Ableism neglected in popular organizing

[Content warning: racist/ableist violence.]

Ezell Ford was laying on the ground when Officers Sharlton Wampler and Antonio Villegas shot him three times through the back. A 25-year-old Black man living in Los Angeles, Ford was unarmed when he lost his life during what police later referred to as an investigative stop. According to one neighbor, “this wasn’t the first time the police had targeted Ford and harassed him while he was walking down the street”(The Huffington Post, “LAPD Shouted ‘Shoot Him’ Before Killing Unarmed, Mentally Ill Black Man: Witness, 8.13.2014). He died just days after Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. But Ezell Ford was schizophrenic. And Ezell Ford was bipolar. And Ezell Ford had depression. As such, unless you happen to be a resident of Los Angeles, you likely haven’t even heard his name.

This may seem surprising during a time in which there appears to be a heightened awareness of police brutality. Considering all the press attention surrounding this issue, it must suggest that disabled bodies are less affected by it and thus are less deserving of attention.

Those who subscribe to that viewpoint may be surprised to learn that, according to a report published by the Ruderman Family Foundation, disabled people account for up to half of those killed during interactions with the police. Yet, there has been a deafening silence from the left regarding the epidemic of state-sanctioned violence against the disabled, especially when disability intersects with race.

This crisis has its origins in the process of deinstitutionalization. In response to widespread accusations of abuse in mental institutions, influenced by the enormous success of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” the United States government started to engage in reforms in order cut down on abuse and develop a system that was fairer to the mentally ill. In 1967, California passed the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, which made it more difficult to involuntarily hospitalize mentally ill people, although that may have had the unintended impact of doubling the number of mentally ill people in the criminal justice system. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed the Mental Health Systems Act, which restructured mental health care in the United States so that it was aimed to provide better, more effective services (Mother Jones, “TIMELINE: Deinstitutionalization And Its Consequences,” 4.29.2013).

However, for the most part the government decided to fix the problem by simply shutting down mental health institutions without providing adequate replacements. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan repealed the Mental Health Systems Act, ended the federal government’s role in providing mental health care and cut spending on mental health by 30 percent (Mother Jones, “TIMELINE: Deinstitutionalization And Its Consequences”, 4.29.2013).

Throughout the 1980s, federal funding of mental health care continued to fall, and the responsibility for caring for the mentally ill was taken away from hospitals and mental health experts and given to the criminal justice system and police officers.

Therein lies the problem: the appalling state of mental health care in this country is the inevitable result of forcing this responsibility upon people who are not adequately trained to deal with the mentally ill. It is understandable, considering the overwhelmingly negative views society holds against disabled and mentally ill people, that police officers, who are mere representations of the community they serve, would have difficulty dealing with these cases. And luckily, some police departments have started providing training to their officers or created special units with the intent of dealing with exactly these types of cases. If the federal government is to continue to ignore disability and mental illness, this ought to be considered an adequate, if incomplete, solution to this crisis.

Yet, it occurs to me that Ezell Ford was face down on the ground when he was murdered, and no reasonable person could conclude that he constituted a threat to the police officers’ safety. Or consider the case of Charles Kinsey, a therapist who was accidentally shot in the leg by police officers as he attempted to comfort his autistic patient, Arnaldo Rios. While many have heard the story, what the activists have ignored is that the officers were aiming for that patient, unarmed except for a toy truck that an officer apparently mistook for a gun (one must wonder why a person with such bad eyesight would be allowed to be a police officer in the first place). It also doesn’t explain state-sanctioned violence outside of police brutality, such as the government-funded residential facility in Canton, MA, that was the subject of considerable controversy after administering 31 electric shocks to an autistic student who had refused to take off his coat, leaving him catatonic (not to mention the six students who have died at that same institution over the years).

But I have yet to see any real acknowledgment on this campus or by national activists of the injustices faced by the disabled community. Ezell Ford’s narrative is entirely neglected from the websites of civil rights groups.

It also, considering the alarming rate at which disabled and mentally ill people are killed by police (especially those who are Black), is an unacceptable omission. Understanding deinstitutionalization and the fundamentally broken American mental health system is critical to understanding the larger issues within the criminal justice system, including police violence.

Disability and mental health cannot be but a footnote within the larger progressive battle against police brutality. Forming effective policy solutions to issues of police violence necessitates the inclusion of disabled voices and a thorough understanding of the history of mental health in this country. Before change can even be hoped to be achieved, progressives must fully embrace the intersectionalism that we strive to obtain by including disabled voices.

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