“I don’t see race” and “Not all men.” – That Street Harassment Video

Yesterday, a video on catcalling went viral. Today, Hanna Rosin at Slate wrote a piece on how the editor edited out the white guys, making it a long string of black and Latino men harassing a white woman.

The video is a collaboration between Hollaback!, an anti-street harassment organization, and the marketing agency Rob Bliss Creative. At the end they claim the woman experienced 100 plus incidents of harassment “involving people of all backgrounds.” Since that obviously doesn’t show up in the video, Bliss addressed it in a post. He wrote, “we got a fair amount of white guys, but for whatever reason, a lot of what they said was in passing, or off camera” or was ruined by a siren or other noise. The final product, he writes, “is not a perfect representation of everything that happened.” 

I see this a lot. I hear it from the “Oh, I’m a humanist, not a feminist crowd.” I hear it from the “I don’t see race, just humans, crowd.” I hear it from the “We need equality, not special treatment or affirmative action, just equality” crowd.

Such positions deny the inherent power dynamics at play in society.  Only those who are dominant can afford to be blind to them. Only those who are dominant can afford to shrug off editing out all the white guys and saying – well, what matters is the message about street harassment.

This video enables all the men who harass women in other ways to look at this and to feel smugly superior. It enables the cry, “Not all men,” when the answer is Yes, all men.

All men. I am a feminist. I define feminism as a critique of the gendered power dynamics that govern our societies and then commitment to actions based on that critique. But I am not perfect. I am raised in a sexist culture. I am steeped in sexist media and messages. And sometimes, I do something sexist. Maybe I turn to look at a woman walking by. Maybe I don’t intervene when “the guys” are chatting about a woman in a social space. Maybe I act in sexist ways in which I am not even aware.

I try to own it, to think hard about my actions, and to apologize if appropriate (often, the apology becomes another form of microaggression). I try to be intentional and aware and to do better, acknowledging the problems and the challenges.

That’s why this video, though effective, may do more harm than good. Through editing, surely not intentionally, it suggests that street harassment is not a white-guy problem. Intentional doesn’t matter. Only results count.

Police and Psychiatrically Disabled Individuals with Weapons

And then followed a lively Twitter conversation.

I follow Lowery due to his great work in Ferguson, and am glad someone @mentioned me in the conversation to draw me in. The case in question is about the Justice Department not finding anyone culpable in the 2012 shooting death of a man with a penknife who didn’t comply. Regular readers will know my phrase – “the cult of compliance” – which comes into such striking clarity in events like this.

What’s interesting, and tragic, to me, is that when someone gets beaten or killed in a situation like this, the emphasis is always on the final moment. Police surround or approach an armed individual with mental illness, demand the person comply, they don’t comply, and then they kill him or her. The officers are then usually exonerated by the justice system, because at that final moment, there was a real threat to the officers.

But it’s possible to re-imagine a strategic approach to such situations to make that threat less likely to occur.

1. Is there a threat? I contend that a man with a knife standing nowhere close to other people is not an imminent threat. Officers who are aware of the mental illness component have to respond differently than they might in other circumstances. For example, here’s a video/reports of a drunk white guy with a rifle – police are very careful not to push it to an aggressive confrontation and the situation gradually de-escalates.

Compare that to this case, in which police swarm (warning, video is disturbing) to try and take control, resulting in death.

Part of this is, surely, racial.
Part of this, too, is the knife vs gun. It’s less threatening but also seems to mandate a fast response.

I’ll be interested to hear what my police readers (yes, I have police readers, smart folks who really want to build better police procedures) say.

2. If there is a threat, what is the least violent way of dealing with it? I am no fan of TASERS, but they exist precisely for situations like this. Police are, however, legally authorized to use their firearms when confronted with a threat to themselves, and a person close by with a knife is a threat.

The 2012 story in Michigan keeps playing out. I talked about it in this CNN piece on 4 police killings in August.  It’s the story of Kajieme Powell, who had a small knife. Michelle Cusseaux, who had a hammer. It’s the story of every mentally ill (I prefer the term psychiatric disability, for reasons I spell out in the article) individual, especially people of color, who are holding a weapon, are not an imminent threat, but who get killed.

