But how can I keep them safe in a world that sees distressed Black children as something to defend against rather than to protect? 

It’s easy to say that, as a parent, I would simply not call the police to interfere in my child’s mental distress. But the world will make me no such promises. 

In February 2020, six-year-old Nadia King was taken from her elementary school and committed to a mental health facility. School administrators and teachers told the police that Nadia was  “a threat to herself and others” and was “out of control.” However, in a video, one of the officers notes the girl’s sweet behavior and calm demeanor, suspecting that the school saw behavior they interpreted as “abnormal” and didn’t handle it correctly. 

“She is fine. There is nothing wrong with her,” the officer tells her partner in the video. “She’s been actually very pleasant.”

I’m glad that that officer was able to see the discrepancy between how Nadia was described and how she actually behaved. But what if Nadia hadn’t been sweet, or pleasant? What if there was something very wrong?

It’s easy to say that mental illness is the problem. But that’s reductive, and it shields the world from having to examine their own culpability and complicity in systemic ableism.

The nine-year-old girl from Rochester who is now all over the news was already in distress. Then she was exposed to state violence. I’m sure that her parents were frightened, and may not have known what to do to help their child. Still, she will carry those scars with her. She will nurse the memory of that day for a very long time, perhaps the rest of her life. 

If we are to make this world safer for Black children experiencing mental health issues — including chronic mental illnesses and autism — we must abolish the police state, which responds to distress with brutality. And we must also examine our responses to mentally ill people, including our automatic assumption that all of them are dangerous. Regardless of media portrayals, mentally ill people are much more likely to be harmed than to cause harm. And when it comes to elementary-aged children interacting with adults who have infinitely more power over them, that danger is even more real. 

I don’t know what to do about my fears of having children with mental illness, my fear of having to worry about them being brutalized by people they know, or by the state. All I can do is try my best to speak out, and to create a world where Black girls are held when they’re in pain, not wrestled to the ground. 

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