Police killings: the price of being disabled and black in America

Normal police procedures often force people with physical disabilities to stay closeted, even to themselves. How can there be justice without dealing with the stigma of disability and race?

On Sunday morning, Charleena Lyles called the Seattle police to report a burglary. She was a black female, pregnant, the mother of four children( including small children with Downs syndrome ), living in housing for formerly homeless individuals.

The police indicated up, determined her in a mental health crisis and allegedly armed with a knife, and killed her.

The killing has elicited widespread outrage across the nation but how do we go beyond it? How do we untangle the connections between racism, classism and ableism, and police violence?

As the story of Lyles preventable demise unfurled, a group of non-white and disabled activists in Chicago reacted with grim familiarity.

They know this story. And theyre worried that one of the best tools at their disposal to stop the violence is being taken away.


In 2005, Chris Huff tried to kill himself and was taken to Michael Reese hospital on Chicagos South Side. My mommy took me to go get evaluated. I was going to only get an evaluation and next thing I know, Im getting checked in, he said.

Institutionalization didnt help. Three months ago, Huff brought a gun to high school, filled, as he described it, with paranoia and dread. He get jumped, pulled the firearm and used it. He was charged as an adult for attempted murder, worsened battery and exacerbated discharge of a pistol in a public facility.

He was 15.

Chris Huff speaks at an event organized by disability activists. Photo: AYLP

Now 27, Huff lives in Ogden Park in Englewood, a neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, where I drove to satisfy him. As the hot afternoon waned, we spent an hour in the shade of the sycamore trees, sitting on a slanted wooden bench, talking.

He was restless. He sat. He stood up. He paced and smoked. Piece by piece, he disclosed his theories about disability, race, poverty, policing and the vicious cycle in which Chicagos incapacitated black residents have found themselves.

Huff is a member of Advance Youth Leadership Power( AYLP ), an advocacy group organized through Access Living, one of Chicagos resulting disability rights organizations. They have taken on a complicated twofold mission.

First, they attempt to teach those concerned about police conduct, including the Department of Justice taskforce, to find the disability component in the broader narration of an abusive Chicago police department especially as a third to half of people killed by police have a disability. Second, and perhaps even more critically, these activists are hoping to help their own communities perceive the links between disability and racial and economic justice.

In 2015, the succession of the death by police shooting of LaQuan McDonald, followed promptly by other high-profile lawsuits( Philip Coleman, Quintonio Legrier and Bettie Jones ), sparked a wave of action in Chicago. The three men had a disability, and Jones was killed when the police came for Quintonio.

The political fallout eventually led to the abdication of the police chief, and the DoJ afterwards came to town to analyse police procedure, holding open forums where people could discuss their experiences.

Thats where I first met Huff, standing in front of the crowd, telling his life story teaching. Seeming back on his arrest, he says: I dont think its a coincidence that three months after my diagnosis I was, you know, utilizing a weapon at a school.

Hes lucky, he says, to have avoided serious prison time. Instead, his mother found him lawyers through a Northwestern institute, and a judge permitted him to move with his mother to Georgia and away from Chicago while awaiting trial.

In the end, he spent a few months in an Illinois facility as a juvenile, rather than a multi-decade sentence that might have followed had be been tried as an adult. When he turned 18, his record was expunged. College, down south, followed. Then the South Side called him back for grad school and , now, his career with the Vera Institute of Justice, where he works with recently incarcerated youths.


No one knows how many of the victims of police violence are disabled.

We have some national data, which I pulled into a white paper for the Ruderman Foundation in 2015, but were far too reliant on anecdotes only because police departments and state governments have been resistant to tracking use of force. The anecdotes remain telling, though. The major occurrences behind the DoJ investigation of Chicago involved incapacitated black men.

Laquan McDonald had both PTSD and unspecified mental disabilities. Philip Coleman, who died in custody, had a mental health crisis and police arrived after parents called 911. The officers said: We dont do hospitals, we do jails, and took him to prison. A video released in late 2015 proves a non-resisting Coleman being repeatedly tasered and dragged from his cell. He died not long after. A Chicago police officer killed Quintonio Legrier, a young black human in mental health crisis, while also shooting the neighbours who was maintaining an eye on him( a black female named Bettie Jones ).

AYLP and its network of activists decided to get involved. They staged an action outside one of the cases hearings in July 2016, then ran inside to testify.

