The Wrong Approach on Media, Policing, and Disability

My home-away-from-home community of Minneapolis-St. Paul just learned that the police officers who killed Jamar Clark will not be charged. This case has become a focal point for Black Lives Matter in the Twin Cities.

There’s another case though, that is getting both legislative and media attention: John Birkeland. He was killed during a mental health crisis when police came to check on him in February. Despite knowing he was in crisis (I’m told), police found he had a warrant for giving a false name once and decided to arrest him. He fled into the house, they broke open his door, sent in a dog, found him a closet, he came out and stabbed the dog, and they killed him. It’s a tragic case and a classic “lawful but awful” example of how police mishandle mental health crises.

The problem is this piece by Minnesota Public Radio columnist Bob Collins. who positions this as “protest Birkeland, not Clark.”

With so much activist and media attention focused on Jamar Clark, there’s been little energy left for the community to wonder why John Birkeland of Roseville had to die because he once gave a wrong name to police.

Birkeland, 57, was in the middle of a mental health crisis in February when Roseville police were asked to check on him and make sure he was OK. Assured by Birkeland that he was, police discovered that there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest for giving a false name to police. So they broke down his door, sent a police dog in, and followed. Birkeland fled to a closet.

When the cops opened the closet door, he stabbed a police dog (the dog recovered), so nearly a half dozen police shot him dead.

There were no protests. No calls to see the police video, and almost no public consideration of how it might have gone differently.

Many police reform activists are suspicious that disability rights folks, especially white folks like me and Collins, are trying to use disability rights to derail the Black Lives Matter movement. This kind of framing only confirms that analysis, that to talk about mental health or disability is to diminish the need to talk about race. That’s 100% wrong. They intersect and the specifics of the discrimination are not the same. The reasons black men are harassed and killed by police are not the same reasons that people with disabilities are more likely than abled people to encounter the police and for those encounters to go wrong. And yet, to understand the totality of the problems with American policing requires thinking about both racism AND ableism (AND classism AND heterosexism AND AND AND).

I’ve been explicit in the aspirational intersectionality of my project, but I see Collins’ framing far too often from folks who want to talk about disability.

The most vulnerable are people who are multiply marginalized. Here’s what I said in a recent interview that does a pretty good job of summarizing my approach:

Sarabia: Does what you’re doing, putting it into a different context, does it minimize what so many people have been pointing out lately, that this is an attack on African-American civilians.

Me: It /is/ an attack on African-American civilians. And it plays into our long history of both individual and structural racism in American society. But one of the things that we’ve learned under the principles of intersectionality, is that when you are marginalized in multiple ways, you are multiply endangered.

So for example, many of these names of high profile victims of police violence – Kajieme Powell, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray – these were all African-Americans and that’s not a coincidence. It’s an indictment of our, of the racism in American society. But all four of those people were also disabled … and I don’t think that’s a coincidence either. So if we’re really going to work on this, we need to look at these people as whole people, and think about the ways that racism and ableism intersect with each other and magnify each other.

Note: I was pleased to see a link to the recent Guardian coverage of the Ruderman report I co-authored at the bottom, as the whole point of that report was to conveniently provide journalists with a frame in which to place individual cases. I’d like Collins to re-read the discussions of intersectionality in the report, such as:

Taking an intersectional approach allows us to examine the roles of ableism—individual or structural discrimination against people with disabilities—in police use of force, without ignoring racism, classism, sexism, or other relevant issues.

We argue that disability intersects with other factors (such as race, class, gender, and sexuality) to magnify degrees of marginalization and enhance risk of violence. When the media ignores or mishandles a major factor, as we contend they generally do with disability, it becomes harder to effect change. We also operate from a broad, cross-category, set of definitions for disability, inclusive of physical, developmental, intellectual, psychiatric, emotional, and any other form of disability that might fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

We need to find and make allies across categories, across movements.

Disability and Policing: Equip for Equality

I spent the morning at Equip for Equality in Downtown Chicago, learning from attorney Amanda Antholt as she discussed policing and disability.

Antholt has a long history as a police misconduct lawyer, so I was especially pleased to hear her say the above. We agree that there are many specific issues about specific disabilities that matters, but that the bigger picture is this basic pattern of how police are trained to seize control.

See more tweets in my feed on the event. Feel free to storify if that’s useful to you. I’m writing Chapter 7.

#CripTheVote on Sub-Minimum Wage Policy

A few months ago I wrote about Clinton’s policy on helping people with Autism and their families. More recently, I wrote about disability entering the political frame of “interest groups.”