I argue that once police engage and create a dynamic in which the person with the disability has to drop their weapon and comply, or be shot, being shot is inevitable. I wrote, “In each case, police demanded that a disabled person choose between not being disabled or getting shot. Now four more people are dead.” And more people will die.

Looking at the whole, I conclude:

The stories follow a similar pattern. The victim had a weapon and did not respond to police commands to drop it, and so they died. Of course, a person struggling with his or her disability is not likely to follow verbal police commands in a moment of stress. Once the equation reached drop or die, death was inevitable.

The only solution is for the police to avoid getting into that situation if at all possible. Unfortunately, this runs directly against police training. Police are trained to display command presence in the face of uncertainly, seizing control of a situation by issuing orders, demanding compliance and using force on those who won’t obey. Protect and serve has become command and control.

There are other models. Seattle police now teach their recruits to be “guardians.” Others emphasize patience. When Cusseaux frustrated the police by opening and closing the door repeatedly, why not just wait her out? Moreover, where were the Tasers? Taser-overuse is a major problem, but if they have a place in modern policing, surely it’s when confronted by an armed psychiatrically disabled person at close range.

I’m increasingly sure that while CIT – AKA the “memphis model” –  provides training and resources for LEOs who take the classes, this particular set of training doesn’t save the life of armed mentally ill individuals. Instead, the police have to decide that shooting is the genuinely last resort and avoid creating the “comply or die” or rather “be not disabled or die” situations.

When shooting is genuinely the last resort, and no one is at risk, you don’t charge in to take command of the situation, but rather keep maximum space between you and the individual. You deploy maximum patience. This goes significantly against standard police training, but … it’s possible.

And here’s the final piece – all of these procedures that might save the lives of people with psychiatric disabilities, they could save your life too. They should become standard.

Seeking a pro-choice and anti-eugenic rhetoric

I often say that the world of prenatal testing for Down syndrome is a test run for the future of human procreation, and that it’s a test we are generally failing.

It seems to me that as our access to pre-natal information gets better and better, cheaper and cheaper, more and more accurate, we slide inexorably towards what I call the GATTACA future. The rhetorics, laws and best medical practices we develop around testing for Down syndrome, the first common condition (more or less) detectable non-invasively and early in pregnancy, will shape the way we handle the next wave of advances. Already, individuals with certain genetic risk factors for fatal conditions can get in-vitro fetuses screened before implantation. I am sure that wealthy individuals are also already traveling abroad to create designer babies, a technology that is only accelerating.

Slippery-slope arguments are always tricky, but this slope looks pretty clear to me. In the world of Down syndrome, two technologies are racing each other. One – testing – enables early abortion. The other – medicine intended to improve cognitive function – not only might ameliorate some of the hardships generally associated with Down syndrome, but might also transform societal impression of the disability.

Meanwhile, the pro-life side increasingly radicalizes, turns violent (rhetorically and actually), and successfully restricts access to abortion across the country – and uses Down syndrome as a wedge issue – it becomes harder for a pro-choice voice like me to raise concerns about the way decisions are made.

I believe, without equivocation, that access to abortion should be universal, affordable, protected by law, and solely the choice of the woman.  But I also believe that in making such choices we reveal all kinds of underlying principles about what is valued, what is good, and what is normal. In general, disability is perceived as none of these things. I am trying, and mostly flailing about, to develop a pro-choice and anti-eugenic rhetoric.

I am writing this because Katha Pollitt has a new book out called Pro, which I haven’t read yet, and did an interview in the New York Times. She, too, is interested in the rhetorics of abortion and is trying to change the conversation from “safe, legal, and rare” to “safe, legal, and available.” Rare places a moral weight on abortion so that even if it’s legal, that legality is grudging, and there’s an idea that there’s a right amount of abortion. She’s working against the right-wing fanaticism, and good for her.

But then she wrote:

Q: Are there any arguments on the other side of the debate that either give you pause or that you respect on a purely intellectual (if not practical) level?

