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.

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