Yesterday (Monday, 3/28), I was alerted by Ari Ne’eman of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network that Clinton was asked by an autistic adult about subminimum wages for disabled workers. Clinton’s reply was excellent (transcript from Ne’eman):

“When it comes to jobs, we’ve got to figure out how we get the minimum wage up and include people with disabilities in the minimum wage. There should not be a tiered wage, and right now there is a tiered wage when it comes to facilities that do provide opportunities but not at a self-sufficient wage that enables people to gain a degree of independence as far as they can go. So I want us to take a hard look at raising the minimum wage and ending the tiered minimum wages, whether it’s for people with disabilities or the tipped wage….When people talk about raising the minimum wage, they don’t always talk about the legal loopholes that we have in it and I want to get rid of those and I want to get rid of that for people with disabilities too.”

If you are not a Clinton supporter, you need to push your favorite presidential candidate to take a public position, not on their website, but in their speeches, on this issue. It’s not enough to just “know they would be good on this,” because for generations politicians generally good on social issues have failed disabled Americans. 
If you are a Clinton supporter, you need to push your favorite gubernatorial, Congressional, or more local candidates to take a public position on this.
A few years ago, Senator Reid appointed a friend of his who promoted sub-minimum wage and sheltered workshops to the National Council on Disability. That can’t happen again. Let’s shift the window.

“My Canada Includes an Extra Chromosome”

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Don’t miss tomorrow night’s SEASON FINALE of the RICK MERCER REPORT at 8:00pm on CBC (8:30NT). Here’s Rick’s Rant.
Posted by Rick Mercer Report on Monday, March 28, 2016

Gorgeous rant about the Canadian eugenic immigration laws currently getting exposure.

When people say, “I’ll move to Canada if Trump wins,” I think – not me, not unless I want to leave my son behind.

Story on the family threatened by these laws.

Also elsewhere around the world.

The Disabled Child Body as Object

A teacher in this video knocks a child with “special needs” over with her knee, because he was pausing at the door to the classroom and she wanted him to get inside. It was probably an accident, she just wanted to prod him along. When he gets up, she talks above his head to the adult in the room as she keeps pushing the child in the back.

She’s resigned and been arrested. Video at the link. It’s distressing in its casual violence, but not graphic.

The child’s body here is just treated like an object. He’s a non person.

I have become a pro-surveillance partisan in “special education” classrooms. I just can’t see any other way to stop the abuse.

Good tweet here:

Keeping South Carolina Kids Safe from Cops

Last fall, a South Carolina school resource officer (a school cop, called SROs) was called into a classroom to deal with a student who wouldn’t get off her phone, and who refused to leave the classroom when ordered to do so by the teacher and then the assistant principal. He ripped her from her desk and threw her to the floor.

Fortunately, other students filmed the incident and the officer was quickly followed. The reaction didn’t end there, however, as South Carolina Superintendent of Schools quickly convened a task force to reconsider how SROs are used.

For Pacific Standard, I wrote:

A few weeks ago, Molly Spearman, the superintendent of schools for South Carolina, released the recommendations of the “Safe Schools Task Force,” a group of educators, parents, and law enforcement that Spearman had convened in the wake of Spring Valley to address the use of SROs. The task force’s report, released earlier this month, coalesces around one simple principle: Stop calling the police for disciplinary reasons.
If this policy gets put into practice and succeeds in changing disciplinary culture in their schools, the results could be significant. There’s a chance that South Carolina could narrow the school-to-prison pipeline and protect vulnerable students from abuse at the hands of law enforcement without eroding overall school safety.

I think this is really important. Also, something interesting is happening in South Carolina when it comes to police reform.

Disability and Race: Testimony from Autistic Hoya

Great writing from Lydia Brown on healthcare disparities for disabled people of color.

From both personal and professional experience, I am keenly aware that healthcare disparities are one of the most insidious and pervasive forms of discrimination impacting any underrepresented or minoritized group. These disparities are evident in quality of care, diagnostic accuracy, network adequacy, service delivery models, multicultural competency, and overall health outcomes. These disparities result in lower life expectancy, less access to any healthcare including mental health services, and other deleterious effects on well-being and social stability.

Read the whole testimony here.

Here’s a post on racial disparities in the Down syndrome community from Stephanie Holland.

Give AnnaRose the Camera!

There are two distinct types of message driven inspirational videos. One type focuses inward at the community it represents; the other pushes outward.

