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.
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.”
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.
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.