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Solidarity for Civil Rights and Human Rights
When a community is moved to protest an avoidable and senseless death that is linked to ongoing civil rights or human rights struggles, it is inevitable that other communities who have experienced a similar loss harken back to their own. There is generally no need to discuss the loss we feel most deeply when comforting and supporting another person or family who is newly grieving; being a fellow human being is reason enough. I believe the same is true when organizations, congregations, or communities reach out to a recently bereaved family to show our empathetic support and sympathy.
It is not uncommon for close friends to share stories of tragedy or struggle, finding comfort in one another's understanding silence and sympathetic words. Sometimes those who could understandably feel completely overwhelmed by the situations in their own lives are the best listeners for the great troubles of a friend's day that would otherwise be destined to turn into the other parent's 'last straw.' This was not the stage where that could happen. Any effort that takes the focus away from those who are immediately affected is inappropriate.
It is less uncommon is to find individuals who are so preoccupied by their own concerns that they are unable to listen with the empathy required to express sympathy for another's person's situation, and wait only for a break in the other individual's conversation so they can share what it reminds them of in their own lives. This develops to an almost comic degree with what a dear friend describes as 'toppers' - someone who can not help but elaborate on their own experience as if it somehow matched and exceeded an unbearable situation or event being described by the person grieving the great loss.
An early example of this happened when a friend was describing her baby's brain surgery to me at my son's early intervention center. It was such a powerful story I could barely hold back my tears. I could think of nothing to say except how sorry I was that her baby had to go through that, and that it must have been the most difficult day of the mother's life. She said her neighbor had responded to the same story by saying her toddler had a bad cold the week before, and had to wait at the pediatrician's office for over half an hour to be seen, as if the two situations were comparable.
As a first time mother to a baby with complex medical needs, my friend did not have the luxury of knowing how heartbreaking a baby's first cold can be; or diaper rash; or gas. I had learned that with my son's older sister. I could have explained, and it might have seemed reasonable from that perspective, but the truth is that it just was not the time yet to talk about other people's troubles, comparable or not. An actual friend listens and supports, instead of making it all about themselves.
My friend was not looking for someone to trade stories with; she just needed someone to hear hers, and respond as a listener. Her neighbor could not acknowledge the degree of difference in what she believed was a shared experience due to the privileged narcissism that blocks any feelings of empathy. She did not argue to diminish the gravity of the situation or deny my friend's experience, her child or family's trauma.
It was a distressing to read most of the immediate and self-centered calls for solidarity with the family of Michael Brown, his neighborhood, and Black families who struggle with the realities of racism every day, as if race and disability do not intersect.
It was inappropriate and unnecessary to explain that 'people with disabilities' experience prejudice and discrimination instead of amplifying the immediate story and taking into account the history and current situation in so many other communities of color, and predominantly Black neighborhoods in particular. It was not appropriate to name individuals with disability who have been killed or beaten during interactions with law enforcement officers in the past dozen years when the story in Ferguson was so new, painful, unresolved and escalating. Because we have mourned, told those stories, and honored those memories, elsewhere, the missed opportunity was empathy, not education.
Our experiences of loss and grief are not comparable and we do not stand in solidarity until we listen, recognize and acknowledging the unresolved issues and immediacy of our own community's distress. This is about a specific loss with too few outside the community hearing the voices from people living where the everyday oppression is happening. We cannot condemn a police force or politicians for a culture of racism or under-representation of the true diversity of their community when many of our own organizations and affiliates reflect the same culture. Equity, representation, justice and accountability are the cornerstones of inclusive advocacy, too.
There had been too little opportunity to mourn Michael Brown, or even learn what was in eyewitness or police reports. Inquiries and peaceful protests resulted in an overwhelming response from law enforcement organizations, with what seemed like an occupation by militarized police who had not had the training required to manage their tactics or their weaponry.
In many ways it seems a failure as an experiment, much like the Stanford Prison Project in 1971. Although many professionals were invited in to observe the unexpected results, only one suggested that the experiment be shut down for the safety and mental health of the student subjects. People within the community were saying: stop the overwhelming show of force for the safety, health and well-being of citizens who law enforcement should protect and serve instead of criminalize.
For our concerns to be valid, disability advocates need to show they are aware that we stand in solidarity with the people of Ferguson because we have members of our community there. People with disabilities in the neighborhood, adding their own diversity to the city, with intersections of ethnicity, economics, and lgbt individuals. I want to know how we are reaching out to those whose challenges we understand first hand, who have access issues and other challenges without streets and neighborhoods being closed down, deluged with teargas, and police/military occupation. One iconic photograph shows resident Edward/Your New Friend throwing a tear gas canister away from himself and nearby children, who are otherwise disregarded by authorities. Schools were closed without standby plans for children or families.
Citizens of Ferguson have been taking care of their own, without the resources and knowledge our advocacy orgs should be expert in after the civil emergencies, natural disasters, and weather events of the past decade. Where are our contacts within the community who could be coordinating efforts to support citizens with disabilities - and their families - who are affected? They and their neighbors are on their own, no doubt looking after one another better than we as outsiders would have a hope of doing.