#HowDoYouSeeMe claims to be directed outward. The makers and their PR folks claim that its goal is to change the way people see Down syndrome. In fact, headline after headline over the last few days have been telling us that the video has already changed the way people see Down syndrome, thanks to Olivia Wilde. Nothing like inspirational feel good + celebrity clickbait to get people over to your website.

My thesis: Basically no one’s view of Down syndrome has been changed by this video, at least not as the makers intended. No one has watched this video and had a transformational moment after the reveal. No one sees the video and comes away with new realizations about the full humanity and complexity of people with Down syndrome. Rather, the focus of the press has been classic inspiration porn gushing over the famous abled person giving her time to this worthy cause.
It’s arguable that the video is a much better job at the second task – building community among the already persuaded. The video confirms the feelings that people Down syndrome matter among people who already believe it. The production values, the celebrity involvement, and beautiful words spoken by Anna Rose, promote good feelings among people who already feel good, and thus the video gets shared by folks who mean well. Everyone behind the video means well. Everyone who shares it means well. But it just doesn’t “change the way you see Down syndrome,” no matter how much the makers want to make that claim.
In my Establishment piece I focused on the wonderful video from Argentina (the tl;dr is watch this; not that) because I think it really does change the way people see Down syndrome, including for parents like me.
Our image of Down syndrome is white, cute, and compliant (and generally a child). This surly teen in his Ramones t-shirt, his leather wrist cuff, cutting school and jamming in the park with his friends, then riding mass transit alone, changes the way Down syndrome is generally portrayed. I’m wildly for it. I was glad that Born This Way had a black man with Down syndrome and an Asian woman with Down syndrome as two of the characters. Best of all, the “Libertad” video shows rather than tells, then concludes with the filmmaker (who also has Down syndrome) making a few comments AFTER the viewer has already been persuaded. 
The Olivia Wilde video – notice how everyone calls it the Olivia Wilde video – tells rather than shows. And when people complain, the makers and the supporters of the video continue to tell, and tell, and tell. If you have to keep telling, rather than showing, your video is a failure. 
In this self.com piece,  we get a few great quotes from AnnaRose. I wanted more. She’s clearly a rivetingly interesting young woman with a lot to say about disability and identity.
So here’s my proposal to CoorDown and Saatchi and Saatchi, the well-financed folks behind the “Olivia Wilde PSA.” GIVE ANNAROSE THE CAMERA.
Give her a budget. Give her access to professional editors. Let her direct, star, produce, whatever she wants. Give her full control.
Then let’s see what she can do. Now that would be changing the narrative.

Tasers and the Cult of Compliance: Maryland Investigative Report

Here’s a big study on taser use from Maryland, thanks to the hard work of the Baltimore Sun.

In reporting Taser incidents to the state, police departments must record the reason for discharging the weapon. Officers have only three options: “non-compliant and non-threatening,” “use of threat” or “use of force.”
Of all incidents from 2012 through 2014, police reported firing Tasers in 59 percent of cases because individuals were noncompliant. Officers said they fired because individuals used force against them in 23 percent of cases and because officers were threatened in 18 percent.

I don’t have hard stats, but almost all “lawful but awful” (and plenty of non-lawful and awful) cases of police use of force start with an officer escalating an encounter due to non-compliance. I’m often asked what changes I’d like to see, and I have a long list of topics for discussion, but here’s the first – teach law enforcement officers not to treat non-compliance, on its own, as a reason for escalation.

Tasers, too often, work in the other direction. They can be really good tools, but only if they are used in lieu of lethal force. Instead, officers use tasers in lieu of patience or conversation.

Accommodations in Academia – Some positive models

As I wrote about the job discrimination ads last month for Al Jazeera America​, I kept thinking about the hashtag #ILookLikeAProfessor and Kelly J. Baker​’s work. My thesis is that the inadvertent part of this was based, at least in part, on people who had just never considered that a disabled person might be able to be a professor. So I put out a call for disabled professors who would be willing to speak to me about their accommodations and tried to write a positive piece about potential, even as I also pointed out the structural issues. I concluded:


“As long as our common image of the professor remains white, male, straight, well-off, and abled, people outside that circle will encounter both structural and direct discrimination. It’s an image that’s increasingly inaccurate. Disabled academics — like academics from so many other diverse communities and claiming so many types of intersecting identities — are here. They’re working hard. And when they receive institutional support, they’re thriving. Let’s work on making that the new normal.”

With thanks to Stephanie Kerschbaum​ Joe Stramondo​ Heide Estes​ and Brian Kruse​ for their kind assistance, as well as the many other people who kindly contributed their experiences but who I didn’t quote directly.