July 1, 2011

Why we fight.

This is why it matters.

From Courthouse News Service:

DAYTON, Ohio (CN) - Dayton police "mistook" a mentally handicapped teenager's speech impediment for "disrespect," so they Tasered, pepper-sprayed and beat him and called for backup from "upward of 20 police officers" after the boy rode his bicycle home to ask his mother for help, the boy's mom says.

Pamela Ford says her "mentally challenged/handicapped" son Jesse Kersey, 17, was riding his bike near his Dayton home when Officer Willie Hooper stopped him and tried to talk to him.

The mom says that "Prior to the incident described below, defendant Hooper knew Jesse and was aware that Jesse was mentally challenged/handicapped and a minor child."


"Jesse was charged with assault on a peace officer, resisting arrest, and obstructing official business."

However, "Jesse was declared incompetent by the Montgomery County Juvenile Court and the charges against Jesse were dismissed."

Jesse and his mom seek damages from the city and the two lead officers, for false imprisonment, false arrest, malicious prosecution, assault, battery, excessive use of force, infliction of emotional distress and civil conspiracy.

(Edited to add: Here's another article that gives the police officers' side of the story as well.  Interesting to note that even if you were to take the cops' side as gospel, it still brings up some questions.  Why would the cops behave this way even after being told, more than once, that there was a disability/communication issue?  Is this an appropriate force level for a kid riding his bicycle the wrong way down a street?  At any point, did the officer even try to take what would probably be minimal efforts to defuse the situation?  Even knowing the police side of the story, I still think the mother could have been charged with several counts of "exactly what Rob would have done".)

That could be Schuyler. That could be any non-verbal but ambulatory kid with a developmental disorder. It could be your kid.

Officer Willie Hooper knew Jesse Kersey, he was already aware of the young man's disability. He knew, and yet he still did this. He knew, but he didn't understand, didn't extend basic human dignity to a young man who didn't understand and couldn't communicate to the officer's satisfaction. This doesn't sound like a mistake. It sounds like a value judgment, one that ultimately concluded that a kid like Jesse Kersey HAD no value.

Now, where would someone get the idea that people with developmental disabilities have diminished value as human beings?

All this week, on Twitter and Facebook and my blog, I've made a little noise wherever I can about Tracy Morgan's recent remarks about kids with developmental disorders, and I've had a few good discussions about the topic. But I've also been told that I need to lighten up, that the attention directed at Morgan is tiresome, that free speech includes immunity from personal responsibility or simple human decency. I've been told that jokes about people with disabilities are harmless.

When I talk about a societal narrative fed by the likes of Tracy Morgan and members of the Dayton Police Department and the entitled hipsters loudly demanding their freedom of speech when taken to task for calling someone a retard, a societal narrative that re-enforces the idea that the least powerful among us are fair game, THIS is why it's important.

And when parents and advocates stand up and protest this narrative, we're not doing so to get a ride on "the Tracy Morgan free publicity train", as comedian Rob Corddry suggested on Twitter this week. We're not opportunists, looking for some sort of self-promotion. We're not pleased that Tracy Morgan gave us a chance to make a larger point, and we're not happy to shock the world with the story of Jesse Kersey, or any of the others who have been denied their dignity because they have the audacity to be broken, to be less than perfect, to be different.

We would love to live in a universe where our fellow citizens of the world heard vile remarks or read of monstrous deeds and stood up to say that we as a society are better than this. We'd like public figures and groups besides parents and the same advocacy groups like the Arc or Special Olympics to say "Well now, I may not have a dog in this fight, but that right there? THAT'S fucked up." We would like for the denial of basic human dignity to be something that distresses most anyone, outside those of us in the disability community. We'd like to feel like we have more choices that either keeping our mouths shut or standing on a hill, shouting into the wind and hoping we don't get hit by lightning.

In my book, I wrote about the island I dream about, the one where we'd go to live, just our little family, where a protecting ocean would shield Schuyler from the likes of Tracy Morgan and Officer Hooper and a depressingly large segment of society that sees her as a punchline, or worse. I admitted that I knew it was wrong, but it was still a very happy fantasy.

After this week and the conversations I keep finding myself having and the walls I keep throwing myself against, I would take Schuyler to that island in the time it would take to pack her sock monkeys and get to the airport.


Bev Sykes said...

Good grief. Of course you don't Lighten up. This is your KID. This is what you DO. Every non-oppressed minority gets tired of the fight for equality, decency, humanity against those who are the victims of such abuse. Does that "tiresome" arise out of guilt? Not wanting to face our own failure to act to protect those who need either our protection or at least our support? I don't know.

But for those who are most directly involved, if YOU don't speak up for injustice for those who have no voice whenever it occurs, if YOU don't commit to being "in your face" whenever necessary, who will...? And how many more Jesses will be attacked by bullies like Willie Hooper, whose job it should have been to protect him?

Becca said...

my sister has down's, and though i've always been protective of her, my family has been lucky enough to have access to a lot of resources and a supportive community, so i've always been somewhat lazy about disability rights. it's the prerogative of being a sibling rather than a parent, i guess. i always just saw my sister as my sister, and didn't understand people who thought that her down's was an issue (or should be an issue). i've also always resisted the PC culture that wants to call her mentally disabled and cognitively impaired and stubbornly call her retarded (in the original, medical sense. not the insulting sense). i've sort of always felt that meg may be invisible to a large segment of hte population, but that was their loss, not hers. people who know her love her, and people who don't don't know what they're missing.

this is all by way of saying that you are about to succeed where my parents have always failed: you are going to make a militant disability rights advocate out of me, sir. holy hell if i was that boy's mother, i'd've been arrested too, because i would've attacked that cop who was tasering my son.

it's one thing when the general population ignores us and makes us invisible. it's entirely another when they interfere with us. or maybe it's not another thing at all, really. i don't know.

ugh. ugh ugh ugh. what the fuck is wrong with people.

