By Kwame P. Dean
Posted January 2, 2021
On the evening of January 31st, 2016, I heard a loud thumping on the door. It was the kind of ominous knock that makes your heart skip a beat. I was flooded with a sense of dread that something bad was getting ready to be set off. And sure enough, something bad was about to unfold.
I opened the door. There, standing outside were two mean-looking, redneck Alabama sheriffs with a tense look on their faces and hands on holsters. They brushed me aside and did a quick sweep through the apartment. Then, they told me I had to come with them. I asked, “Am I being arrested and if so, what for?” They didn’t answer. Instead they escorted me to the waiting cruiser. But I noticed they didn’t handcuff me.
Driving down University Drive, one of the main drags in Huntsville, the night was starting to fall and all I remembered were the street lights blurring together like stars that had fallen from the sky, illuminating a path. Bur a path to where? The sheriffs still refused to tell me where we were going. They engaged in the hard-bitten banter of lawless law enforcers and I was the invisible, powerless, prisoner under their control. I thought to myself this is what it must have felt like in 1937 Soviet Union, with the GPU rounding people up without warning.
To me surprise, however, they drove past the county jail – an ugly, squat building known on the street as “The Blue Roof Inn” because of its distinctive blue roof tiling. Instead, they pulled into the Huntsville Hospital ER. The sheriffs bundled me out of the car and escorted me inside a locked area, a mini-Panopticon with a staff desk in the middle surveying everything that went on. Right away, I heard an older woman who looked like Phyllis Diller with a shock of blond hair hanging over her face like a rooster, yelling “Get your motherfucking hands off me!” and swinging wildly. Then it dawned on me. I was in the Psych Ward.
No, dear reader, I hadn’t suddenly decided to fly over the cuckoo’s nest. As I soon found out, an involuntary petition for civil commitment had been filed against me for being “suicidal and homicidal.’ A former BFF who I had cut off contact because he went on a crack run had filed the petition in a fit of vindictiveness, because being drug-addled and being able to manipulate the system aren’t two mutually exclusive propositions. I would remain involuntarily committed until I saw a judge for hearing two days later. The staff placed in a holding room painted sickly, institutional green with the only furniture a cast iron bed. That would be my impromptu “home” until a bed opened up on the inpatient psych unit.
A nurse came in to interview me. I let her have it, in controlled outrage. How can people be picked up against their will just on hearsay, I said? Isn’t this what Third World dictatorships do, where anonymous complaints lead to incarceration? Where were my rights? She remained calm, explained what was happening and what I could expect. I sat down on the hard metal bed while the older woman continued screaming next door. But at least they left my door open which was a sign they didn’t see me as a security treat.
I was due to work that night at 11pm so I went out to the desk and asked if I could use the phone to call my job. A yellowed sign said “No personal calls allowed.” But in one of the many instances that happened to me over the next two days, she broke the rules and let me call work. It showed me how even in the most bureaucratized and regimented situations, ordinary people will ignore the system and reveal some humanity if they think these rules unfair. They don’t do it because they consciously want to buck the system. They do it unselfconsciously from a personal sense of what’s right.
It wasn’t until 1 am that I was admitted upstairs to the locked ward, to a plain room with just a bed, one wooden chair, and a small desk.
I slept soundly. I don’t remember if I dreamed.
At 7 am, staff woke everyone up and sent us to the day room for breakfast. The day room was a large lounge with a communal eating table, a big screen TV, a jumble of worn but comfortable mismatched chairs- and the only reading material a few old, torn-up “People” and “Entertainment Today” magazines. I looked around at my fellow inmates. One woman, a small white woman in her late 30s with waist length, dirty blond hair, lay stretched out over a chair like a wilted flower, hair dangling, staring vacantly into space, dealing with who knows what inner demons. The whole time she was on the unit she never talked to anyone and held her head down while eating, avoiding all eye contact.
I recognized Phyllis Diller from the night before. We talked. She said she was here because she changed her will, cutting a daughter out, and the daughter filed commitment papers as retaliation. I asked the nurse later how often that happened. She said quite a lot. One party in a messy divorce would file a petition to prevent the other from getting custody. Wills were yet another common reason, like with Phyllis Diller. Swearing out an involuntary petition gets used to settle lots of scores.
I thought, “Isn’t this so typical of how America works?” People living disheveled on grates and baying at the moon can’t get help while perfectly sane people are rounded up against their will, wasting scarce resources that others in real distress are denied.
