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Independent Living News & Policy from the National Council on Independent Living

NCIL Statement on Injustice (Ferguson, MO and New York, NY)

By Stan Holbrook, NCIL Diversity Chair

The National Council on Independent Living (NCIL) has been following the events in Ferguson, MO from the start. NCIL exists to advance independent living and the rights of people with disabilities. NCIL envisions a world in which people with disabilities are valued equally and participate fully.

This country has over 54 Million people with disabilities who are vibrant, active, and socially conscious members of the community.

Stan Holbrook speaks at the Annual conference on Independent LivingFerguson, MO has become an emblem, mirror, and prism of some of the great challenges that remain in our society. The problems of race in the United States are tied to legacies of slavery and Jim Crow laws, both of which involved distortions of a fundamental dimension of human life, which is the relationship of human dignity to provide equal opportunity and justice to all citizens in the United States.

While we are approximately 50 years beyond the civil rights acts that made great changes in our society, it would be naïve to confuse an improved society with a society that has “arrived.”

First, it is important to begin asking how the problems we see in minority and disabled communities are at least in part linked to the dehumanization that people can feel when they find themselves marginalized either because of the color of their skin or their disability.

The tragedies in involving the senseless killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner (Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City) have all-too-painfully illustrated the real and deadly effects that police response can have on a community. For people with disabilities—more than 54 million of them in the U.S.—the threat is all too real. It’s estimated that nearly 15 percent of all calls to the police involve a person with mental illness or disability in crisis. And how officers treat these individuals is too often violent.

In an article in The Atlantic, Lawrence Carter-Long and David M. Perry chronicle several tragic instances of people with disabilities victimized by the police: individuals with cerebral palsy forcibly arrested because officers thought they were drunk; a deaf man tasered repeatedly because he couldn’t hear the police. The list is unending, and each case involves police mistaking disability for noncompliance.

The Eric Garner killing in particular indicates there is a direct correlation with police brutality when disability and race intersects. The defenders of the police in Garner’s death were generally fixated on Garners health. Because he was obese, diabetic, had asthma, sleep apnea, and a heart condition, goes the argument, somehow he was to blame for his own death. Eric Garner is not the first to suffer from these intersections. Ethan Saylor died from asphyxiation from off duty officers. His death was blamed on his disability and his weight, not the actions of the officer. Do you see a dangerous trend here?

African-Americans are primary targets of law-enforcement profiling and violence, as the killings of Michael Brown, Oscar GrantSean BellJonathan Ferrell and Eric Garner all attest. But during the last few weeks, LatinoAsian-AmericanArab-American and Muslim organizations have all released statements of solidarity informed by similar experiences with discriminatory law enforcement practices, as well as an urgency to collectively identify and implement solutions.

In fact, Latinos and Asian- and Arab-Americans have a critical stake in reforming discriminatory police practices. While African-Americans in Ferguson, MO and New York must remain the primary voices and decision-makers calling for action to address the murder of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, we have seen diverse communities across the nation band together, outraged and hurt at this painful injustice. None of the officers responsible for killing Garner or Michael Brown are facing any real accountability for their actions. Even despite the fact that the horrifying Garner killing was all caught on camera, witnessed by many people, and we heard the now famous words “I can’t breathe.” The communities of color and the disabled community can and must join fight by linking the impact of racially motivated policing with the structural inequities that exacerbate it.

The death of Michael Brown Jr. and Eric Garner are tragedies. The sad part is that this is not an isolated incident. There are unfortunately many “Michael Brown” and “Eric Garner” type incidents that frequently take place across the United States. This is not just a racial issue.

The treatment of people with disabilities by law enforcement and state and municipal officials is a serious problem. We have allowed problems of marginalization, exclusion, inaccessibility, discrimination, 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.

The brutal and violent treatment of people with disabilities by law enforcement is very well known. So much so that it spurred a recent meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 29. The meeting, Law Enforcement Responses to Disabled Americans: Promising Approaches for Protecting Public Safety, focused on tragic and highly publicized cases like the two discussed above and included suggested solutions to help prevent such occurrences in the future. It was suggested that law enforcement officers should be provided with the training and tools needed to recognize and respond to various disabilities, through additional funding and support for Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT) and the Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Act. I believe the root of our problem is inequity and racism at its core.

Inequity creates a system of the haves and have nots. Racism exacerbates the system of inequity by unfairly disadvantaging some individuals and communities, while unfairly giving advantages to other individuals and communities. Inequity has created lack of access to service and healthcare in some communities versus access to superior service and healthcare in others; subpar educational facilities in some communities and high performing educational facilities in other communities; poverty, disinvestment in some communities and wealth and investment in other communities. If we don’t address equity we truly don’t address the problem.

NCIL and other organizations have been at the forefront of this work and will continue to provide training as well as working closely with legislatures to create grant programs and laws that assist with ending these practices. Yet they continue to happen all around the country. It is our firm belief that now is the time to pull together and come up with a collective solution to this problem.

It is obvious that legislation alone cannot undo the momentum of over 200 years of problems with race in the same way that a few years of psychological peace does not eliminate the impact of decades of abuse.

It is time for action, join us as we call on Attorney General Eric Holder and President Obama to do everything in their power to indict Officer Pantaleo on federal criminal charges and conduct a full and thorough investigation into the discriminatory NYPD policies and practices that lead to these tragic but avoidable killings time and time again.

A national movement to end discriminatory police violence is growing and Attorney General Holder and the DOJ are more susceptible than they have been in years to public pressure. Demand that the DOJ make this case a high priority, bring federal charges against Officer Pantaleo, and investigate the NYPD policies and practices that led to the police killing of Eric Garner.

Secondly, we need to start the conversation on what we can do in our local communities to ensure the inalienable rights of people of color as well as people with disabilities. NCIL does not condone the recent senseless killing of two innocent officers in New York. This perverted brand of justice cannot be justified. Confronting injustice with more injustice just breeds more sorrow, more pain, and more hate. That senseless act should not characterize scores of protesters who are seeking justice the right way in the struggle for social justice.

NCIL stands in solidarity with the people of Ferguson, MO and around the country who are trying to participate in peaceful demonstrations. But we feel we now need to act. NCIL is willing to work with other organizations to develop effective solutions to protect the rights of people as well as ensuring equal justice for all.

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