Domesticrazy said...

Keep up the good fight, Rob. I've read your blog since before my kids were born (5 and 2) and you have given me hope, conviction and made me a more understanding person. I and my friends and family (I share you often) have learned more from you than you will ever know.

Because of you I know about the people in our society that need me. I will fight for these people that, until you, I never knew about. I am so glad that there are honest people like you and Julie that challenge the rest of us, admit to being imperfect, and hold a mirror up to our actions and beliefs.

Thank you.

Kineret WillowGreene said...


And since when does free speech absolve people of responsibility for what they say? Just because you have the right to say something doesn't imply that anything can be said without consequences. Words have meaning and once said they cannot be unsaid. That is a fact. We can be sorry later but we cannot unsay that which has been said.

Kate J said...

This is the best illustration I've seen of why the rampant misuse of the R word and what Tracy Morgan said is so damaging. People tend to think it's no big deal. Yeah, it's all fun and games until a kid gets tasered and criminally charged for having a developmental disability. At least someone had the sense to throw out the charges, but what is this poor kid going to do but be afraid and stay out of sight. That could be as much of an unjust sentence for him as if the charges stuck. Directly involved or not, I think it affects the humanity of all of us.

Rob Rummel-Hudson said...

One of the things that bugs me the most about all of this is the whole sanctimonious "This is about free speech and the Constitution!" argument. People don't even understand what that means.

The Constitution protects free speech from governmental interference. It basically says "You can't be arrested for things you say or write." (Mostly; try writing about blowing up the White House and see how quickly you get a knock on your door.)

It doesn't say "You can say whatever you like and no one can criticize you or fire you from your job." And yet, that is the argument I keep hearing.

When you really think about it, whose free speech is being threatened here? Tracy Morgan, who not only has the right to say whatever stupid thing he wants but seems adamant about exercising that right as much as possible? Or those of us criticizing him and being told, in a variety of different ways, to shut the fuck up already?

Becca said...

Apologies for commenting twice, but this is one of my favorite rebuttals to "I'm not being an asshole, you're just too PC": (it's a video, about 5 mins)

Rob Rummel-Hudson said...

Oh my god, that's awesome.

gypsyjr said...

Satire and "non-PC" humor works when it's aimed at the powerful by the disenfranchised. I think the word for what Tracy Morgan did is "bullying."

Elizabeth said...

I often fantasize about picking up Sophie, wrapping her in a blanket (even though she's sixteen, now) and running for the hills.

I'm so damn tired.

Thank you, as always, for taking it on.

The Henrys said...

I linked to this post on my blog today. I think everyone should read this perfect example of why using the R word is much more than a freedom of speech issue.

I can't believe what happened to this young man and his mother. This never should have happened. My thoughts are with him and his mother, and family.

As for the first officer, he should have realized what was going on when the neighbor stepped out and told him that he has disabilities, if not sooner. Shame on him...he needs to be fired.

Sophie said...

I am just so disgusted by their treatment of Jesse I feel dead inside.

I like the idea of the island. I'd be there in a heart beat with my family.

Sophie said...

Thanks for that link Becca. That is awesome and I am so sharing it!!!

Beth said...

I would like to thank you for taking on this issue.

As the mother of eleven year old twin boys, I had to police the "retard" word with them and their friends about a year ago (god, it starts too young). I've tried to personalize this issue for them as much as possible, to teach them to be considerate, lovely adult human beings who don't just sit on the sidelines of these issues, but challenge them head-on and become advocates for what's kind. I have shared with them (and others) your writing and pictures, and I think it's made a connection that a pretty girl about their age faces this and other kinds of discrimination...

So I'm saying that you and your "big opinions" do connect and matter and teach.

My boys ask about Schulyer sometimes, and I pull up your blog and we read and enjoy your pics. Thanks for helping my kids understand.

amylia said...

Will you accept carefully screened visitors?

selkie55 said...

We as a society are judged by how we treat society's most defenseless members. Our society is terrible. Why should anyone believe it's ok to act in this manner? As for freedom of speech, when it is hate speech, it is never ok. When such speech seeks to diminish someone else, it is NEVER ok. Every human being is here for a reason. Every human being is a part of the cycle of life. Every human being has a lesson to teach us. Every child comes into this world with a gift for us. It may take us time to understand what that gift is, particularly when the rest of our society deems the child as somehow flawed. We must always fight for those who cannot fight for themselves. ALWAYS. Whether they are in our direct circles or not. Because if we don't fight for them, what will happen when we become the victims? We're all in this together.

Loves Pickles said...

Ok. That makes me sick. Perhaps the officers could have calmly spoken to the mother once they came to the house to try to clear things up, especially since they were clearly familiar with this person? Perhaps they could have sensed that this kid ran (as most do) out of fear, and not come in swinging their bludgeons at everything in sight? Police officers are trained professionals, not kids on a playground who need to worry about getting pounded. They could have explained themselves and what happened to the mother, waited for an explanation before blazing in there as if the guy had just committed a horrific act of violence rather than riding his bike the wrong way?!?! What they did was abuse their power, letting their adrenalin drive their violence, plain and simple.

I've seen police brutality up close, and I've also seen the epitome of police professionalism. These guys fucked up and should be held responsible for their actions, and also for the trauma that this unfortunate situation likely caused this poor guy and his mother.