A: Someone (actually, a pro-choicer at a Planned Parenthood fundraiser) said to me, it’s okay to say you’re not going to have a baby now, but it’s wrong to say you’re not going to have this baby now. I struggle with abortion for, say, Down syndrome. At the same time I ask myself: if Down syndrome could be prevented, that would be a good thing, so why does abortion feel different, since it’s not yet a person? I don’t find the anti-choice perspective intellectually persuasive at all — the personhood of the fertilized egg, sex as a kind of contract to have a baby. But emotionally there is something appealing about accepting life with all its imperfections and difficulties and even sorrow, rising to the occasion and making something good out of it.
The problem is they want to force this view on others, and by others I mean women, because they have no more interest than the culture at large in demanding real sacrifice by men who get women pregnant.

Pollitt and I are roughly on the same page in all but one phrase. She says – there’s something appealing about accepting life in all its forms. I agree. Not just appealing, in fact, but important. If a diverse society is important, if a diverse society is a better society, than neuro-diversity and physical diversity and chromosomal diversity has to be part of that. I suspect Pollitt would agree (we chatted briefly on twitter and I sent her an email at her invitation).

Furthermore, I share Pollitt’s deep anger at the right-wing for trying to force such views on women, especially because too many “pro-life” people also don’t want to pay for better schools, medical access, accessible buildings, integrated work opportunities, and all the other things. Disability is expensive. Pro-life people should demand the state pay for such expenses to the extent necessary.

But I’m not here to talk about the right-wing’s endless hypocrisy, but rather to focus on just this line: “If Down syndrome could be prevented, that would be a good thing.”

Would it be? What does prevented mean?

  • Injecting magic stem cells into a fetus with Down syndrome and have the fetus develop without chromosomal abnormalities? (proposed, unlikely)
  • Aborting every fetus with Down syndrome? (not happening, but happening plenty)
  • Finding a drug combination that works against the general cognitive delays associated with Down syndrome (in clinical trials now)
  • Building a more inclusive society to help bear the weight when things get hard, as they do? (depends where and who you are. Pretty good in the suburbs).
What is a cure? 
I’m not the first to talk about this. I like Michael Bérubé on the subject and the “race for the reasonable accommodation.” 
I would like my son’s life to be easier. I’d like to have more tools to counter the ways in which Down syndrome makes it hard for him to learn. I’d like to be able to function in public without feeling shame and isolation when Nico’s behavior collapses. These things are, in fact, happening.
On the pro-choice side, we need a new rhetoric. We need to proudly embrace a rhetoric of diversity and disability. Not because it’s glorious to accept hardship and we can make something good out of it, as Pollitt says, but because often our perceptions our flawed. The things we were sure we know about Down syndrome 30 years ago turned out to be wrong. 
We think we know what normal is. We think we know what a good life is. We’re often wrong. 
This … is a work in progress. 

The NEH and Jeff Sessions

I’m still waiting on documents to arrive for the NEH as I’d like a much clearer assessment of who is making decisions over there.

I’m angry, as well, that they aren’t more forthcoming. The NEH belongs to us. It belongs to everyone who has participated in an NEH program or applied for one. It belongs to every citizen that works in the humanities at any level. It belongs to the taxpayers. And that’s why FOIA exists, to force transparency when craven bureaucrats hide their process and make statements that seem untrue. I’m not famous. I’m not important. And I can’t get answers by simply asking reasonable questions. And so I wait for documents.

In the meantime, my attention on Jeff Sessions is intensifying. I think a lot of people dismiss him as an anti-intellectual crank, but he’s quite sophisticated at speaking to people who are, at the first, suspicious of the humanities, and who are suspicious of federal support for research of any kind except for the most pragmatic (and military).

Sessions is the ranking GOP member of the Senate Budget Committee. In a few days, he could be the incoming chair of the Senate Budget Committee. At which point, every budget emerging from his committee will include little to no funding for basic research of all kinds. The NEH and NEA are obvious targets, but the NIH is going to be in trouble too. It’s all bad for knowledge.

