Paula Deen and the Myth of the Happy South

WARNING: OFFENSIVE LANGUAGE

The most damning moment about race in the Paula Deen
transcript took place during a long discussion about her brother’s wedding
plans. Deen had been to a restaurant in “Tennessee or North Carolina or
somewhere” that had an extremely professional wait-staff of middle-aged black
men, dressed in white jackets, black trousers, and black bow ties. She was
asked if she had referred to them as “niggers,” by accident, and she said, “No,
because that’s not what these men were. They were professional black men doing
a fabulous job.”  As others have noted,
the answer suggests that she would quite possible refer to non-professional
black men, or black men not doing a fabulous job, as “niggers.”  Such an attitude would not be atypical for
American white southerners, or indeed for many other people around the country
of many different races, but still exposes a celebrity like Deen to charges of
racism. 
To be fair to the plaintiff, Lisa Jackson, who is
suing Deen, claimed the celebrity chef said, “Well what I would really like is
a bunch of little niggers to wear long-sleeve white shirts, black shorts and
black bow ties, you know in the Shirley Temple days, they used to tap dance
around.”  I actually find that kind of
unlikely, but it’s anything is possible.
I think the focus on racial epithets, while
understandable, misses a complex subtext. In memoriam, we’re still fighting the
Civil War.
Perhaps I should have written, “The War of Northern
Aggression,” the oddly complex mouthful 
that many southerners have adopted as their preferred terminology (the Wikipedia
entry
on varied names is pretty useful). 
The name focuses on the north as the aggressor, the wrong-doer, with the
south simply defending themselves and their “way of life.” The incoming head of
the N.R.A., for example, talks about the war
of Northern Aggression
as a reason people need firearms.
But Paula Deen calls it the Civil War. Here’s a long
excerpt:
Q
Do you recall using the words “really southern plantation wedding”?
A
Yes, I did say I would love for Bubba to experience a very southern style
wedding, and we did that. We did that.
Q
Okay. You would love for him to experience a southern style plantation wedding?
A
Yes.
The deposition continues:
Q   Why did that make it a — if you would have
had servers like that [the black waiters], why would that have made it a really
southern plantation wedding?

A Well, it —
to me, of course I’m old but I ain’t that old, I didn’t live back in those days
 but I’ve seen pictures, and the pictures
that I’ve seen, that restaurant represented a certain era in America.

Q Okay.


A And I was in
the south when I went to this restaurant. It was located in the south.
 
Q Okay. What
era in America are you referring to?


A Well, I
don’t know. After the Civil War, during the Civil War, before the Civil War.

