The Death of Anthony Hill: Something Is Rotten in the State of America

03/11/2015 12:32 am ET | Updated May 11, 2015

That it should come to this. Hamlet was referring to the unseemly proximity between his father's death and his mother's marriage to his treacherous uncle.

But he might have been speaking for all of us as we try to fathom the hideous nexus of racially tinged tragedies in this country, one after another.

A day before the University of Oklahoma, not Hamlet's Wittenberg to be sure, banned the SAE fraternity for its racist sing-along video; on the very day that 47 Republican Senators, in an unprecedented violation of protocol, wrote a letter to the Iranian leadership that undermined President Obama's attempt at a diplomatic solution to Tehran's nuclear program; just two days after President Obama reenacted the Selma march, marking the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday; only a week or so after a black man identified as Africa, who had reportedly been hospitalized for psychiatric reasons, got into a scuffle with the LAPD and was shot dead; and but a few days after two other African-American men, reportedly unarmed, were killed in encounters with law enforcement -- in the midst of all of this, we now have the brutal killing of Anthony Hill, an unarmed 27-year-old African-American man on Monday.

Hill was not only a veteran of Iraq, who served in the U.S. Air Force. He was not only another black man, whose life should have mattered. He was a man who suffered from mental illness.

The New York Times reported that Hill may have had a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, according to a Twitter account that appeared to be Hill's.

A March 4 post on that Twitter account contained the following statement, "The media continues to paint the same horrific picture of mentally affected people but I have to tell you, there are so many shades in between the extremes."

Hill was making the very point that I have been making for years: It is not only reductive; it is also completely misleading and hateful when the media and others attempt to characterize those with a mental illness as being violent, unemployed or any other negative trope out there.

We keep hearing and reading about how people with a mental illness "cycle" through hospitalization, drug addiction, homelessness and prison. Yet here we have Anthony Hill, a veteran of the Air Force, and reportedly an "aspiring musician," who may have behaved erratically, but who had served his country and had the soul of a poet.

That is not to say that there are not frauds out there who defame the mentally ill by claiming to be bipolar when they are in fact con artists. And that is not to say that those with a mental illness have the right to behave criminally.

But Anthony Hill was neither a fraud nor a criminal.

When the police responded to calls of a disturbance in the Atlanta area, the officer found Hill, who was naked and obviously unarmed.

According to the New York Times, residents at an apartment complex phoned police to report that a man was "acting deranged, knocking on doors and running naked" through the complex.

The DeKalb County police contend that Hill not only did not obey the officer; they contend that Hill charged the officer, who shot and killed him.

Many commentators have pointed out that if there was ever a case where a Taser should have been used, this was it.

I have a slightly different perspective.

As I have written before, Tasers alone are not the solution.

Yes, Tasers should be used. But they don't always work, as we saw in the case of Africa, who was living on Skid Row in Los Angeles and who, according to reports, had committed armed robbery years ago. Africa was not subdued even with the alleged use of Tasers.

Moreover, Tasers sometimes are misused, as we saw in the case of Kelly Thomas, a white man with schizophrenia, who was beaten to death a few years ago in Orange County, Calif., by police officers who reportedly slammed Thomas' head with Tasers as well as their fists.

When the police know that they are about to encounter people suffering from mental illness, as the officer clearly did before he encountered Anthony Hill at the apartment complex, the police not only need to be specially trained in de-escalation techniques; they need social workers on the scene.


First of all, social workers are unarmed and thus less frightening to a mentally ill person. Secondly, social workers are also far more likely to know how to talk to someone in the midst of psychosis.

I know this from my own experience. There are few things scarier than being confronted by the police on the street when you are psychotic. But that happened to me in late January 1999 when I was walking down the middle of the street at two in the morning not far from my then-girlfriend's apartment in the Los Angeles area.

As I have written before, a police car drove down the street and blared out on a loudspeaker that I had to get onto the sidewalk.

Unlike some of the recent victims, like Africa and Anthony Hill, who reportedly did not cooperate with the police, I obeyed.

But it would have helped me a great deal if a social worker had been on the scene and talked to me.

In fact, I originally went to the police department that night precisely because I wanted someone who could reassure me that I wasn't going to be harmed on the streets, someone who could straighten me out, the way the police straightened out James Dean's character in Rebel Without a Cause.

In my case, I had committed no crimes. I was simply terrified that I was going to be killed.

Anthony Hill, like Africa, Ezell Ford, Miriam Carey, Tanisha Anderson and Eleanor Bumpurs before him, was also undoubtedly scared. He needed someone to reassure him too.

While it may be the case that Hill did not obey the commands of the police officer, it is also true that Hill was black, while I am white.

If we did not know this already, we all know by now from statistics that young black men are far more likely to be arrested, ticketed, jailed and killed than white or Latino men. And that is true throughout our country, not just in Ferguson, Mo., or Atlanta, Ga.

Yes, something is and always has been rotten not only in the state of Denmark, but also in the state of America.

When Hamlet contemplated the disgusting spectacle of his mother's marriage so shortly after his father's death, he quipped, "the funeral baked meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables."

One might add that the recent confluence of racially charged incidents in our country stinks like left-over, baked meats at a funeral.

There have been too many funerals of late, too many funerals for people of color and people with mental illness.

Until law enforcement learns how to de-escalate situations with young black men and those with mental illness, our justice system will continue to corrode and rot from within.