So I published an essay on Ethan Saylor today, placing his death in the context of other episodes of police violence against people with disabilities. It’s at The Nation, my first publication there, and I’m pleased with it, though social media sharing has been a bit light (not a direct indication of readership, but suggestive of lower than I’d prefer).
Both in finishing the essay and today, I’ve been aware of an ugly racial undercurrent among white people responding to the lack of national outcry over Ethan’s death. The argument goes as follows – people everywhere cared about a black boy’s death (Trayvon), but didn’t care about a person with Down syndrome’s death; ergo – black lives are valued more heavily than DS lives.
A twitter follower asked me of Obama had weighed in for Saylor like he did for Martin. I replied no, but he also doesn’t respond to every black person killed by police every 28 hours or so (according to this study. No idea how accurate it is).
A commentator on the essay at The Nation wrote:
However, our nationals decided to use this as an opportunity to push for
training (thus strengthening the sheriff’s blame of his death being
because he had Ds) and the majority of its members aren’t even aware of
the case. Think this might have been different had he been black or
gay? Absolutely – without a doubt.
This feeds into a discussion that’s very much inside the DS community. Angry people (including me) feel that the call for more training emphasizes that Ethan died because of his disability (and the police ignorance about it), not because of police mistakes or brutality. That’s part of why I want to emphasize the broader context of police responding to any non-compliance with physical violence. Yes, had the police been more savvy about DS they might have responded differently. But had Ethan just been some 300-pound guy swearing, he still didn’t deserve to have his larynx crushed.
But the question of race – no one who studied police and racial violence in this country could argue, based on Trayvon, that somehow violence against black men (or gay men) gets massive media play. The Ethan case is an outlier, a tragic outlier to which I have tried to call attention for its own sake, and to point at broader issues of police conduct in the face of non-compliance.
Here’s an essay from Oregon that compares Trayvon and Ethan. It calls for training and is a fine essay, if not my take. But a commentator writes:
There is a good reason why this Ethan Saylor case will go nowhere in the
media. That is simply because Ethan is white. Nobody cares if a white
person is killed, even if it is a black person that does it. That is
not newsworthy, since the media cannot called it race related. But now
if Ethan were gay, THAT would make headlines all over the country as a
hate crime. This is a perfect example of how screwed up this country
He’s right. His post is a perfect example of how screwed up it is that white people believe their whiteness makes them victims. The conflation of black violence at the hands of police (or Zimmerman) with gay violence (which is largely not at the hands of police anymore), and then setting that in opposition to Saylor, so that his death is about his whiteness – well, this is not a new delusion.
But that’s no reason not to call it out as a delusion.
Ethan’s death was unusual. It doesn’t conform to simple media narratives in some ways, but does in others. People with Down syndrome tend to be portrayed as either victims or inspirational heroes, and rarely as complex people. Ethan was complex, highly functional in some ways, but also vulnerable. And his diagnosis surely enabled this story to descend from public view, kept alive by two local Washington Post reporters and the outrage of the disability community. Because when the deputies and sheriff said that it was just a tragic mistake and blamed the disability, enough people believed them.