Deen has fully embraced the romanticized version of
American southern history. The blacks worked in the house, serving the whites,
with great professionalism and care. In her praise for the black waiters, she
reveals herself a player in the ongoing struggle to re-write American southern
history as anything but a slave-based empire.
This vision requires admitting that slavery existed,
which Deen does later in the transcript, but suggesting that it really wasn’t
all that bad, that blacks who worked for good masters found life pleasant as
part of an extended family. This narrative embraces the myth of the
paternalistic system that yes, involved slavery, but the slavery was so much
better than in other parts of the world. And it’s true – in the Carribean,
where slaves were imported regularly, conditions were worse. In the American
south, you needed slaves to be able to breed, because children had monetary
value. At any rate, historians have debunked the myth that slaves were not
treated cruelly and didn’t rebel. One could look up Loren Schweninger’s work
for starters. Slaves fought. They ran away. They tried to escape their
conditions. And they were punished for it, often brutally.
Another part of this myth embraces the idea that
although NOW we know slavery is bad and all people are humans, we didn’t know
this in 1800 or so. This is not true either, although the equality of blacks to
whites as a general principle took a long, long, time to develop (and witnessed
first the birth of scientific racism). As England outlawed slavery, norms were
shifting long before the first shot of the Civil War.
And then finally we get the Civil War, not as a war
about slavery, but over states rights. And yet, if you unpack each and every
document of secession, they all explicitly mention the “states rights” to keep
slavery legal as the cause of secession. It’s inconvenient for southern nationalists (people who
see Southerners as an independent people who should have the right of
self-determination) and defenders of the Confederate culture (and flags) to
focus on slavery, so they argue against the evidence. The evidence, however, is
clear – the civil war was about slavery.
Alas, it is very hard to change people’s minds on articles of faith, no matter
how overwhelming the evidence is.
One fascinating off-shoot of this is the question of
black confederate soldiers. They didn’t exist. A Virginia
textbook
claimed they did until a professor noticed (and read that whole
link; it’s riveting, and has lots of good links). What’s so interesting here is
that there was a faction in the Confederacy that argued for freeing and arming
slaves, as they knew they had a manpower issue. They were outvoted until the
final year of the war when things were desperate, and even after a few slaves
were enlisted, not a single one saw combat (here’s the book
on the topic, by an Illinois professor).
And yet, despite all the evidence, the myth marches
on. At the annual Conservative Political Action Committee conference last
March, at a panel
on minority outreach
, an audience member reacted to the idea that Frederick
Douglas had forgiven his former owner. “For what?” said Scott Terry, “for
feeding him and housing him?” There was some applause and cheering. Terry later
claimed to be a direct descendent of Jefferson Davis.
Paula Deen does not deserve to lose her job or
sponsors for being nostalgic for the era of slavery and Jim Crow. The idea that
she is being “lynched,” as claimed by the horror/romance author Anne Rice, or “crucified,”
a word I am seeing all over the conservative blogosphere, seems to betray a
certain lack of historical awareness on the part of the writers, or maybe they
are just being ironic.  To me, it works
like this: Deen said some disturbing things. She’s a public figure whose
earning depend on people liking her. Now fewer people like her. Therefore, she’s
worth less money as a spokeswoman or on TV. This is not about free speech or “lynch
mobs,” but is the price of fame-based and personality-based merchandising.
But I refute the idea that her romanticized view of
the south is harmless. From her visions of black men in bow ties serving whites,
of  plantation culture, of the charm of southern
life “After the Civil War. During the Civil War. Before the Civil War,” we go
straight to Scott Terry, to the author of a Virginia textbook, to the very
people who right now are undermining the voting rights act claiming that the
blacks of yore were proud of their relationship with their paternal masters, to
the people hanging confederate flags from courthouses. It’s not harmless when
anyone holds these ideas and certainly not when it comes from a self-made icon
of the South.
Anyway, if you’re not from the South, don’t feel so
smug.  We all try smooth away embarrassing truths out of our histories. It’s the job of the historian and of
the informed citizen to resist that impulse, because the abrasion of rough edges
might, just might, keep us from replicating the sins of the past.

Obesity and History

Fascinating article taking a long view on obesity around the world. The final paragraph reads:

Today’s priests of obesity prevention proclaim with confidence and
authority that they have the answer. So did Bruno Bettelheim in the
1950s, when he blamed autism on mothers with cold personalities. So, for
that matter, did the clerics of 18th-century Lisbon, who blamed
earthquakes on people’s sinful ways. History is not kind to authorities
whose mistaken dogmas cause unnecessary suffering and pointless effort,
while ignoring the real causes of trouble. And the history of the
obesity era has yet to be written.

That maybe true, but I have a long file of people who sound just like the clerics of 18th-century Lisbon, most of whom are millionaires, and many of them in public office. History is not linear. But I like the infusing of historical perspective on the current issue.

Iconographical Warfare – Alive and Well


Late last year, the National Bank of Slovakia announced that the European Commission, the union’s executive arm, had ordered it to remove halos and crosses from special commemorative euro coins due to be minted this summer

The coins, designed by a local artist, were intended to celebrate the 1,150th anniversary of Christianity’s arrival in Slovak lands but have instead become tokens of the faith’s retreat from contemporary Europe. They featured two evangelizing Byzantine monks, Cyril and Methodius, their heads crowned by halos and one’s robe decorated with crosses, which fell foul of European diversity rules that ban any tilt toward a single faith.

