Another Poet Dead

- Dec• 21•16

By Carolyn Jackson, ‘94

On most Wednesday afternoons, I attend a poetry workshop at my public library in Morningside Heights. Led by poet Bill Zavatsky, the group is open to anyone, and it attracts a group that is quintessentially New York. I’ve met (among others) a jazz musician, a psychoanalyst, a college student in a designer hijab, a radiologist, a convicted felon, a chiropractor, teachers, and, last spring, an African American woman in her sixties with the demeanor of a church lady.

Deborah came in a little late and sat beside me at the ever-expanding table configuration, accepting Bill’s handouts and poems submitted by other attendees. She mumbled a bit while Bill spoke, but she was affable and the next time she came, she read a poem that she had written. I left town, but while I was gone she went out for ice cream with a young man in the group and later brought snacks for the class. When I returned in the fall, she wasn’t there.

One October Wednesday, Bill told us that Deborah, whose last name was Danner, had been shot and killed in the Bronx by a policeman who responded to neighbors’ complaints about a woman out of control. She had been armed with a pair of scissors and, according to one account, a baseball bat. I’d never known that Deborah suffered from schizophrenia—or that she was an information technology professional or that she had quit coming because the library wouldn’t let her bring in her baskets of belongings. She wasn’t homeless—she had an apartment of her own and a sister who cared about her but was often rebuffed.

Aside from the shock of something gone terribly wrong, I understood my connection to Deborah. My father’s sister had schizophrenia. People with severe mental illness can be challenging. One minute they may be charming and engaging, the next ferocious. My aunt was like that, and, so, apparently, was Deborah.

But the big difference is that my aunt was white and died in her sleep past her 80th year, and Deborah was black. The policeman didn’t use a Taser or wait for back-up, he simply pulled out his gun and shot her. Mayor Bill de Blasio said Deborah didn’t have to die. A police spokesman said he spoke in haste, before a proper investigation. I have heard nothing else. Beyond my hope that perpetrator will never again be allowed to carry a weapon, I want to see police trained to pause before they act. Most do, but experiments have shown that , no matter what our racial identification, our reaction to skin color is deeply ingrained and prejudiced against dark skin. We need to address our approach to mental illness with that in mind.

Just the month before the shooting, in September, we at All Souls gave the Forrest Church Humanitarian Award to the three women—Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, Opal Tumeti— who founded Black Lives Matter. Ever since, I’ve been wearing a rubber bracelet that was created for the occasion. It never occurred to me that someone I knew even casually would soon be shot dead by police. But now I have.

And I hope we won’t turn away.

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