On Saturday, December 8th my brother Bartholomew Williams, Bart to us, was shot and killed by Cal State San Bernardino campus police at his housing complex. My mother awakened me at 2:00am Sunday morning with the news. She asked me if Dr. D. was nearby. My father recently had surgery to remove a cancerous tumor in his colon and was still feeling weak from the procedure. I thought she had called to say they were readmitting him to hospital.
Then came the news that hit me like an icy cold shower. “Your brother Bart was shot and killed last night by campus police,” she said. Her voice firm and steady.
Silence. I handed the phone to Dr. D.
My knees buckled and I was only vaguely aware that some how I had gone from standing to lying on the floor with my face in a pillow screaming. This cannot be happening. This cannot be happening. I cried until I couldn’t cry anymore. My brother Bart was dead. According to media reports, he was shot five times in the torso by two of the three police officers who were on the scene.
According to media reports, my unarmed brother, who suffered from bipolar disorder, struggled with the police who then shot him in alleged self defense.
A lot of terrible things are being said about Bart in the media. People speculate that he was sniffing bath salts, that he was high on PCP or some other mind-altering drug, somehow inferring that he got what he asked for. The dark, menacing photo of Bart the media are running only reinforces this.
My brother was not nor had he ever been a drug addict. Like a lot of people suffering from bi-polar disorder though, my brother was a complicated individual who struggled to lead a life not defined by his diagnosis.
First, a brief primer on bipolar disorder, a disease which affects more than 10 million people. I am by no means an expert but thanks to NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) I learned a lot about this disease when my brother was first diagnosed as a college student.
As NAMI defines it, Bipolar disorder is a chronic illness with recurring episodes of mania and depression that can last from one day to months.
Cycles of high (manic) and low (depressive) moods may follow an irregular pattern that differs from the typical ups and downs experienced by most people.
People living with bipolar disorder often live with two intense emotional states. A manic state can be identified by feelings of extreme irritability and/or euphoria, along with several other symptoms during the same week such as agitation, surges of energy, reduced need for sleep, talkativeness, pleasure-seeking and increased risktaking behavior. On the other side, when an individual experiences symptoms of depression they feel extremely sad, hopeless and loss of energy.
The symptoms can be very different for different people. The treatment for bipolar disorder is lifelong medication and therapy.
My brother was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in his early twenties as a college student at the University of Virginia. Up until that year he was a popular, gregarious young guy. From a young age, Bart loved politics and we would spend hours debating the latest political issue of the day.
I too am a political junkie and long after we had moved away from home, he’d often start our phone calls asking me my opinion about a particular political issue or scandal.
We also shared a love of sports and working out. Bart was a tremendous athlete who loved to swim, bike and run. He often talked about trying to qualify for the Iron Man. He watched his diet carefully and often hounded our french-fry loving dad about eating too much junk.
If it had been awhile since I’d seen him, he’d squeeze my arm to check my muscle tone or jokingly poke my side to see if my corporate job was making me soft. “Nice to see you keeping it tight, Sis,” he’d nod in approval when I was doing well.
Ever the contrarian, he loved the outspoken KC Star sports columnist, Jason Whitlock. He loved how Jason called it as he saw it and didn’t give a damn about what people thought of him.
Even though he never became a sports writer, Bart managed to earn his first master’s degree in library science and was pursuing a second at Cal State San Bernardino when he was killed. When we spoke just two weeks ago, he told me he wanted to move to Europe to teach.
Bart enjoyed good food (growing up our dad was quite the gourmand) but what he really loved were Chipotle burritos, which I considered carb-laden gut bombs. When I’d visit him, I’d offer to take him out to the latest restaurant but he was happiest with a chicken and black bean burrito and a Diet Coke.
With my parents’ and NAMI’s help, Bart was able to live independently and work for long stretches. But bipolar disorder is a tricky disease. It can take years to find the right combination of medications and the side effects of some drugs were brutal. Extreme weight-gain, sleeplessness and tremors. Even worse was the numbed out feeling my brother described as like being a living zombie.
Drugs would work for awhile and then have to be adjusted or changed entirely. Getting used to new drug combinations wreaked havoc on his system.
People who live with bipolar disorder suffer from a profound biographical disruption. They are no longer the person they were and don’t know or recognize the person they are. Bart couldn’t accept that he would be this “new” person for the rest of his life. He never lost hope that one day he would get better and be back to his old self. Eighteen years after his diagnosis he was still trying to hold on to the person he used to be even as those memories receded further and further into the past.
We talked about the past a lot. He especially loved talking about his time in Charlottesville, VA where he briefly attended UVA and our childhood home of Del Mar, CA where we played at the beach as kids.
As the years passed, sometimes I’d see flashes of the old Bart I grew up with witty, observant and sensitive. But he had low periods as well where he would withdraw into himself only emerging to run or swim. When he was cycling, he could say mean and hurtful things only to call or email you back and act as if nothing ever happened.
I tried to get used to Bart’s moods but sometimes my patience would wear thin and I would lose my temper and snap at him. I regret it.
You wait for bad news that someone has hurt them or they have hurt someone.
As serious a disease as mental illness is, it doesn’t engender the same kind of compassion as cancer or other devastating diseases. The uneducated believe that if mentally ill people somehow just had more self-control or were better medicated, all of their problems would go away. Not so.
Right before he died, Bart told me that he realized he didn’t have any pictures of his nephew, D2. Could I send him a few? I told him we had just finished our holiday pictures and I definitely would. Before we hung up he told me not to forget to send the pictures. That was the very last conversation I had with him.
What we do know is that my brother was registered as a disabled student at Cal State San Bernardino and was receiving his medications and counseling from the University health services. Very few media outlets have covered this fact.
We don’t know if the police who were called on the scene of my brother’s residence knew of his mental illness.
We don’t know why three armed police officers chose to use deadly force rather than other non-lethal options.
We don’t know if the three police officers responsible for Bart’s death were properly trained to deal with mentally ill people and de-escalate volatile situations.
So many questions and so few answers.
We are fortunate that a number of prominent civil rights organizations, including the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable and the Los Angeles Civil Rights Association, have come to my family’s aid. We are working to get an independent investigation into the facts surrounding my brother’s death. We are also looking to strengthen policies that protect mentally ill people from becoming victims of excessive police force.
Earlier this week a reporter from the Los Angeles Times asked me what I wanted to come out of my brother’s case. What do I want? I want better police training to deal with people with mental illness so that confrontations don’t result in their deaths. I want people to understand that mental illness is a devastating a disease as cancer and that people living with these diseases deserve our love, support and most importantly, advocacy.
Nothing will bring my brother Bart back but if I can help one person be just a bit more compassionate and understanding of people with mental illness, I will consider that a small measure of success.
I am hoping to share my brother’s story as broadly as I can. I hope you can help me by leaving comments in the comment section, linking up to this post, sharing it on your Facebook page and tweeting it.
My heartfelt thanks for your support.