I understand that the NDRN is urging advocates to alert their own local and state authorities about the difficulties of people with disabilities whose community support and home living aides are unable to reach them due to neighborhood blockades, curfews, and other police actions. In addition to other health and safety dangers, people with disabilities suffer the same stressors as their neighbors. This should have been the focus of solidarity.
In the days following the shooting death of Michael Brown, snipers and other law enforcement officers were pointing weapons at citizens of Ferguson engaging in peaceful protests. Neighborhoods were enveloped in tear gas at night. Some of us have just one, or half a dozen, traumatizing experiences we remember the rest of our lives. People in neighborhoods may have experienced half a dozen events per day. Black citizens may have experienced traumatizing events every day before the death of Mike Brown. It would have been a good time to show solidarity by listening to what protestors were saying, rather than talking over their message.
Black families and their true allies have no other recourse but to protest and demand justice and accountability, because their children's lives are at stake. If anything, this is comparable to the situation in the Gulf states after Hurricane Katrina. Too many children and young adults have already died, in situations that should not be life-threatening. Our dependence on first responders, and our government, makes all of us extremely vulnerable in emergencies or events where regular life is so disrupted we have no one to call for help. Imagine if that situation was normal on an otherwise non-eventful day. This is not a healthy situation for anyone, and an increasingly deadly atmosphere for Black children. Caring for all children as they are growing up should be a natural consequence of advocating for those identified through prenatal testing. Advocacy can not end at the birth of a child.
For parents of children and teens with developmental disabilities, who teach our sons and daughters to look for 'helpers' in the community when things go wrong, this is especially troubling. Like the people in Ferguson suffering through the real life trauma engulfing their community, we want our local police to be there as resources, and we have high expectations of their behavior. While we acknowledge that a certain percentage of law enforcement personnel are at least as likely to be racist or ableist as the community where they live and work, they are still held to a higher standard than the rest of us.
The actions of the impulsive, violent few, have created an atmosphere of mistrust toward all others, and created a divide in communities that most need a safer environment. Populations described as being seen as 'other' are more vulnerable to the prejudice and attacks of civilians and are targeted more often by criminals. Events in Ferguson that are ongoing are making it more difficult for safe and respectful relationships between citizens and law enforcement everywhere, because we are all being tested by it. Standing in solidarity with those protesting police brutality and seeking accountability for lethal force being used against unarmed citizens of marginalized communities does not mean promoting our own political or social agendas. Michael Brown his family, and that community deserve so much more than that.
We stand in solidarity with those who are enduring the tragedy as well as the aftermath of the killing of Michael Brown because we are human beings first. Everyone needs to be listening and learning right now, in case alarming habits from decades of discrimination might be what the protesters in Ferguson consider "Tuesday." Only people of privilege could believe that the everyday trials of our lives compare to what is happening there right now. Until there is one speck of justice in all this terror, standing in solidarity with the Black citizens of Saint Louis County, and everyone protesting in Ferguson, Missouri, means listening, hearing, and relaying only their messages; and if we are able, responding with sorrow, concern, and commitment.
Five Tips for Being an Ally
How a person who isn't a part of a particular oppressed or grieving community can be a good ally
Please Stop Telling Me That All Lives Matter
Answering the call: A conversation on race, disability, and accountability
Facebook/Twitter: Noon EDT August 22, 2014 9am Pacific Time
Becoming a White Ally to Black People in the Aftermath of the Michael Brown Murder
Why the Protesters in Ferguson Can't Stay Home at Night
A Statement Of Solidarity With The People Of Ferguson, Missouri
How to Deal With Friendsí Racist Reactions to Ferguson
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Ferguson, MO and Police Militarization (HBO)
Stop Derailing This Conversation!
Musings of an Angry Black Womyn
Don't be an "oppression vampire" - term coined by zhivila agbah on Twitter @zagbah
Great illustrations by alice wong @SFdirewolf via Anita Cameron @adaptanita
Shaping Clay: Counting Bodies: Anything Else Is Impermissible
Intersections of disability and racism
Black history of 504 sit-in for disability rights
The Power of Being Wanted
Why All Communities of Color Must Demand an End to Police Brutality
For Latinos and Asian- and Arab-Americans, Ferguson is our fight too.
The Impact of Violence on the Students of Ferguson and Their Learning Culture
Elon James White via Twitter @elonjames: Here is the clip from tonight's live broadcast when the police gassed a residential block in Ferguson. #TWIBnation
St. Louis bookstore chronicles, contextualizes conflict in Ferguson
You Can't Understand Ferguson Without First Understanding These Three Things
Reflections from a former state senator from St. Louis - via New Republic
Browse your local bookstore, public library or online retailer for books like Treating Trauma and Traumatic Grief in Children and Adolescents by Judith A. Cohen MD, Anthony P. Mannarino, and Esther Deblinger PhD
or On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City (Fieldwork Encounters and Discoveries).
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