This Is Your Call
content warning: racism, sexism, police brutality, drug use
In a way, I have always been in rebellion. When I was nine, I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism spectrum disorder. And although I’ve now become good enough at faking neurotypicality to appear mostly-normal most of the time, this was not true at all during my childhood and teenage years. From as early on as preschool, my “odd” behavior made me a target not only for the bullying of my fellow students but for the misunderstanding of teachers and a school system that didn’t know how to deal with my differences. Though I was simply being myself, I was perceived from the very start by neurotypical society to be a deliberate agitator; and so my first response was to retreat from that society. To retreat, primarily, into books, and into stories, many of which happened to be stories of a misfit underdog’s rise up to fight against the tyrannical, corrupt, system that was bent on keeping them down.
And though it took me a while to make the connection between these fantasies and the reality I was living in, as I learned more about concepts like “ableism,” and “neurodiversity,” I slowly began to entertain the idea that perhaps “my” problems lay less with me or with my autism than with that neurotypical society and the oppressive cultural institutions that governed it. Slowly, I stopped merely reading these stories and began to write my own stories meant to question the idea that conformity or productivity should be a higher value than acceptance, compassion, or diversity. Stories like that of a young man whose poverty drives him towards drug dealing, a college student whose desperation to live up to harsh academic standards pushes her to use stimulants, a young woman whose yearning to live up to a thin ideal drives her to an eating disorder.
These stories, I hoped, would force readers and audiences into a reckoning with their assumptions and prejudices and the problematic cultural values that gave rise to them, and at least by some small measure, I like to think that they’ve succeeded. But there are times when just writing stories isn’t enough, times when the temptation to retreat into fiction simply cannot be surrendered to, times when action and rebellion is indeed called for. Times like right now. Because while the many ways in which I am privileged have protected me from the worst indignities of this broken world, there are countless others who are not so fortunate, others whose lives are on the line or have already been stolen. Others like Jade Kothe, who died of a preventable heroin overdose this June due to the negligence of the police officers called to come to her aid.
I was one of the many white allies moved to take to the streets for the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, but it was Jade’s story that made me realize how vital it would be to keep up the fight for justice even after the nationwide furor sparked by that indignity began to fade. Unlike the other horrific tales I had heard of black people sentenced to death by the moral bankruptcy of police departments, what had happened to Jade had happened in West Palm Beach, practically in my backyard. And though by then I’d begun attempting to write my own fiction reflecting the grave inequalities that plagued our “justice” system, it turned out that the truth could still be far uglier than even the horrors I had imagined.
No, police officers called to the aid of a girl in the midst of a life-threatening overdose would not only fail to help her but actively prevent her from seeking help; no, they would not make racist and disparaging comments about her even as she lay dying; no, a policeman would not actually stand over her dead body and say “nice rack.” No, the police department would not, nearly three months later, still be refusing to release body cam footage of the incident, forcing her grieving family to fight through layer after layer of bureaucratic bullshit to so much as learn the full truth of their daughter’s death. No, the police would not arrest a handful of the peaceful protestors who showed up at their gates demanding only justice for this innocent girl. But that part I, another of those protestors, saw with my own eyes. These disturbing and dehumanizing details of her death and its aftermath provided a visceral and specific lens through which I could see the costs of police corruption more clearly than ever, reminding me both of the utter necessity of change and my personal stake in making that change happen.
After all, I, like Jade had been, was a young woman in her twenties, a passionate and dedicated artist, and someone who suffered from anxiety and depression and at times found myself abusing substances in an effort to cope. Jade seemed like someone I could’ve been friends with, or who I could have been. But due to some combination of privilege and sheer dumb luck, my struggle was one that I lived to tell about, while some combination of police incompetence and police hatred doomed Jade to perish when she could easily have been saved. Given those stark facts, what right did I have to be here while she was not, and, given that I was, what right did I then have not to take advantage of the fact that I still had a voice while hers had been silenced? What right did I then have not to use that voice to help ensure that those responsible for Jade’s death would be held accountable, or to do all I could to make this world into one that would’ve been fairer to both of us?
Perhaps because it had affected me more personally, bias against those struggling with mental health issues had been a “cause” of mine well before I became more aware of the oppression faced by black people, but Jade’s case showed me how impossible it is to separate the two, and how impossible it is to separate tragedies like hers from their political roots. And as I continued my research into the widespread systemic biases against people of color and people suffering from addiction, I would eventually come to understand that the police’s behavior towards Jade was not something I should have been shocked by but something I should have predicted the same way you predict that any coin tossed often enough will eventually come up “heads,” as well as to realize that the cruel, capitalistic systems that would deny me my full personhood based on my diagnoses and those that would marginalize Jade even further based on her skin color are in fact systems that are one and the same.
This can be further illustrated by other heartbreaking cases like the recent high-profile shooting of Walter Wallace Jr., a black man with bipolar disorder whose mental health crisis ended in his untimely death due to the racism of the police officers called to come to his aid. Or that of Matthew Rushin, a young black man whose autistic symptoms led to his wrongful conviction for an accidental car accident, and whose imprisonment now precludes him from getting proper treatment for his life-threatening medical issues. Or that of Linden Cameron, a thirteen year old with Asperger’s Syndrome whose whiteness did not protect him from becoming a victim of institutional ableism; he was unarmed and in the midst of his own mental health crisis when he was shot in cold blood by a Salt Lake City police officer. Allowing these systems to operate unchecked may pose an extraordinary danger to black lives, but not only to black lives; it poses a danger to whatever lives these forces can see the benefit of devaluing. It poses a danger to anyone who has ever been in rebellion of anything at all.
So, to anyone who’s still standing by when it comes to the movement for black lives, thinking that “it isn’t about them:” you’re wrong. You’re wrong, first, because it is our duty as people to care about other people even when they are different from us, and second, because the greater war that this movement is a part of is as huge and universal as the battle between good and evil itself.
It is the battle between good and evil itself.
The fight for Justice for Jade is part of the same war we fought against slavery, and for gay marriage and for suffrage, the war we fought for reproductive freedom and civil rights. It’s the same war my grandmother was fighting in 1940s Germany when the kindness of strangers kept her out of a concentration camp, the same war my great great grandparents were fighting when they perished in one. The same war we should all be fighting, now, not only against the racist police but against the inhumane crimes now taking place in our own ICE detainment camps, against Israeli oppression of Palestine, against president motherfucking Trump.
So to any other former bookworms who never really stopped waiting for the day they’d get “the call:” this is it. As of right now, you are the chosen one and it’s up to you to help keep your neighbors safe. This is your sign, this is your prophecy; this is your favorite dystopian movie where the little guys fire back against the villainous overlords, and congratulations, you’ve got a starring role. This is Hamilton and Schindler’s List and Les Miserables; this is Star Wars and Harry Potter and 1984, and it’s also bigger than any of them, because this time, it isn’t just a story; this time, the stakes are all too real. This is it, that epic war you’ve been waiting for: and guess what, it’s already been going on for years.
At the first protest I attended in the wake of Jade’s death, I remember yelling louder than I had at any protest before. I remember how different the energy was from that of those other protests, the air pulsing with our barely contained rage. I remember feeling the weight of the moment, feeling heartbroken that I had to be there, screaming towards the uncaring ears of the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office on behalf of a girl who would never again be able to speak for herself, heartbroken for all the beauty that that girl would now never be able to bring to the world and heartbroken for the family that mourned her. Yet I also remember feeling heartened, heartened that so many comrades still cared enough to scream and march with me, even as the COVID-19 pandemic continued to rage, and I remember feeling more centered, more like myself, than I had in months. I remember feeling the power of knowing that what I was doing was absolutely necessary and absolutely right. It still is absolutely right, and this call is not one we can afford to fail to heed. We cannot stop until we have justice for Jade, and justice for all.
Ilana Jael (she/her) is a playwright, essayist, and contributing writer at Story Girl Magazine who uses her artistic voice to advocate for social change. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College and is currently living in Lake Worth, Florida.