News & CulturePolice Still Have No Idea How to Deal with Disabled People
This week, North Carolina police shot and killed Keith Lamont Scott, an unarmed black man with a disability.
Growing up in Raleigh, North Carolina, I often heard the expression: “If they’re shooting at you, it means you’re doing something right.” It was thrown around proudly as an act of defiance, usually by fellow white Southerners who were speaking metaphorically about, say, starting an argument at a PTA meeting, or being disliked by coworkers. And yet, more recently, I've been thinking about the heartbreaking flip-side: If you’re doing something right, why are they shooting at you?
This week, we were confronted by the worst kind of déjà vu: Just weeks after a Charlotte police officer shot and killed Daniel Harris, an unarmed deaf man, cops in the very same city shot and killed Keith Lamont Scott, a black man who was reportedly reading a book (although a police department spokesperson says Scott had a gun). While Scott’s family did not elaborate on what kind of disability he had, one thing is abundantly clear—law enforcement has not figured out how to work with members of the disabled community.
Having grown up the hearing kid of deaf parents three hours away, constantly switching back and forth between two languages and cultures, I got a front-row seat to how often our government and social systems fail people with disabilities. Even the simple act of getting out of a car and walking across a parking lot can be fraught with terror. For example, even though a major cause of death and injury for deaf people is being hit by cars, most states do not issue disabled parking passes to deaf individuals.
It's a little thing. But It’s worth thinking about the litany of microaggressions that disabled individuals have to deal with on a daily basis. That’s what acts like over-policing do to people—make them afraid of even the smallest things. When a man getting out of his car can be interpreted as an “imminent deadly threat,” how are disabled people supposed to feel comfortable going outside at all, especially disabled people of color? How are our communities supposed to feel safe interacting with law enforcement when they’ve watched an online video of one of their own being killed by the same agency sworn to protect them?
Police brutality is an act that reverberates far beyond the people who are murdered—the insidious part is the way that fear of random, unfounded attack creeps into your everyday life, making you afraid to do things that you once took for granted. It's what North Carolina’s HB2 law has succeeded in doing—by legislating trans people’s abilities to go to the bathroom, something all of us do several times a day, the government has made trans people feel anxious about something that commonplace. Something thoughtless. Something benign.
It can lead to a sort of communal PTSD, an untraceable, undetectable current that slivers through a community. Those small slights add up to big ones, and years of built-up fear, of the everyday stress of doing simple things, like driving while hoping not to be pulled over, add up. It's one of the many reasons our most marginalized communities suffer the most from heart disease, hypertension, and other stress-related disease—there are more ways to kill a community than by shooting at them. For some people, it feels like nothing they do can ever be “right.”