Phyllis Diller went around with a perpetual Bernie Mac “WTF?” expression on her face, cursing like a small battalion of sailors while demonstrating a natural comedic flair with pitch-perfect timing .But quite honestly, I found her draining to be around because she was too high-strung and talkative. She told me she used to work in the chemical plants and when news came out about birth defects in children born to line workers, she stormed into the supervisor’s office with her work shears in hand and told the supervisor, “If my baby is born with no balls, I’m coming after yours.”
At meals, we were only served decaf, on the theory that caffeine over-stimulates the nerves of the mentally distressed. I told the monitors, two young, hip, muscular black guys, I needed real coffee. One went off the unit every meal and brought me fully-strength coffee from another floor. Again, that spontaneous willingness to break the official rules.
People came and went continually while I was there because most patients had signed themselves in voluntarily and thus could freely leave on their own volition. Later that first day, a middle-aged black woman was admitted. She shuffled in, shoulders slumped, deeply depressed. But as the hours went on, she became more outgoing, as if being around the warmth of others’ company caused her to open up, the way a seed sprouts under the sun’s rays. She told me her story. She had married a man, who whisked her off to the deep country, where he isolated her from her family, and continually beat her. Finally, she escaped to the local ER, threatening to kill herself and she ended up transferred here.
We hung out talking while watching TV, which was always tuned to Steve Harvey and Dr. Phil. Many times she would talk back at the TV, giving advice, and her advice contained more wisdom and insight than anything coming out of those two clowns’ mouths. I wondered what she would do when she was released. Would she end up, like so many battered women, back in the same situation she had escaped ? I got a hold of some napkins and borrowed a pen from a staff member, wanting to write down my impressions. I guess to outsiders I looked like the right madman, furiously scribbling away on napkins. But by this time, I was resigned to being held against my will and was determined to record all my thoughts.
Later that evening, a nurse brought me a mobile phone from the nurses’ station, telling me I had a call. It was the security guard from the job who had demanded – and won- the right to speak to me. Again, that breaking of the rules, because patients were only allowed to use the communal phone in the day room. The security guard said that when the rest of the night shift heard what happened to me, they set up a prayer circle overnight. She and one of the other workers wanted to come to my hearing and testify on my behalf. The nurse listened next to me, with a warm, concerned expression, obviously moved by this show of solidarity. But I told the guard she didn’t have to come because the hearing didn’t allow witnesses. (The security guard, by the way, was a hard-core Trump supporter and Christian fundamentalist, but pro-abortion, pro-gay and with many close black friends. We met for breakfast several times afterward and still keep in-touch occasionally years after I left the job.)
On the second day, I had my psychiatric evaluation. An elderly West Indian psychiatrist, very serious and official, speaking in a thick lilting accent, administered the test. I could tell from his eyes, because he wore the blank expression of professionalism, that he could obviously see there was nothing clinically wrong with me but he had to go through the motions anyway. He said nothing though to reveal his thoughts and left. I talked briefly with a new admission, a young white guy, rail-thin and heavily tattooed, with sores on his face – a tell-tale sign of heavy meth use. He told me he had just gotten out of jail and I thought him admitting himself was maybe a ploy for an upcoming court case. But he spent most of this time on the communal phone afterward and we didn’t talk any more. The rest of the second day went like a blur.
On the morning of my hearing, after consulting with my appointed lawyer, the psychiatrist came in. He asked if he could pray. Not wanting to be difficult and potentially causing him to change his evaluation, I agreed. He intoned a prayer, with his mournful, long face, for about 20 minutes. Of course, it should have been illegal to mix religion and public services. But I guess in the psychiatrist’s own way he was a rule breaker too. It was a fitting, concluding absurdity on top of already accumulated absurdities.
The hearing was over in 15 minutes. Of course, they found no reason for my long-term commitment and the case was dismissed and expunged.
I walked out into the crisp, winter morning, closed my eyes and felt the sun hit my cheek, the first time I had breathed fresh air in two and a half days. Now, I was free. But others weren’t. My fellow comrades in bad luck, misfortune and powerlessness were people taxed to their limits, isolated, unable to cope, and with no social support. Most would be discharged in three days back into the same circumstances that sent them there. The system works, just as it was intended to.
I was hired to fulfill a court order to work as a management level generalist in Human Resources. I was there to satisfy the settlement of a successful hostile environment lawsuit brought by long-suffering black employees, all of whom were hourly workers. I didn’t know about the law suit until after I was hired as a complete outsider. It never came up in the rounds of interviews, surprise, surprise.
My job, was to act as a management liaison for black employees and keep them happy with a willing ear, diversity initiatives, investigations of racist acts, and teaching the settlement mandated “get-a-long” school, as zero tolerance racial harassment policy training was known. I wondered how a plant in relatively tolerant and integrated Eastern Iowa could be such a hot bed of racism that even a traditionally conservative, pro-business US District Court would force them to change?