Charleena Lyles called Seattle police to report a burglary. The police depicted up, find her in a mental health crisis and allegedly armed with a knife, and killed her. Photo: Courtesy of household

I was there and watched an 11 -year-old boy, his mother standing by, talking here trauma. When he was six, police charged into his back yard, guns drawn( the person the latter are looking for was several houses down the block ). His mother, Melinda Manson, describe her sons years of nightmares that followed.

Timotheus Gordon, a black autistic PhD student at the University of Illinois who describes himself as a black football player and dreadhead, talked about his constant dread of being to halt police and not being able to respond quickly enough in such a way that policemen saw acceptable. The household of Stephon Watts, a black autistic teenager killed by police in nearby Calumet, “was talkin about a” their lost loved one. Huff told his tale too.

The message was clear: there would be no justice for Chicago residents without addressing both disability and race when it comes to policing.

The good news is that the DoJ examiners heard the message and collaborated with AYLP to organize a number of sessions, some open to the public and some private( and thus safer) to ensure that disabled Chicagoans could tell their stories.


Over the autumn, I sat down with various members of AYLP to understand their vision. I maintained hearing the same two points in different ways.

First, they believe that the legal system is designed to maximize the oppression of black disabled people. Second, within the Chicago-area black community, stigma causes people to avoid talking about disability. In other terms, too many people is considered that talking about LaQuan McDonald as disabled demeans him, or that the conversation around mental illness and policing should be different than the one around autism.

Candace Coleman, Youth Organizer for AYLP, disagrees. She says: Im black, Im incapacitated, and Im from the South Side of Chicago. But she also knows that stigma is a real thing. She always knew she was incapacitated( she has multiple disabilities, including spastic paralysis and asthma, and has been in and out of hospital throughout their own lives ), but it took a long time for her to discover true pride in that aspect of her identity.

Today shes a leader in the disability pride movement, but recognizes that its going to take a long time to bring that pride to everyone. In too many communities, talking about mental health is not OK. You self-medicate, you do what you gotta do to get through, but its not OK to talk about it even now. If no one talks about it, even well-intentioned reformers arent going to know to listen.

For Huff, the stigma is a function of the dysfunctional system. He sketched out the pattern for me that day in the park. According to his analysis, oppressive situations cause stigma and intensify the negative effects of mental health conditions in particular. Those negative impact lead towards interactions with law enforcement. Law enforcement manages such interactions badly, far too often punishing people who behave differently in any way, and reinforcing the necessity for people with disabilities to remain closeted, even to themselves.

Once I came into the world, they already had a set of systems for me, he says. They had my neighborhood ready for me, the community because of segregation. Everything was already pre-planned. What I believe is really happening is that a lot of the illness, yes theres genetic components to it, but theyre manmade ailments. I have to adapt to the current systems and structures in order to receive education, job, housing.


One of the last acts of the Obama justice department was to release a report on policing in Chicago. It was a devastatingly blunt appraisal of the routine violations of Chicagoans civil right by the police. The US us attorney general, Jeff Sessions, initially dismissed the report as largely anecdotal even when admitting that he hadnt read it. Sessions is opposed to consent decrees between local police departments and the DoJ.

The DoJ report identified widespread abusive practices and made a number of recommendations, including work with community members from Chicagos diverse racial, religious, ethnic, gender, and disability groups to create and deliver cultural awareness training in partnership with CPD, and to advise and suggest the development of additional measures that may improve police-community relations.

The inclusion of disability in that listing is a testimony to the work of AYLP , among others, even if Trump and Sessions are trying to fling the report in the litter. As reported by Rachel Cohen in Vice, experts and activists say the citys mayor, Rahm Emanuel, is utilizing Sessions anti-reform message as an excuse to undermine reform in the city.

As Huff and I finished up, he admitted that he sometimes feels he has a trauma bond with this slice of Chicago. I know Im not the only person who has a trauma bond with the place that they grew up with. Whoever leaves a traumatic experience and returns back to that shit?

I responded: Its not a coincidence that youre living here, that we are in this park. Where else could you be?

He appeared away. All Im trying to do is bring a voice to the conversation of people with disabilities. I would like to[ understand] how structural violence makes or perpetuates the country of psycho-social disabilities, of mental disabilities. How does structural violence generate or add to the dysfunction that one experiences in their life?

He doesnt was of the view that he has a choice. Dysfunction is everywhere. He has to adapt. But he finished: I believe that, basically, if you adapt to dysfunction, youre gonna adopt that dysfunction.

David Perry is a disability rights journalist. His work focuses on violence and criminalization, and hes currently writing a book for Beacon Press with the working title: Disability Is Not a Crime

Read more: www.theguardian.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *