What if Teresa Sheehan had been Black or Latina?


Teresa Sheehan

In August 2008, Teresa Sheehan was shot, in her own apartment, by two San Francisco police officers. Teresa Sheehan, then 56 years old, lived in a group home. In the midst of a schizophrenic episode, she threatened her social worker. He called the police. The police entered. Teresa Sheehan objected to their entering without a warrant, picked up a bread knife, and threatened the officers. They stepped out. Then they forced the door open, blinded Teresa Sheehan with pepper spray, and shot her five times.

Sheehan and her family sued the police department, claiming that Sheehan’s Fourth Amendment right to protection from unreasonable search and seizure had been violated. Initially, the case was to consider whether the Americans with Disabilities Act and its protections for those living with disabilities had been violated. The officers failed to “accommodate” Teresa Sheehan’s mental disability. Blinded by pepper spray and then shot repeatedly goes a bit beyond “failure to accommodate”.

The United States Supreme Court issued a non-decision decision on the case yesterday. They exonerated the officers and left the ADA and the Fourth Amendment issues for another day.

What if Teresa Sheehan had been Black or Latina?

The San Francisco Police Department is, right now, “under fire”, a telling phrase, for racist and homophobic text messages. These texts were not “just racist and homophobic.” They were operatic in their extravagance, energy and violence. The San Francisco Chief of Police has called for the officers’ dismissal. Some 3000 cases are now under review and may be thrown out. And the response of the individual officers, their form of apology, is to “explain” that this was just “banter amongst friends.” Sgt. Yulanda Williams, one of the targets of the texts, put it succinctly, “This is just the tip of the iceberg.” Tip of the iceberg indeed. What if Teresa Sheehan had been Black?

In North Carolina this week, a County District Attorney explained the “logic” of his targeted refusal to help Latina survivors of domestic violence. Evelin lives in North Carolina. She came to the United States from Honduras. When she was pregnant, her then-boyfriend, who is from Mexico, attacked her, punching her in the stomach. She pressed charges. Pressing charges should have made her eligible for a U-visa, but not in Gaston County. The U-visa program, now in its fifteenth year, is supposed to encourage undocumented immigrants to report crimes to the police without fear of deportation. A U-visa means four years in the country and a possibility of permanent residence.

But not in Gaston County, North Carolina, where the District Attorney explains, “It was never intended to protect Latinos from Latinos. It was designed to protect them from high-crime areas.” He’s wrong, but it doesn’t matter. Evelin is in trouble, because she is Latina and her attacker was Latino. What if Teresa Sheehan had been Latina?

What if Teresa Sheehan had been Black or Latina? Would perceived race or ethne have affected the intensity with which police officers barged in, blinded a woman in need of help, and then shot her five times? Would she be alive today?


(Photo Credit: Patricia C. Sheehan / The Guardian)

The Big Box Store

Betty Dukes

When my partner and I were on our honeymoon, in upstate New York, we were craving a set of playing cards. We drove around this big “small town” and saw a familiar sign: “Wal-Mart.”  Unperturbed, my partner drove right into the parking lot.  I told him in no uncertain terms that I wasn’t going in and he wasn’t either.  He started laughing, but it died in his throat when he saw the scowl on my face.

In 2005, I assisted a law school professor on a paper she was writing on the issues of employment-based sex discrimination. My task was to read through hundreds of declarations by women who either worked or work at Wal-Mart as part of a class action suit against the world’s largest private sector employer and summarize each declaration.  These women not only had the courage and conviction to come forward, but many did at the expense of being chastised by their community.

Monday’s Supreme Court ruling in Wal-Mart v. Dukes essentially destroys class actions against corporate America.  As a result, the most marginalized sector of the labor force – working-class to poor women-will suffer the most.

In rural and small town America, Wal-Mart is one of the biggest, if not only, sustainable employer. While reading the declarations, I learned of single moms who sustained a family of four.  Many of these women looked at Wal-Mart as a place to grow, to become educated, and create a better life for their family.  They thought the story of Sam Walton, an up-by-his-bootstraps narrative revered by Wal-Mart as the archetype of the American dream, would apply to them.  But theirs was a dream deferred, as they watched their male cohorts, who often worked the same amount of hours, obtain higher pay and quicker promotions.

