A screenshot from police bodycam shows director Ryan Coogler being released from handcuffs.
Image Source: Body Cam Video via atlantapd.org

How Disability Exacerbates Anti-Blackness

Black disabled people deserve to be part of the conversation. 

On Wednesday, March 9, the internet caught wind of another incident involving police. In January, Ryan Coogler— a Black man and the award-winning director of Fruitvale Station, Creed, and Black Panther — had gone to a Bank of America branch in Atlanta and slid the bank teller a note requesting to withdraw $12,000. The bank teller, a Black woman, assumed that Coogler was robbing the bank and called the police, who detained him in handcuffs (BuzzFeed). Please note: this link includes bodycam footage of the encounter, but it does not auto-play. I know that anti-Blackness alone wasn’t to blame for the teller, the manager, and the police’s escalated response. 

Ableism, like anti-Blackness, increases the chances of police violence. 

When the teller called 911, she said that what rattled her was that he handed over a note, despite him also handing over a debit card and his ID (BuzzFeed). A simple action, passing a note, could’ve cost this Black man his life. 

TAKE ACTION

• Visit the National Disability Institute or American Progress to learn more about Blackness and disability.

• Research internalized racial oppression through Karen D. Pyke, the originator of this term, and other venues.

• Learn more about anti-Blackness and ableism, including ways you can include the needs and safety of Black disabled people in your activism, by following and donating to the Disabled Black Lives Matter campaign through the Alliance For Inclusive Education.

Coogler likely passed a note because he didn’t want other folks to know that he was withdrawing thousands of dollars — a valid reason in itself. But many folks cannot or may prefer not to speak verbally due to any number of physical and mental disabilities. A Black man using non-verbal communication being coded as a criminal is an indictment of the state of ableism and anti-Blackness in our society (Anti-Racism Daily). Though the 911 dispatcher said “maybe he just wants to be discreet,” police still arrived to apprehend a “Black male wearing a mask and glasses” (TMZ).

Black disabled folks in banks, schools, and other institutions with the police on their side are viewed with suspicion and seen as dangerous. Violence is often the result.

14% of working-age Black folks have a disability, compared to 11% of white folks and 8% of Latine folks (National Disability Institute). In the U.S., 50% of folks killed by police officers are disabled, and over half of Black disabled folks will have been arrested by the time they are 28 years old (American Progress). 

Not even ten words into their conversation with Coogler, the responding officer cocked his gun. Given racist U.S. policing, there’s a chance Coogler’s interaction with the cops could have been fatal. Years of research and personal experiences show that what could’ve happened to Coogler regularly happens to Black disabled folks. 

Though Coogler himself has not said he has a disability, I can’t help but think that confirms the horrifying reality of what anti-Blackness, coupled with ableism, can do. 

I can’t read this story and not think of LaQuan McDonald. In 2014, Chicago police shot and killed McDonald because he was “acting erratically while holding a knife” (NAMI Illinois). When I think of how cops wronged this Black disabled teenager and how cops wronged Coogler, I also think about the stories of Black disabled folks that don’t have celebrity or virality attached to them. Do we care about those? When we say “Black Lives Matter,” are we also thinking of Black folks with disabilities — an intra communally disenfranchised population? How many of us have seen a Black person handcuffed or questioned by police because they were “acting erratically”? Why are disability and Blackness seen as abnormal to begin with?

It doesn’t help that Black folks are erased in disability justice movement work, and that police brutality continues to be an under-addressed issue in the U.S. (ChrisTiana ObeySumner). Overwhelmingly, Black disabled folks live in poverty, so they do not benefit from the wealth and status that got Coogler out of this situation (HuffPost). Often, they do not have the stacked resume Coogler can point to as proof that they’re an “upstanding citizen,” seeing as how only 28% of Black disabled folks of working age can find employment (Disability Statistics). 

Disability exacerbates anti-Blackness, and we should talk about it more. This unfortunate situation is a failure of many things: policing, companies, and our culture of anti-Blackness and ableism. Black disabled people deserve to be safe. When we go to the bank, or to the mall, or to our homes, the police shouldn’t be sicced on us as if we need to be tamed. Instead, we should check our ableism and anti-Blackness before making assumptions. We should check in with ourselves, ask why something may be “rattling” us, and respond with the knowledge that we all have different needs. 

This can all be solved without the police.

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