Well, the coins do look great, but I can see the point that non-Catholic spenders of Euros might have an objection. On the other hand, there really is a strong attempt from secularist Europeans to strip Europe of explicitly religious symbols, and unlike the “war on Christmas,” I often think it impinges on freedom of religion in ways that disturb me.

What really interests me are the ways that history is being invoked here:

Europe is suffused with Christianity, or at least memories of its past influence. The landscape is dotted with churches, now mostly empty, and monasteries, its ancient universities are rooted in medieval religious scholarship, and many of its national crests and anthems pay homage to God.

Even the European Union’s flag — a circle of 12 yellow stars on a blue background — has a coded Christian message. Arsène Heitz, a French Catholic who designed the flag in 1955, drew inspiration from Christian iconography of the Virgin Mary wearing a crown with 12 stars. The same 12 stars appear on all euro coins.

The very idea that Europe should unite began with efforts to rally Christendom in the ninth century by Charlemagne, the first ruler of the Holy Roman Empire.

In the end, the European Commission decided to let the coins be printed, and thus allows Slovakia to stamp Christianity into its monetary identity.

Father’s Day reading

All these essays are saying more or less the same thing as mine. Gendered language, clothes, toys, media, etc. are all part of the pernicious and pervasive influence of patriarchy on our culture.

There’s lots more, especially on father’s day, and it gets pretty repetitive after awhile. There’s nothing here that most of you don’t know, but sometimes finding new language, examples, or persuasive techniques can be useful.

One metaphor I resist is “strong” daughters (remember, I don’t pick my own headlines, nor do I mind. Editors write headlines to get you to click, that’s their only goal, and it’s a good one!). It’s not about strength, though strength is good. It’s about control over narrative and discourse. In the first piece, a girl asks her father for “girlie” PJs, picking up language from her classmates, and so demanding pink. There’s nothing wrong with wanting pink, the problem is coding it as ‘girlie’ and necessary to fit in. There’s nothing wrong with hearts and and princesses on toddler girl underwear, the problem is the lack of alternatives for girls (although these superhero underpants rock, and my daughter currently likes to sing na-na-na-na-na-na-na   na-na-na-na-na-na-na Batgirl while wearing them. Or Supergirl. Or Dora. Really anyone).

A friend posted a story the other day about being out with her daughter, who is four. A random woman in the shopping line said, “Hello Princess!” The girl replied, “I’m not a princess! I’m a warrior!.” And that’s what we want, to give these girls the power to write their own narratives, in pink or blue, in capes and gowns, with shovels and tiaras.

And we need to give the same power to our boys.

Happy Father’s Day!

Erdoğan and Justinian

After my latest CNN piece, a few of my friends noted that they thought I was going to talk about the Nika riots and Justinian, then compare them to today’s unrest in Istanbul.

I considered it. Civil unrest in Constantinople has, in fact, brought down many an emperor over history, though in this light Constantinople is not especially distinct. Big cities generate urban unrest; sometimes urban unrest can only be curbed with sacrifice. Other times, as with the Nika riots, the army is sent in to “pacify” the mob and brutal repression follows. That may still happen in Istanbul, though I hope not. It’s what I fear.

And there are lots and lots of other examples of mobs and riots and unrest leading to political change in the history of Byzantium. As a scholar, I write about the Fourth Crusade, an episode in which the power of the urban mob led to race riots, emperors being deposed, and to some extent to the unlikely outcome of Latin conquest.

But I don’t see this language emerging from Turkey. The Young Turk rebellion is one template that might make sense from the protestors’ side. Perhaps more importantly, Erdoğan is not an oriental Sultan. He has a strong electoral mandate and wields his political power mercilessly. Democracy is not, of course, a panacea, but this is no despot elected by rigged elections. Erdoğan and his movement successfully motivated large swathes of Turkish society to vote for him, in part to bring more Islam into public life, in part in response to the army, and so forth. To read Erdoğan as a Sultan is orientalism, I think.