With the Supreme Court’s decision, the last vestiges of that dream may have vanished. True, the Court did not decide the substantive issue of whether Wal-Mart discriminated on the basis of gender. But by preventing women from forming a class, they eviscerated the only effective tool in confronting a corporation whose revenues dwarf the GDP of many small countries. Now, each individual class member will have to come forward and sue Wal-Mart (an unlikely scenario), or the 1.6 million women will need to create smaller classes based on commonality other than gender.  In the latter scenario, it is almost certain that this class too will be challenged, and challenged again, until the class is so small, making it not worth the money and effort.

Sadly, Monday’s decision follows a long history of rejecting gender as a potential class against corporations. Decisions like Wal-Mart urges us to think of how we cannot rely on the legal system to recognize bias in corporate structures. The power is up to the consumers, advocates, journalists, activists, artists to make Wal-Mart, and other corporations listen to their constituents.  So, we found playing cards in a locally run business a few blocks from the glowing Wal-Mart sign.

(Photo Credit 1: New York Times / Reuters/ Larry Downing) (Photo Credit 2: BusinessWomen)

California’s cruel and usual prisons: who cares?

Exercise cages for prisoners at California State Prison, Corcoran

The Supreme Court handed down its decision this week on the California prison system. The decision, by Justice Anthony Kennedy, and the dissenting opinions, are riveting reading, from beginning to end.

The decision involves two cases. The first, Coleman v. Brown, concerns prisoners with serious mental disorders. The second, Plata v. Brown, concerns prisoners with serious medical conditions. The Supreme Court was asked to decide whether a lower court decision that mandated California reduce the size of its prison population should stand. By a 5 – 4 vote, the Court decided it should.

Many issues are engaged here. Is overcrowding the primary cause for the longstanding “needless suffering and death” that occurs in a system that has double the residents it is designed to hold? If California were not mandated to release prisoners, or otherwise reduce the prison population, would it do so on its own? Is the relief sufficiently `narrow’ to meet the legal requirements of `narrowly drawn’ and `no further than necessary’? Are the remedies imposed overly intrusive?

The public discussion has focused on overcrowding, but consider the grammar of Justice Kennedy’s argument. Here’s an example: “Because of a shortage of treatment beds, suicidal inmates may be held for prolonged periods in telephone-booth sized cages without toilets. A psychiatric expert reported observing an inmate who had been held in such a cage for nearly 24 hours, standing in a pool of his own urine, unresponsive and nearly catatonic.  Prison officials explained they had `no place to put him.’ Other inmates awaiting care may be held for months in administrative segregation, where they endure harsh and isolated conditions and receive only limited mental health services. Wait times for mental health care range as high as 12 months. In 2006, the suicide rate in California’s prisons was nearly 80% higher than the national average for prison populations; and a court-appointed Special Master found that 72.1% of suicides involved some measure of inadequate assessment, treatment, or intervention, and were therefore most probably foreseeable and/or preventable.’”

The situation for prisoners with serious medical illness is equally dire and cruel.

Overcrowding in California prisons has led to “serious constitutional violations”. But overcrowding is not the crisis. Overcrowding is the symptom. The two cases, Coleman v. Brown and Plata v. Brown, speak to the responsibility of the State to take care of the most vulnerable.

“A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society. If government fails to fulfill this obligation, the courts have a responsibility to remedy the resulting Eighth Amendment violation.”

The California prison crisis is not overcrowding. The crisis is not the sum total and ratio of human bodies to square feet, of good and `bad’ beds to properly residential spaces, of toilets to hundreds of individuals, of medical care providers to mentally and medically ill. The crisis is human dignity. The crisis is sustenance. The crisis is responsibility. The prison crisis in California is a crisis of State and a crisis of society. It is a crisis of care. Care haunts the Plata v. Brown decision. Care haunts California. Care haunts us all.


(Photo Credit: James L’Etoile)