For the last few days, like many other disenfranchised communities across the country, the disability community has watched what is happening in Ferguson, Missouri. Our hearts are heavy with sorrow, anger, and fear for what is happening to individuals, families, and communities so similar to our own.
Even following the release of the name of the police officer who was ultimately responsible for Michael Brown’s death, we must still come to terms with the tragedy itself. This is a tragedy not just because of the precious loss of life or the actions of one person, but is also a tragedy that is caused by the criminalization and dehumanization of our own citizens. It is a tragedy not only for Michael Brown’s family but for the entire country.
Perhaps, it is more honest to for us to say, it is yet another tragedy that has become all too common for communities viewed as “other” to the American majority – young men of color, people with disabilities, lgbt individuals.
“They didn’t comply.” They were “bad kids.” “They were being belligerent.” “They looked suspicious.”
These statements that have no real discernable meaning often warrant a death sentence for the individuals upon which the observations are based.
- Eric Garner, 43, who had asthma, was pulled to the sidewalk onto his chest and restrained in a chokehold by an officer. The medical examiner cited that Garner’s cause of death was “compression of neck (choke hold), compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.” (New York)
- Robert Ethan Saylor, 26, who had Down syndrome, went to see a movie and refused to leave. It was customary for Saylor to see a movie twice. Deputies put Saylor on the floor, held him down, and handcuffed him with such force that he suffered a fracture in his throat cartilage and died of asphyxiation. (Maryland)
- Keith Vidal, 18, who had schizophrenia, was tasered, then shot, and killed when his family called law enforcement for help calming their son down. Vidal’s stepfather said, “”They killed my son in cold blood. We called for help, and they killed my son.” (North Carolina)
- Gilberto Powell, 22, who has Down Syndrome, was beaten by police outside his home and was left with horrible bruises and scars on his face when law enforcement suspected he was carrying a weapon and tried to pat Powell down. Powell did not understand and ran. The suspicious bulge in his pants? It was a colostomy bag. (Florida)
- Barry Montgomery, 29, who has schizophrenia, Tourette’s syndrome, and is non-verbal ,was harassed and then beaten and tasered for 25 minutes by sheriff officers when he was confronted about the smell of marijuana in his general area, and Montgomery did not respond. Montgomery sustained massive permanent injuries. (California)
Eric Garner, Ethan Saylor, Keith Vidal, Gilberto Powell, and Barry Montgomery – these are the names of a few people with disabilities who were brutally injured and killed because of who they are. There are many who were lost before them, and there are certainly others whose names we will never know because the brutality against them was never reported.
When a system that is designed to protect and serve is fueled by fear and anger, that is not merely a surmountable problem. It is a catastrophic failure of the system, and it demands transformation. Such a failure represents a lack of leadership, a corruption of institutions, and a distressing willingness to purposely and violently silence the voices of entire communities marked as different, non-compliant, and suspicious.
Perhaps what is most disconcerting however, is that the failure to support our young men of color, who are gay who have disabilities, who are poor, is not just to be laid at the feet of an intolerant police force, self-interested politicos or even a sensational hungry media. The fault lies in our own hearts.We have not taken enough of the responsibility to manage and maintain the values that we believe are right. We have been complacent in our engagement and been comfortable enough to declare that the problems are with other people. We have allowed ourselves to be separated into tiny groups of associated individuals rather than communities participating in a collective conversation about the state, direction and makeup of our society.
We have allowed problems of marginalization, exclusion, inaccessibility, dissemination, sexism and bigotry — problems that affect us all — to instead be addressed by a few, and have been content to say that it is a disability problem, or a race problem or gender problem or sexuality problem rather than admit that it is a problem for all of us. As members of a community that supports justice and inclusion we do not have the luxury to stand by when injustice is blatantly taking place in any form, and nor should we be satisfied to wait for other communities to ask for our help.
Civil rights, respect, and justice are due to all. We will not remain silent. The disability community, like the LGBT community, and so many others around the country, stands with the family of Michael Brown and with the people of Ferguson, Missouri. We call on the national and local media to be responsible and steadfast in their coverage of this story and others like it. We call on policy makers on all levels of American government not to shrink from action, and we are deeply grateful to Attorney General Eric Holder and the Department of Justice for their immediate commitment to a thorough investigation. Let us all come together, not only to rally and mourn but also to plan for action and collaboration.
Lastly, we specifically invoke the words of Justin Dart in “a call for solidarity among all who love justice, all who love life, to create a revolution that will empower every single human being to govern his or her life, to govern the society and to be fully productive of life quality for self and for all.”
The Lead On Network
Autistic Self Advocacy Network
Washington Metro Disabled Students Collective
Ramp Your Voice!
Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf (HEARD)
If you are a disability organization and interested in signing on to this statement, please contact us at LeadOnUpdate@gmail.com. If you are an individual with a disability who cares about this issue and supports this statement please share it widely. Also, we know you have your own thoughts to express and urge you to do so in the comments. We will not remain silent! The events of the last week touch us all.
If you are a disability org, please join us in signing on to this letter. Instructions are at the end of the text.