But that doesn’t mean he is above using those symbols for his own benefit. Orientalism can be useful for a movement like this one, to claim trappings of power and authority that don’t otherwise accrue to a lawfully elected Prime Minister.

So – no Justinian essays today. Now if Erdoğan would marry a former stripper, I’m ready to write about Theodora at any moment.

Past and Present in Istanbul – Some sources

I have a new essay up on CNN. I started public writing for two reasons – 1. To write about parenting (especially disability, though gender has now emerged as a major theme). 2. To try and insert historical context into contemporary stories. The name, How Did We Get Into This Mess, reflects that latter goal, and it permeates everything I do. Like many historians, we think the past matters both for its own sake and for those who really want to understand today’s world. Today’s essay especially serves that broader theme.

When I write for online publications, I tend to litter the prose with links, as I think the hypertextual relationships between pieces of writing is part of what makes online discourse so interesting (links and hashtags are entirely new kinds of writing). But my editor at CNN, surely wisely (I trust my editors), removed most of the links. So here are the resources to which I explicitly connected my essay. These are my footnotes.

  1. Erdoğan
    speaking
    in support of the renovations
    and an overview of reviews.
  2. Early reports on the demonstrations spreading to other cities
  3. Erdoğan claiming to be open to “democratic
    demands,” but denial of the legitimacy of all the public unrest, calling
    them
    , “an illegal uprising against the rule of democracy.” 
  4.  CNN’s link on yesterday’s crackdown, when the police blanketed
    the area
    with tear gas. 
  5. Disagreements about the cause. What are the protests “really” about?  Some focus on the role of Islam
    in Turkey,
    while others emphasize disagreements about the nature of Turkish democracy,
    the lack of civil
    liberties
    , or the nascent environmentalist
    movement.
  6. Under AKP rule, the Ottoman
    past
    has re-emerged
    as culturally powerful.  More and more aspects of elite Turkish
    culture now embrace Ottoman architecture,
    fashion and even foodAccording
    to some opponents of the AKP,
  7. In fact, in popular Turkish culture, the Taksim
    Barracks are associated
    with the killing of Christian army officers
    in 1909, while the Alevis (a
    large minority group in Turkey) remember Selim
    I as the murderer
    of their people. 
  8. At their best, the Ottomans were surprisingly pluralistic
  9. Actors protest: Devrim Evin declined
    to join Istanbul’s formal celebration. He joined actors
    from Magnificent Century. You can follow him on twitter. His comments on on Mehmet

There’s lots more out there that I read. A friend just suggested this architecture blog which links to another piece describing the plans as “a neo-Ottoman Las Vegas in this 6000-year-old city.”

What else should we read?

Crusaders in Iraq

In a recent New Yorker piece on the late SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, Nicholas Schmidle writes,

Like many soldiers, Kyle was deeply religious and saw the Iraq War
through that prism. He tattooed one of his arms with a red crusader’s
cross, wanting “everyone to know I was a Christian.” When he learned
that insurgents had placed a bounty on his head and had named him
al-Shaitan Ramadi—the Devil of Ramadi—he felt “proud.” He “hated the
damn savages” he was fighting. In his book, he recounts telling an Army
colonel, “I don’t shoot people with Korans. I’d like to, but I don’t.”

Kyle is an interesting and tragic figure. He wrote a book. He became famous. He was killed by a soldier he was trying to help. But I just want to focus on that cross. Where did he get it? When did he get it? Did lots of people have them? Was it a SEAL thing? A sniper thing? What else can we find out about crusader iconography among the U.S. military deployed in the Islamic world?

There’s plenty to say generally about Christianity and the U.S. Military – on the left, there’s deep concern about “Christianism,” while the right accuses (falsely) Obama of wanting to cleanse Christianity from the armed forces as part of the broader right-wing-Christian-white-male persecution complex. I’m not going to parse this right now. I just want to know what semiotic value “the crusades” had to Kyle and others like him.