So if there’s a GOP Senate, that’s not going to be fun. In such an environment, though, targeted groups cannot respond to pressure through this behind-the-scenes fait accompli kind of a decision making. They have to gather stakeholders in, make us feel part of the process, make us feel like the NEH is something worth fighting for.

And right now, when Sessions says cut the NEH, my emotional response (not rational response) is to shrug and say, “whatever.” Because it’s pretty clear, right now, that the big fancy folks at Washington don’t care about my voice. Or your voice. It’s not our NEH, so why not just let Sessions gut it.

I will try to resist such emotional responses, but none of this was necessary. The NEH could have contacted its program Directors (and through them past participants) and said – “we have this series of bad choices and are trying to figure out what’s the least bad response. One thought was to cancel foreign programs for the following reasons…”

In such a circumstance, they build community and sympathy for making hard budget choices. But they also then have to be transparent about what those choices actually are and I fundamentally don’t believe they have been.

  • To my knowledge, they aren’t really saving much money (and possibly not any money) by cutting the program. 
  • To my knowledge, the foreign seminars attract more applicants than the domestic ones, so the NEH’s suggestion that this is about access doesn’t stand up. 
  • To my knowledge, the NEH foreign seminars consistently produce books, conference sessions, and career-changing/sparking moments in ways that they would have not have without their on-site location.
I continue to believe this decision is part of a defensive crouch in the face of the coming GOP storm. To duck and cover while ridding yourself of allies seems like a poor choice strategically. 
Our next moves will also have to be political.

Sunday Roundup: Material Culture

The last few days I’ve been at a conference on Medieval Materiality. For those not familiar, there’s a lot of talk in my field of the “material turn,” in which questions about material culture and object-related analyses (of many sorts) are becoming more central, where once they were quite peripheral.

Among the many things that interested me, though, was the divide between people working on discrete pieces of material culture – i.e. stuff – and those working more abstractly on ideas about materiality – i.e. how people thought about stuff. This is an overly simplified dichotomy, of course, as there are many fine gradations, but it did seem evident to me, and I’m curious about the ways we might ease that gap.

Is there, in fact, any real connection between the literary scholar looking at a metaphor as object, or the art historian thinking about light as object (both fun talks) and the historian looking at textile production or donations to a church (both fun talks!)? Does the shared interest in stuff actually make us think there’s a connection when none exists?

These are just musings at the end of a very long weekend, head too packed with ideas to be articulate, but noted so I can return to them at a later date.

FWIW, my piece was on a monk who depicted “wisdom” as a material commodity that merchants should pursue as if it were gold.

As I finish my book proofs, I still wrote a few blogs:

Lessons from Swimming Lessons; or, How Not to Work with Kids with Disabilities.

 “Scrounger” On the (vilification of disability in the UK)

And a brief comment on a piece about design, given that All Tech is Assistive Tech

Light writing week next week too. Working line by line through my book, looking for errors (so it’s mostly dogs that aren’t barking).

Swimming Lessons; or, How Not to Work with Kids with Special Needs

Nico in a swimming pool, holding onto a tube, swimming and laughing.
This is my son swimming at a party this summer. He’s never happier than when he’s in the pool, using his body, feeling the water, playing and filled with joy. So, finally, my wife and I signed him up for swimming lessons with a special needs recreational association in our community. It’s been going great, until last night. But there are some lessons to learn here.
Here’s the letter I wrote to the program director last night.

Dear _______,

I am writing to express my deep frustration and anger at today’s swim lessons for Nico. I will first explain what transpired, then the problems, then my request for some solutions.

Nico has been working with L. L and Nico established instant rapport and have been going back and forth – stomach, then back, stomach, then back, since the first lesson. I was really happy about the way they worked together, but I did ask about progress towards getting the back of his head in the water and getting him to blow bubbles. The woman from SEASPAR who observes the lessons got in the pool at the end of the last session to offer some suggestions, they didn’t really work, but Nico was happy to work with L. a little at the end of last session.

