interview: bridget anderson, one of the many black women reenergizing atlanta’s activism

October 16, 2015

Bridget Anderson is an Atlanta activist who is fighting for justice in the name of her late boyfriend Anthony Hill. She stands at about 5 feet 4 inches tall, but her smile and her strength are always larger than life. On March 9th Bridget’s life took a sharp change when she learned that Anthony, her boyfriend of 3 years, was shot and killed by an Atlanta police officer.
We sat in a coffee shop on a sunny day, and she was willing to share her story with me. “The thing about Anthony,” said Bridget, recalling the story of Anthony Hill for those who are not familiar, “is that he served in the US Air Force and did a tour in Afghanistan. When he came home he wasn’t getting the mental help he needed from the VA (Veterans Affairs medical center).”
Soon during the interview Bridget was visibly upset about the state of the Veterans Affairs medical centers in America. She describes how difficult it was scheduling appointments for Anthony, and how hard it could be just getting in contact with their offices. Her criticism of the VA does not sit alone; countless stories of terrible conditions and endless wait listing practices have been recorded, and with strong cuts of funding, the lack of resources for veterans is astounding. If you pair that lack of resources with socioeconomically disadvantaged black and brown veterans who return home from war to underfunded environments, the situation can seem bleak.
“Anthony was eventually diagnosed with Bipolar disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and about 2 weeks before he died he stopped taking his medicine. One the day he died, he was having either a manic episode or a PTSD episode,” Bridget explains. “He was running around his apartment complex completely naked. He was not hurting or intimidating anyone at all, and he was clearly unarmed.”

Words and Photography by Devyn Springer, AFROPUNK Contributor

Her mood shifted, her breaths got a little deeper, and Bridget’s gaze into my eyes became stronger than ever. She took a sip of her coffee, “the officer had a taser, night stick, pepper spray, and was much taller and larger than Anthony. He had absolutely no reason to shoot Anthony twice in the chest.”

The truth is the officer simply did not have any reason to fear for his life, and certainly no reason to use deadly force. As stated, Anthony was significantly smaller than the officer – only 5’7 according to Bridget – and was obviously unarmed. This lends itself to a bigger, more heartbreaking problem in America. Our officers seem to have little-to-no training on handling mental illness, and we don’t talk about mental illness as much as we should in black communities. “There’s this stigma around it,” Bridget said, referring to mental illness in the black communities. “Nobody ever wants to talk about it, but it needs to be addressed and fixed so these stories don’t keep reoccurring.”

PTSD episodes are different from episodes caused by Bipolar Disorder. PTSD occurs after a person experiences a traumatic event, and they experience potent feelings of fear and helplessness simultaneously. Bipolar Disorder, however, is caused by chemical imbalances in the brain which can cause extreme changes in mood, from mania to despair. Both can be mentally crippling if not dealt with properly, and can lead to difficulties maintaining a career and social life.

We know that in 2012 the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Services reported that African Americans are 20% more likely to report having serious psychological distress than “Non-Hispanic Whites.” And according to the American Psychological Association, “young adult blacks, especially those with higher levels of education, are significantly less likely to seek mental health services than their white counterparts.” This is a staggering discovery, and needs to be addressed immediately.

Seven months after the death of Anthony, Bridget said “I realized I had to put all of my sadness and anger into activism. I had to make a change; I had to be that change.”

Bridget’s engagement with social justice prior to what she has been through was nonexistent. “Other than being vocal on social media,” she admits, “I was not involved in any type of activism. I remember when Eric Garner was killed and I began to tweet about it. I was crying my eyes out because it broke my heart, and Anthony comforted me and said ‘not all officers are bad.’ I find it extremely ironic now how he could see the positive in everybody and everything, even police officers.”

Although she was not involved in activism prior to the shooting, she has taken a prominent and quick rise to a lead activist in Atlanta. From leading protests to speaking out at public forums to marching through Downtown Atlanta beside artists Janelle Monae and Jidenna, there is a fire that radiates from her. The first time I personally got to hear Bridget speak to a crowd was at an event called “#RestInPower” which was a funeral procession across Atlanta, which she helped organize through the local organization Rise Up. Her words were so powerful that they moved many of us to tears.

Aware of the stigmas surrounding Anthony’s mental illness, Bridget admits she was initially embarrassed to speak out about what happened. She thought that her friends were going to make fun of her and that she would receive negative reactions to the entire situation. But, to her surprise, she received enormous positive support. “I tweeted about the situation, using the hashtag #Antlanta, and it instantly became a trending topic in Atlanta. People started reaching out to me and my phone began to blow up.”

Bridget says that that is what motivated her to get where she is now, “people’s positive support and love.” I asked her what things she has learned from other activists in the Atlanta area that she’s met and collaborated with, like Aurielle Lucier and Nelini Stamp, and that huge smile came back to her face. “They really became like my family for a while,” she says, beginning to laugh. “I remember about a year ago I was tweeting “#AllLivesMatter” and they helped me understand the importance of saying “#BlackLivesMatter,” and not erasing that affirmation of black lives.”

She also says she did not realize all that goes into planning a protest until she went to The Movement for Black Lives Convention in Cleveland, Ohio earlier this year. “So much work goes into a good protest! You have different people appointed to different tasks; people go through de-escalation training, frontline training, you have marshals, and so much more. If it’s a well thought out, properly planned action then there is inevitably so many levels of complex planning.”

In September Bridget rallied over 100 activists and black veterans to the front steps of the DeKalb County Courthouse to show love, support, strength, and solidarity for Anthony Hill and his family. She organized community speakers to discuss the poor help that veterans receive for their mental health, especially returning black and brown veterans. They held space for hours, displaying the intersection of activism and veterans.

As the coffee shop grew louder and crowded during the interview, we could both feel our talk naturally wrapping up, and we began to talk about Anthony’s legacy. “I know he was very open about his mental illness, and he would have wanted to help fight to erase the stigma around mental illness. He would have wanted people to get the help they deserve. I want everyone who suffers from mental illness, especially in the tight knit minority communities, to know that it’s okay. It’s okay to have anxiety, or PTSD, or depression, or anything else. It’s okay to talk about your mental health, and it’s okay to ask for help.”

Bridget is just one of the many black women who are re-energizing the activist community in Atlanta. She works hard to make sure she turns her feelings of anger and sadness into social justice, and wants to make sure everyone knows that they can do the same. “There will always be people telling you to ‘shut up and sit down,’” she admitted. “But you just have to keep fighting and always remember to love yourself!”

You can follow Bridget on Twitter here.

* Devyn Springer | Twitter / Instagram @HalfAtlanta
D.S. Photography