The broader context is my interest in a talk by famed journalist Seymour Hersh. In Doha, Qatar, in 2011, the man who exposed both Abu Ghraib and My Lai, gave a talk in which he literally accused the U.S. Military of being run by Crusaders. He said, according to the transcript:

That’s an attitude that pervades, I’m here to say, a large
percentage of the Special Operations Command, the Joint Special Operations
Command and Stanley McChrystal, the one who got in trouble because of the
article in Rolling Stone, and his follow-on,
a Navy admiral named McRaven, Bill McRaven — all are members or at least
supporters of Knights of Malta. McRaven attended, so I understand, the recent
annual convention of the Knights of Malta they had in Cyprus a few months back
in November. They’re all believers — many of them are members of Opus Dei. They
do see what they are doing — and this is not an atypical attitude among some
military — it’s a crusade, literally. They see themselves as the protectors of
the Christians. They’re protecting them from the Muslims in the 13th century. And
this is their function. They have little insignias, they have coins they pass
among each other, which are crusader coins, and they have insignia that reflect
that, the whole notion that this is a war, it’s culture war. [My emphasis]

Now this is quite something for a world famous journalist, someone who has uncovered secrets in the past, to say. Reaction was negative. Foreign Policy – “a rambling, conspiracy-laden diatribe.” Washington Post – “his latest revelation is drawing some puzzled reactions and angry denunciations.”

One of the big problems:

One is his allegation involving McChrystal. A spokesman for McChrystal
said the general “is not and never has been” a member of the Knights of
Malta, an ancient order that protected Christians from Muslim
encroachment during the Middle Ages and has since evolved into a
charitable organization. These days, the Knights, based in Rome, sponsor
medical missions in dozens of countries. McChrystal’s spokesman, David
Bolger, said Hersh’s statement linking McChrystal to the group was
“completely false and without basis in fact.”

 As for the crusader coins:

Hersh declined to comment on some of the specific statements he made in
the speech, such as the notion that American military officers pass
“crusader” coins among themselves. “I said what I said,” he responded.
“I can’t get into it because I’m writing a book” about the small group
of neoconservatives who directed U.S. foreign policy in the Bush
administration.

 Hersh continued:

“I’m comfortable with the idea that there is a great deal of
fundamentalism in JSOC. It’s growing and it’s empirical. . . . There is
an incredible strain of Christian fundamentalism, not just Catholic,
that’s part of the military.”

So he ends up quite a way from saying “crusade.”

My general hypothesis, which I actually wrote about years ago,  is that the West preserved the language of Crusade for centuries, because (quoting myself), “Winners write the histories, but losers hold the grudges.” The Crusades re-emerged as a focal point in Islamic discourse in the breakup of the Ottoman empire, the rise of Arab nationalism, and the post-colonial reactions in the region. When Saddam called his enemies, “Crusaders and Zionists,” this was relatively new. I suspect the emergence of specific crusader imagery also dates to the first Gulf War, but where the lines of correlation and causation should be drawn, I lack the data to say.

So. We have a sniper with a self-defined “crusader cross.” Definitely something to watch for.

UPDATE 2/7/15 – Welcome new readers from my Guardian piece. This piece on crusader sub-culture is quite detailed. Thoughts on it are welcome.

UPDATE 2: Please note the date. This was written long before American Sniper came out and has not been revised.

1947 – Dorothy Sayers, “The Human-Not-Quite-Human”:

Several people (including my mother) have noted that (kindly) there was nothing new in my piece on CNN. Feminists have known these things for a long time. And sure, the neuroscience is more specific now, but what I was doing was illustrating a specific, recent, form of a long-recognized problem.

I absolutely agree. What’s startling is how pernicious and powerful these gender stereotypes are. There’s a whole deal about “lady writers” in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, an organization to which several friends belong. It’s inside baseball and if you care about it (I do), you’re already reading about it. Here’s a great list of links.