Today when I arrived L went to work with another boy, and E took Nico. Nico was baffled, upset, and frightened. It took a few minutes to get him in the water and he complained. I also asked E to concentrate on Nico’s stomach – he does better with consistent effort rather than swapping back and forth. E replied that he needed to do both sides for safety, and I suggested maybe 3/4ths stomach – we would really like Nico to swim.

It didn’t go well. Nico did a little kicking on his stomach and a few bubbles, then after a few minutes, she switched him to his back. And kept him on his back for about 20 minutes without a break. She never took him to a wall to rest. Meanwhile, Nico screamed. He screamed the scream he gives out when he’s getting his blood drawn. It’s his absolute fright and unhappy scream. She would ask him to do something and he would say, “no.” She ignored him. Then he’d go back to screaming. At the end, she let him be on his stomach for a few more minutes and he calmed down.

1. A child with severe communication delays cannot be surprised like this. I spent the previous 30 minutes talking about L, preparing him for L, and he was ready for L. If the swimming staff feels the need to make a switch, it is reasonable to expect that they will communicate that with the parents. If they do not understand the complexities of working with children with communication delays, kids who often rely heavily on patterns and consistency to make their way through the world, it is reasonable to expect that they become educated in best practices.

2. If L, or anyone, would like more or less engagement with the parents (L had previously said my engagement was fine), I expect them to contact me and talk about the issues. As a parent, my job is to advocate for my child – but I am always interested in dialogue. I just need to know there’s a plan.

3. Nico loves swimming. His love for swimming provides a pathway to teach him to swim, with gentle and creative pressure to get him to learn to swim properly and safely. More lessons like this will turn it into something terrifying. I will not allow that to happen.

I eagerly await your communication explaining first what happened yesterday and second what’s going to be done differently. I’d like to know what experience the instructors have with children with Down syndrome and what strategies they plan to use to help him swim. I know that they are not specialists for children with special needs, but something has to change.

Terrifying him and forcing him is NOT an acceptable strategy. And it’s totally not necessary.


So the special rec group contracts with a swimming lessons firm to provide one-on-one instruction. They are not experts in special needs. But the special rec group is, and I hold them responsible  for hiring people who can do the job, and educating people to do the job if they aren’t prepared already.

Nico was having a good time with L, but I really wanted a sense of what the plan was, and perhaps somehow this bothered L. She’s youngish, as parents we can get uptight, and if I bothered her (or if the special need recreational association rep who jumped in the pool and tried to help Nico learn to put the back of his head in the water bothered her), then I regret that. But L is an adult and can say so, either directly to me or through her supervisor.

Here’s the big thing. Children with special needs often CLING to consistency. Sometimes we have to shake them out of that, always we need to prep for something new, What we can’t do is spring changes on them. Nico could see L right there in the pool, working with someone new. He does not have the communication ability to understand why this is happening. Moreover, no one made any attempt to explain to him or to me why this was happening.

During the lesson, I tried to engage at various points, when I wasn’t shaking with rage at being so ignored (but it’s not about me, so I mostly just walked away). E went out of her way to avoid eye contact. I almost stopped the lesson, but I didn’t. This can happen once. It just can’t happen repeatedly.

I am furious. Nico is fine. He came out of the pool pretty happy and I expect him to go back in happily next week. But if this happens repeatedly, it could easily become something scary, rather than joyous.

And I Will. Not. Let. That. Happen.

Update: Apparently “E” is the head of the whole program that my special ed rec folks contract with.

Update: 55 minute conversation with the head of the special rec organization about building dialogue among all parties in the future. I am optimistic that there will be both patience and creativity applied to working with Nico.

Scrounger (vilification of disability in the UK)

There’s a new piece up in The Guardian on the vilification of people with disabilities as “scroungers” in the current conservative UK speech and beyond. The author, Aditya Chakrabortty, argues that this discursive move not only helps justify cuts in services, but also leads to violence.

The coalition has so thoroughly vilified “scroungers” that hate crimes against people with disabilities are rising year on year: up 13% since 2011. Forty per cent of incidents are violent. Take the visually impaired man walking in Brighton last year, who was asked by a stranger what it was like to be blind – before being set on fire. Campaigner Paula Peters tells me she’s been spat at in the street, while friends in wheelchairs have been shoved into oncoming traffic.