Built in the late 1940’s, the plant grew into one of the largest aluminum rolling plants in the world. A mile long under roof, the plant needed lots of workers quickly to satisfy the growing post WWII airline industry in a competitive local job market. One of management’s staffing answers was to look to the South for employees in places like Alcoa, Tennessee.
Alcoa, TN was a segregated company town in every sense in 1948. It seems that opening an operation in the Sough meant following local customs and paying lower wages rather than bringing any enlightened Northern thinking. Much like the carpetbaggers of the post civil rights era, making money led to northern support of social divisions rather than seeking to change them for any greater good.
Incorporated by a closed door act of the Tennessee state legislature, organizing the town of Alcoa deprived the next closest town, Maryville, of tax revenue. Alcoa, TN was designed, built, and run by company leadership. The city manager was an Alcoa manager from its beginning in 1919 until 1956. The police of Alcoa, TN acted as plant security and protected strike breakers when necessary. A violent confrontation in 1937 resulted in the death of a police officer and striker when management broke a strike by busing strike breakers through a picket line. Alcoa, Inc’s economic hold on the town wouldn’t break until the ‘60’s. Alcoa is today one of the most violent cities in Tennessee.
Why would a plant in Iowa go so far to recruit workers instead of just competing for them closer to home? The answer became more obvious when I visited other plants across the country and noticed their commonalities. From Pennsylvania to Texas and beyond, these plants were near cheap sources of electricity and were in the middle of nowhere. The company obviously liked being the only game in town.
Monopsony is a market condition of one buyer and many sellers. It is the hallmark of a company town. Plant management succeeded in creating a cultural monopsony in Iowa by recruiting southern and local segregationists to a place in the North where labor unions had been desegregated for over 40 years. Plant management didn’t seem to care what people thought about others as long as they did the often back breaking work when demanded. Plant management used an overtime, slow growth, and nepotism approach to create a stable work force. It also protected itself from the unwanted complications of the differences between the local culture outside of the plant and the one inside.
Long before people thought about work-life balance, plant employees were encouraged to work overtime whenever possible, and there was a lot of overtime to be had. 80 hour work weeks were not unheard of in the 24/7 plant. I asked an old timer how that was possible and he said there was a difference between being at work and working. The management culture in the plant was one of surveillance, control and appeasement. By the time I arrived, management and union leadership had learned to play nice as long as it wasn’t contract negotiation time. The social culture inside the plant had to be appeased since management preferred new workers who were family members and friends of those already there. With long hours and familiarity, the plant became a petri dish of marriages, divorces, cliques, grudges and restraining orders.
The plant, as a federal contractor, was forced to hire black workers in the 70’s by Nixon Administration Equal Employment Opportunity laws. Plant management was unconcerned with or unprepared for the social backlash within the plant. It left black workers exposed to open acts of racism from management and their union brothers. Nooses in lockers, KKK graffiti, aluminum shavings in safety shoes as well as the trump card of the “N” word in conversation were just some of the examples of things that happened there. Plant medical staff were accused of giving substandard care to black workers and were specifically noted in the settlement. If you’ve ever received treatment from someone who didn’t want to touch you, you’ll know the feeling black employees said they felt when seeking medical attention.
Management’s answer was to keep blacks separated by shift and department and as few as possible. Results of tests for promotion were manipulated and ignored. Getting ahead while black had more to do with being tolerable to the toxic culture than anything else. Despite the hardships, the overtime pay meant the money was good so many black workers kept their heads down and endured for the sake of their families and their hard won middle class lifestyles. They petitioned management. They petitioned the unions. They took all they could until they couldn’t take it anymore and started a class action suit.
The historical, cultural monopsony in a plant community of 2,500 people made tolerance of intolerance the rule. Equity across racial, ethnic and gender lines didn’t seem to even occur to people who should know better until they were forced to recognize it with the threat of fines and public embarrassment. It was like going back in time to the civil rights battles of the 50’s when I joined the plant in 1998.
I talked to a friend who was part of the class action recently. She said going through the 4 years of Trump in the White House reminded her of what they had to endure over 20 years ago in the plant. Management gaslighting and union downplaying of the significance of racists acts in the past felt all too familiar with the same things happening locally and nationally today.
Some traumas run deep and the more things change…
Crime in Alcoa, TN
History of Local 309, United Steelworkers of America, Alcoa, TennesseeSammy E. PinkstonUniversity of Tennessee, Knoxville
John P. Cooper, et. al. v. Aluminum Company of AmericaCIVIL NO. 3-95-CV-10074