Except it’s not inside baseball. It’s reflective of everything that drove me to write my essay.  And it’s nothing new. Taken from Seanan McGuire’s livejournal in a comment by Livejournal User Jenk (who I do not know, but I like to give credit), I present some Dorothy Sayers:

From the 1947 Dorothy L. Sayers essay “The Human-Not-Quite-Human”:

Probably no man has ever troubled to imagine how strange his life would
appear to himself if it were unrelentingly assessed in terms of his
maleness; if everything he wore, said, or did had to be justified by
reference to female approval; if he were compelled to regard himself,
day in day out, not as a member of society, but merely (salva
reverentia) as a virile member of society. If the centre of his
dress-consciousness were his cod-piece, his education directed to making
him a spirited lover and meek paterfamilias; his interests held to be
natural only in so far as they were sexual. If from school and
lecture-room, Press and pulpit, he heard the persistent outpouring of a
shrill and scolding voice, bidding him remember his biological function.
If he were vexed by continual advice how to add a rough male touch to
his typing, how to be learned without losing his masculine appeal, how
to combine chemical research with seduction, how to play bridge without
incurring the suspicion of impotence. If, instead of allowing with a
smile that “women prefer cavemen,” he felt the unrelenting pressure of a whole social structure forcing him to order all his goings in
conformity with that pronouncement.

He would hear (and would he
like hearing?) the female counterpart of Dr. P*** informing him: “I am
no supporter of the Horseback Hall doctrine of ‘gun-tail, plough-tail
and stud’ as the only spheres for masculine action; but we do need a
more definite conception of the nature and scope of man’s life.” In any
book on sociology he would find, after the main portion dealing with
human needs and rights, a supplementary chapter devoted to “The Position
of the Male in the Perfect State.” His newspaper would assist him with a
“Men’s Corner,” telling him how, by the expenditure of a good deal of
money and a couple of hours a day, he could attract the girls and retain
his wife’s affection; and when he had succeeded in capturing a mate,
his name would be taken from him, and society would present him with a
special title to proclaim his achievement. People would write books
called, “History of the Male,” or “Males of the Bible,” or “The
Psychology of the Male,” and he would be regaled daily with headlines,
such as “Gentleman-Doctor’s Discovery,” “Male-Secretary Wins Calcutta
Sweep,” “Men-Artists at the Academy.” If he gave an interview to a
reporter, or performed any unusual exploit, he would find it recorded in
such terms as these: “Professor Bract, although a distinguished
botanist, is not in any way an unmanly man. He has, in fact, a wife and
seven children. Tall and burly, the hands with which he handles his
delicate specimens are as gnarled and powerful as those of a Canadian
lumberjack, and when I swilled beer with him in his laboratory, he
bawled his conclusions at me in a strong, gruff voice that implemented
the promise of his swaggering moustache.” […]

He would be
edified by solemn discussions about “Should Men Serve in Drapery
Establishments?” and acrimonious ones about “Tea-Drinking Men”; by
cross-shots of public affairs “from the masculine angle,” and by
irritable correspondence about men who expose their anatomy on beaches
(so masculine of them), conceal it in dressing-gowns (too feminine of
them), think about nothing but women, pretend an unnatural indifference
to women, exploit their sex to get jobs, lower the tone of the office by
their sexless appearance, and generally fail to please a public opinion
which demands the incompatible. And at dinner-parties he would hear the
wheedling, unctuous, predatory female voice demand: “And why should you
trouble your handsome little head about politics?”

If, after a
few centuries of this kind of treatment, the male was a little
self-conscious, a little on the defensive, and a little bewildered about
what was required of him, I should not blame him. If he presented the
world with a major social problem, I should scarcely be surprised. It
would be more surprising if he retained any rag of sanity and
self-respect.

So there’s that.

Also, Seanan writes, with her usual incisciveness:

As for the appearance thing…yeah, people often like to be told when
they look good. But women in our modern world are frequently valued
according to appearance to such a degree that it eclipses all else.
“Jane was a hell of a science fiction writer…but more importantly, she
was gorgeous according to a very narrow and largely male-defined
standard of conventional beauty.” All Jane’s accomplishments,
everything she ever did as a person, matter less than the fact that she
got good genes.