Austerity is the incompetent treatment of the symptoms of a dysfunctional economy rather than its cause. Housing benefit bill too high? Don’t build more council houses, cut welfare! Paying too much in tax credits? Don’t get employers to pay more, cut benefits! Rather than help create decent jobs, Cameron and Freud prefer to drive Britons off welfare into cut-price employment. That logic is at its most naked and futile in the treatment of disabled people. They are being beaten harder than anyone else; yet no amount of guff about shirking will suddenly make them less disabled.

For me, this conversation invokes the hubbub around Kanye West and our general, broad, suspicion that people with disabilities are getting away with something.  These extreme cases cited by Chakrabortty are not the products of a few extremists, but rather extreme acts of violence emerge from the constant chatter, the structural ableism informs murder and torture.

“Scrounger” dehumanizes, pushing the idea that people with disabilities are burdens on society, less than human, less valuable. We’ve seen it in the US, too, as right-wing discourse seeks to divide and conquer on state benefits. First, right-wing politicians separate “good” recipients of benefits – old people and people with disabilities – from “bad” ones (black and brown people on welfare). Then, the same politicians separate people who are “not really that disabled” from the “good” disabled (people in wheelchairs).

So there’s a contiuum from the low-key “scrounger,” the “faker,” the “worthless” (or to be worth less) to the target of violence. But it’s all of a piece.

All Tech is Assistive Tech

I’ve written about Sara Hendren and her mantra – “All Technology is Assistive Technology” before – both in my review of John Scalzi’s recent book (which is basically about assistive tech) and on the blog.

Hendren has a new piece over on Medium’s Backchannel exploring her mantra with 6 rules on design and assistive tech. Please go read it. The piece says so much about definitions of disability, representation, inclusion, and so much more, too much to summarize. I’m thrilled to have Hendren working in such thoughtful ways on the design side. GO READ IT!

The rules are:

  1. Invisibility is overrated (it’s ok to show the hearing aid)
  2. Rethink the default bodily experience (don’t try to build of an abled model)
  3. Consider fine gradations of qualitative change. (small cheap little shifts can matter)
  4. Uncouple medical technologies from their diagnostic contexts. (this one is complex and hard to summarize in a little phrase. It’s to take tech and remove it from the problem-solving of medical issues, I think, and consider affect).
  5. Design for one. (approach design for individual cases, though broader applications may emerge)
  6. And this is perhaps the most important: Let the tools you make ask questions, not just solve problems.
She finishes:

Let’s hope for objects that raise and suspend questions, and employ them alongside objects designed to solve problems. Then we can have a complex public conversation about needs and desires for interdependence. And about tools that provide assistance to every human body.

Every human body. Shoes are assistive tech. Shirts are assistive tech. Doorknobs are assistive tech. The work Hendren and her colleagues are doing to re-think our definitions is vital to our strange and unpredictable future that will be even more densely packed with human-technology interaction.

Sunday Roundup – 4 articles, 5 blog posts, and Book Proofs

It’s been busy.

I got book proofs on Thursday for Sacred Plunder: Venice and the Aftermath of the Fourth Crusade. That means that my writing will not so much stop, but will become erratic and not as predictable daily until proofs are done. Unless, you know, I get really pissed off about something.

In the meantime, I wrote/had published a lot over the last 10 days or so.

Two Friday’s ago, CNN published an essay on Columbus. On Monday morning, for awhile, it was getting 1000 views a minute and my email, as a result, as been lively. So many people want to tell me about the Vikings, or wish I spent more time talking about rape and mutilation (this essay is for kids!), or attacked me for slandering the great hero of the Age of Discovery!

Then, for Monday, I had an essay about two novels published by the Chronicle. Both novels are set in the Middle Ages and were written by active medieval professors. This is actually pretty unusual, and, as I elaborated in my blog post, tells us something about public engagement.

