The post below the picture/fold appeared in shortened form as "Tackling Ableism and Racism in the Criminal Justice System" in the ENDependence Center of Northern Virginia's April 2015 newsletter for a special issue on intersectionality. In the wake of the unfolding catastrophe with Kayleb Moon-Robinson, an eleven-year-old Black Autistic student from Virginia convicted of virtually fabricated felony charges for an incident stemming from kicking a trash can and now facing potential time in juvenile detention, it seems especially relevant to share in its full, original version (with one small correction).
Not only Virginia, but nationally, we face a continued crisis of centuries of surveillance and policing of racialized bodies. Indigenous, Black, Latinx, and Brown people have always been the targets of state violence and the violence of structural racism. When combined with ableism, those at the intersections live in fear of constant violence without any hope of justice. It's long past time that our movements, our organizations, our activists in the disability community start addressing our replication of white-centric structures and start challenging racism -- and anti-blackness in particular.
Here's a start: Morénike Giwa-Onaiwu's petition for Kayleb & the ASAN statement on his case.
Photo: Kayleb, a young Black kid with glasses, wearing a gray hoodie, standing outside in a snowy driveway.
In February 2010, a passerby saw a young Black man outside a middle school library in Virginia and called the police to report a suspicious black male, possibly armed. After police arrived, an officer approached him, demanding identification. The young man outside the library appeared obviously agitated and distressed, and attempted to walk away calmly several times. By the end of the encounter, eighteen year old Reginald "Neli" Latson and the officer had a violent altercation, and Neli was facing over ten years in prison for the crime of going to the library while Black and Autistic.
In 2009, two police officers approached a young South Asian man sleeping on the sidewalk. One officer claimed the young man pulled out a knife, which his partner later denied ever occurred. The officer fired four shots, murdering Mohammad Usman Chaudhry for the crime of sleeping outdoors while Brown and Autistic. The internal affairs review of the shooting found the use of lethal force had been within the scope of department policy.
Over the past six years, however, the largest autistic rights organizations led by autistic people have only occasionally addressed police brutality against disabled people. Only recently have our organizations issued public statements in such cases, demanding real justice for members of our community impacted by the violence of our criminal injustice system. It is no coincidence that most disability rights organizations, with relatively few exceptions, are led entirely or mostly by white people with disabilities. While police brutality certainly impacts white disabled people, such as eleven year old Emily Holcomb, arrested and removed from her school in handcuffs after defending herself against violent physical restraint, disabled people of color are particularly vulnerable to state violence.
Many activists within the autistic community will describe ignorance borne of ableism as the root cause for police violence against autistic and other disabled people. They will urge better outreach to police and prosecutors and training on developmental disabilities as the solutions. Yet they will rarely, if ever, acknowledge the equally insidious impact of structural racism not merely on which of us are most vulnerable but also on how our community responds. Police training is important and useful, but no amount of awareness training will erase unconscious ableism and racism. Outreach can lead to better outcomes for some, but those of us who experience multiple layers of marginality cannot rely on police as an institution to protect or serve us. Before they hear our presentation on respectful interaction with autistic people, they see Black and Brown faces and project racialized criminality onto neurodivergent bodies marked doubly by race and disability.
This is what intersectionality means: to practice social justice in ways that grapple with the complex impacts of multiple systems of structural oppression (or systemic injustice, if you will). For those of us who are non-Black autistic activists, that means recognizing that behavioral compliance, indistinguishability, and conditionally passing as neurotypical can be tools of survival for Black autistic people. Resistance to arbitrary norms of abled and neurotypical existence can take multiple forms. Survival and resilience can mean navigating complicated tensions between out and proud autistic existence and safety from racialized violence. Intersectionality demands complexity without easy answers or simple slogans, because the real lives of everyone in the movement are infinitely more complicated than single-issue politics can recognize. Intersectionality requires thoughtful organizing and intense labor if we truly seek to build more just and equitable communities.