There were more than a dozen of them Tuesday, bundled under layers of warm pants, coats and hats, fending against temperatures that sometimes dropped into the teens and standing up for the mentally ill who they believe too often are policed in lieu of being treated.
After a night in colorful tents, they stood in clusters on a frigid edge of the DeKalb County Courthouse, chatting among themselves and with curious passersby, some veterans like Anthony Hill, the man who’d brought them here.
You might remember him only as the naked unarmed Afghanistan war veteran shot and killed March 9, but Hill was much more than that.
He was a mother’s son, his girlfriend Bridget Anderson told me. He was kind. He loved kids. He had hopes and dreams. He was looking forward to the weather warming up and teaching teens in his neighborhood how to skateboard in exchange for soccer lessons.
After three years of dating, Anderson was familiar with Hill’s demons, including depression and bi-polar disorder.
But nothing could’ve prepared her for the call from his roommate that day. Anthony was in trouble. Anderson left work early to get to him, but about halfway between Macon and Atlanta, the roommate called back. Anthony was dead.
And so here she was, huddled against the elements and the man who killed Anthony, Officer Robert Olsen, hoping a grand jury that convened Thursday would issue an indictment against him.
But this wasn’t just about getting justice for Anthony. It was also Anderson’s way of honoring two of the most important men in her life: Anthony and slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who also suffered from depression.
Nelini Stamp was among those standing with Anderson, passing out purple and green ribbons to remind them of Anthony’s death and raise awareness about mental illness. Purple was Anthony’s favorite color. Green is a symbol of the month-long national Green Ribbon Campaign set to kick off in May to bring awareness to mental health issues. According to a 2013 estimate by the Treatment Advocacy Center and the National Sheriffs’ Association, half the people shot and killed by police nationwide have mental health problems.
In 44 states, more people with mental illness are in jail or prison than are in state mental hospitals, according to the advocacy center. Nearly 20 percent of jail inmates and 15 percent of state prison inmates have a serious mental illness.
Stamp, 28, is co-director of Rise Up Georgia, a community-based organization that fights for social and economic justice.
Soon after Hill was shot last March, her group joined with Black Lives Matter to help raise awareness about police shootings in DeKalb County.
It was a particularly salient moment because DeKalb County Chief of Police Cedric Alexander was serving on President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. And not just serving, he was appearing on the television circuit saying people had every right to be outraged about the slew of police shootings occurring across the country.
Stamp doesn’t disagree with that. She was among those who felt outraged. Just listening to Alexander made the rage bubble to the surface once again because as she put it, “the same thing was happening in his backyard.”
Rise Up reached out to Anderson, who’d been single-handedly waging a war of her own, organizing veterans and folk in the mental health community to work for changes in the way the mentally ill are treated by law enforcement.
When a grand jury split on whether charges should be brought against Olsen but recommended further investigation, an alarm went off in the women.
They knew they had to act.
Early this month District Attorney Robert James announced plans to seek a six-count indictment, including felony murder, against Olsen. A grand jury is scheduled to convene Thursday.
“That’s when we knew we had to organize and have a public presence here,” Stamps said, referring to the demonstration her group has convened on the front lawn of the county courthouse.
The fact that Georgia had not indicted a police officer since 2010 weighed heavy on her.
And so on the day set aside to remember slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Stamp, Anderson and more than a dozen others set up camp to watch and wait, practicing, as Stamp put it, “exactly what Dr. King promoted, non-violent civil resistance.
They wanted an indictment against Olsen and to see a mental health unit established similar to one in San Antonio that would provide special training to police, sheriff’s deputies, jails, courts, hospitals and county mental health officials on how to properly respond to calls dealing with the mentally ill.
Late Thursday, they got the indictment but will have to wait and see if the mental health unit comes to fruition.
The focus now, Stamp said, should be on helping the mental ill get the care they need.
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