Intersectionality: Including Disability In the Police Use-of-Force Discussion

Yesterday the Ruderman Family Foundation published their White Paper on Media Coverage of Law Enforcement Use of Force and Disability. I have been working with Lawrence Carter-Long on this for months, tracking hundreds of newspaper stories. We see disability as a missing piece in so many of the critical conversations about police use-of-force and hope this document functions as a useful tool to help shift our perceptions.

One of our concerns, and something I think about daily as I’ve been writing on this beat for most of the last three years, was to make sure that our contribution added to the broader efforts to reform American policing, rather than offered a way to derail from critical ongoing conversations such as Campaign Zero and Black Lives Matter.

On Monday morning, Chicago Public Radio (WBEZ) had me on their show “The Morning Shift” to talk about the white paper. Tony Sarabia, the host, gave me a chance to talk about our intersectional approach, asking:

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. 

We wrote something similar in the White Paper:

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).

Intersectionality is tricky. It’s not a magic word that cures all forms of unconscious bias. It remains my aspiration, however, in every word I write about social justice and civil rights.

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