On Tuesday, I wrote about a Jewish professor at Fordham who found himself accused of religious discrimination for threatening to fight and destroy the American Studies Department if it supported the BDS movement. While not wholly analogous to Salaita (because he didn’t lose his job and had a process, if not so much due process), I emphasize that principles to academic freedom must apply to people with whom we disagree … or we have no principles.

On Wednesday, Al Jazeera America published an essay on the discourse of cute and sweet in the world of Down Syndrome, a context that applies more broadly to other kinds of sweet-i-fiction (a word I just made up) of marginalized or minority groups.  I also wrote a blog post about my hypothesis of emotional intensification as a communication tool for some people with Down syndrome. I was taken to task, correctly, for over-generalizing from small amounts of data (mostly my son and my observation of people with DS locally). Still, I think the hypothesis is worth considering.

On Thursday, Chronicle Vitae published “Save the Overseas Seminar,” on the disaster that is the new NEH policy. I also wrote a quick blog post summarizing my arguments. Much more to come on this.

Finally, the Lawsuit Against The Deputies who killed Ethan Saylor is proceeding. The judge explicitly talked about rapid force-escalation, a phenomenon I link to the Cult of Compliance.

I also hosted and ran the Midwest Medieval History Conference. It seems to have gone very well.

Have a great Sunday. Blogs will be erratic but I’ll be around social media, perhaps doing more sharing of links than writing commentary.

#JusticeForEthan – Lawsuit Against Deputies Proceeds

In January 2012, three off-duty deputies killed a man with Down syndrome over the price of a movie ticket. Now, a civil lawsuit over Ethan Saylor’s death is allowed to continue, as ruled by Judge William Nickerson, and reported here in the Washington Post.

If you are new to #JusticeForEthan, I have a few links to offer, culled quickly from my own record. There are lots of other pieces out there by many wonderful writers, and please go read them!

The judge’s ruling, as quoted in the Post, basically asks the question – why did the deputies get violent so fast? There was no threat, just a non-compliant individual.

Regular readers of this blog will know my answer – these police are steeped in the cult of compliance.

It is, of course, more complicated than that. Ableism links to compliance. It’s clear that the officers had no idea what to do with a non-compliant individual with Down syndrome, no sense that communication was possible, so they went physical, even when they were warned not to do so by Ethan’s aide.

Ableism plays in the response, too. Ethan, a grown man wanting to watch a violent movie, was not cute. It took a long time to generate wide-spread response, as he didn’t fit the semiotic pattern of what Down syndrome is supposed to be (i.e. cute, sweet, angelic).

Here are some key paragraphs about the judge’s ruling from the article, all emphases mine.

The judge said the deputies could have waited for his caregiver or mother to coax him out of his seat or allow them to buy a ticket for the next show and let him stay.

“When the deputies were presented with these various alternatives, there was no emergent situation requiring any rapid response on their part,” Nickerson wrote.

Later in the piece:

Nickerson said the theater manager was correct to call security. But he questioned the deputies’ response. The judge said that Saylor did resist attempts to remove him but “responded in precisely the way” his aide “informed the deputies he would respond.”

The judge found it reasonable that Saylor would suffer “significant injury” when “the decision was made to drag an obese individual with a mental disability out of his chair and down a ramp.”

The judge noted the deputies’ defense: that they followed training in steadily escalating force to remove Saylor from his seat.

Once he refused their orders, it was reasonable to arrest him, and that made it reasonable for them to use force to handcuff him behind his back, he added. Saylor ended up on the floor, under the three deputies, and suffered a fractured larynx. His death was ruled a homicide as a result of asphyxia.

Nickerson said that “perhaps the most significant unsettled question is the reason for the escalation in the deputies’ use of force.” He said that escalation “increased dramatically.”

To my reading, the reason for escalation in the use of force is that Saylor said, “fuck you,” and then didn’t comply, and so then the deputies did exactly was they had been taught and responded to non-compliance with escalating force.

It’s wrong when the victim has Down syndrome.
It’s also wrong to escalate at any time for anyone unless there is a threat. There was no threat here.