Which is basically the grown-up version of my daughter winning a “best dressed” award.

 

Record keeping

Here’s a link to my radio interview with KKSF Talk 910 AM San Francisco. My segment starts around 14:10.

Coming soon:

  • Book review of In This Together’s “great books for real girls.” Spoiler, I can’t tell you about the soccer book because my 10-year-old niece took it away and started reading.
  • Essay on Turkey and historical memory
  • Essay on police violence and disability
  • Essay on being a (white straight) male feminist, and why it matters
  • Parsing the CNN comments, because navel-gazing is fun for the whole family.

The Discourse of Police Brutality – 14-year-old attacked for a “dehumanizing stare.”

In a few weeks (date not yet set), I will be publishing an essay on police brutality and disability. As a result of my work on this (really upsetting) topic, I’ve been tracking the ways that police explain their actions. The use of language, even more than the specifics of any given case, shows the way that the police understand their own actions.

This is very much a thought in progress, and I’d like to hear your refinements, counter-arguments, and general reactions. 

Case #1

Last December, a young man named Antonio Martinez left his house to go to his family’s bakery. His sister always tells him to dress warmly, so he pulled on a hoodie and covered his head. There were two San Diego County Sheriff’s deputies in the area who spotted him and decided that he looked suspicious. They told him to stop, be he ignored him. Antonio was then pepper-sprayed, hit with a baton, and knocked to the ground. The deputies handcuffed him and put him their car.

 The deputies were in the area looking for a domestic violence suspect
described as a 5’11” Latino male. Antonio is a 4’11” Latino male.  I read this as a clear-cut case of walking-while-Hispanic, but in this case, there’s an
additional key detail; Antonio Martinez has Down syndrome.  Sheriff’s spokesperson Jan Caldwell said,
“It was a dark night. There was a non-compliant person that was hiding
his face and hiding his hands. It’s clear in the light of day that this
man had a disability, but the deputy at the time didn’t know that.”

 Case #2

Last Thursday, a 14-year-old boy named Tremaine McMillan was playing on the beach with some friends and his puppy. Police decided his behavior was unacceptable, challenged him verbally, and told him to show them where his mother was. Assuming everything the police say is true, he clenched his fist, gave them a “dehumanizing stare,” then turned to walk (toward his mother, says Tremaine). The police tackled him and pinned him to the ground. You can follow the links for cell phone footage and more comments.

I want to focus on the police explanation, here: “Miami-Dade Police Detective Alvaro Zabaleta justified the use of
force, saying McMillan was exhibiting threatening “body language,” which
includes “clenched fists.”. . . “Of course we have to neutralize the
threat in front of us,” said Zabaleta.  “And when you have somebody that
is being resistant, somebody that is pulling away from you, somebody
that’s clenching their fist, somebody that’s flaring their arms, that’s
the immediate threat.” The accounts vary slightly, but in all cases it’s clear that the police feel justified tackling someone who is not acting violently, but who is showing angry body language. And then they charged him with resisting arrest.

Thoughts:

When we read Tremaine’s story, one could argue that he should have complied faster, more politely, and otherwise engage in blaming him for his predicament. But when we put Tremaine’s story against Antonio Martinez, from Miami to San Diego, I think in just these two examples the pattern is revealed: when police speak to you, especially if you have brown skin, you have to submit instantly, without hesitation. Otherwise, the police will feel justified in getting physical.

Only Martinez’ disability saved him from being charged. As far as I know, the deputy responsible was never suspended.

So there are two issues here: One, the specific concern of how disabled people interact with police (which is my main topic that I focus on), but there’s a broader issue too. Cases like Martinez’ reveal the widespread pattern of police responded with “non-lethal” violence the instant their authority is questioned in any way.

And I say “non-lethal,” in scare quotes, because Ethan Saylor is dead and we still want justice.