brain injury and police brutality

Listen to this post: 

Trigger and content warning: I’m talking about times when police brutalize or kill people with known brain injuries. I’ve written on this blog about police causing brain injuries in their encounters as well. This is a triggering post and a triggering topic. Take care of yourself and leave now if you need to.

I recently wrote an essay, with Sarah Mirk’s help, focused on some very harsh realities for D/deaf and disabled people in jail and prison. One of the big issues being outright denied accommodations:  ASL interpreters, video phone calls, medications, wheelchairs, having instructions written down, having instructions read aloud. These accommodations are covered by federal law, and it’s not like people wander into a prison randomly asking for them. People express with complete and utter clarity that they need these things. There is a serious pattern of taking these accommodations away, denying them, delaying them, and then punishing incarcerated people for not being able to function without them. And that leads me to today’s topic. What’s a major pattern when people with badges and guns encounter my brothers and sisters in the brain injury community?

This summer, media covered Hannah Cohen, a young white woman with brain cancer and years of treatment that left her visually impaired and partially deaf. While coming home from her final treatment, TSA got ants in their pants when Hannah set off the metal detector. Her mother–let me reiterate who this is–her mother repeatedly begged TSA officers to keep them close together. She said she could help them communicate. She said her daughter would not be able to follow verbal commands the way a non-disabled traveler could. She, the mother, a woman, was separated from her child. The mother was silenced. And the daughter was physically brutalized. For not complying. Even though her mother told them that supports and accommodations were needed if the daughter could be expected to understand the situation, know what she should do to be cooperative, and then do those things.

And Keith Lamont Scott, rest in peace. His wife, a Black woman, running toward him when police surrounded his car, had her cell phone recording. Listen, and you can hear Rakeyia Scott say this:  “Don’t shoot him. He has no weapon….He doesn’t have a gun. He has a TBI….He’s not going to do anything to you guys. He just took his medicine.” You wanna talk about a history of silencing, look at the situation of a Black woman approaching police who are in apprehend mode and have already begun escalating a situation and their own blood pressure and heart rates. We know that police did not listen to her. And we know that they killed Keith Scott.

A very well-regarded white, non-disabled journalist I know recently asked some community members what top things journalists need to know about TBI, and I am endlessly grateful for his question. Some people gave lists of symptoms and quirky behaviors to be aware of. Others stepped in with data on health disparities, how Black, Latinx, and Native American people have significantly worse outcomes than white people in the US. (They do.) Others said that journalists need to learn to ask TBI survivors for the answers, not other journalists. The discussion was rich, complex, deep, and extraordinarily useful. So let me wrap up here, in light of these two examples, with my suggestion. What do you need to know about TBI?

Slow. Down. Right now. Slow. Down. Whoever you are, if you want someone with a brain injury to do what you want them to do, slow down with your instructions. Explain the scenario slowly. Wait for them to respond more slowly. Wait for them to answer more slowly. Wait for them to ask you clarifying questions. Answer them. Slowly and calmly. (Not to mention, be sure to ask yourself why you are making demands of someone with a brain injury and be sure those demands are actually reasonable.) And for the love of all things sacred, when a mother, a wife, any woman, any person at all is standing right there telling you in no uncertain terms that this person has cognitive or sensory impairments from brain injury, don’t ever, ever, ever separate them. Don’t ignore this person doing everything possible to help you not escalate the situation. I totally get it that you don’t always know when someone has an information or sensory processing impairment or is D/deaf and can’t access your instructions. But remember, in these two examples, a woman is standing there feeding the information to officers who will not accept it.

I urge you to get involved with “Where Is Hope: The Art of Murder” a documentary on police brutality against people of color with disabilities by Emmitt Thrower. Order this film, host a community screening, and get honest discussions going about how real change is needed, has been needed forever. Read about police brutality by authors of color, such as Leroy Moore.

Please feel invited to engage in discussion on this post. However, posts along the lines of “not all cops” or “reverse racism” or “people with brain injury need to be more responsible for their own actions” or anything else that distracts from, derails, or redirects from the topics above will not be published under any circumstances. You may start your own post on those topics. Today’s topic is about brutalizing people who are not able to respond quickly and about separating those people from women who are using every tool they have to protect the people and keep the peace.