Friday, March 26, 2010

Walking While Black and Autistic

The phrase "Driving While Black" is one that is familiar to every African-American in the U.S., and refers to the practice of African Americans (especially young black males) being singled out by the police for "special treatment" when they are driving. Otherwise known as racial profiling, through either upbringing or isolated experiences many police officers come to unfairly believe that the majority of blacks must be up to no good, and thus deserve to be singled out for closer scrutiny, and assumed to be hostile until proven otherwise.

Steven Eugene Washington, a 27 year old black man who reportedly had never had a run in with the law, was shot dead while walking to a friend's house the other night in Los Angeles. When he was reportedly approached for "acting suspiciously", he reportedly

"...did not comply with their investigative demands and appeared to be reaching into his waistband. Fearing he was reaching for a weapon each officer fired once. One bullet struck Washington in the head."

While the LAPD gives its officers a one hour course in dealing with autistic individuals, the department could not say whether the officers who shot Washington had taken the course.

My ten year old bi-racial son had a large birthfather. He will be a big man. This scenario is one of my greatest fears.

I ache for the Washington family tonight, and long for a world where more than one hour is spent training first responders.


Niksmom said...

Joe, I wept when I saw that story in the news. So tragic and so wrong.

I always hold out hope, no matter how naive it may be of me to do so, that we will, somehow, as a society end up getting it right and that Steve Washington and so many others will not have died in vain.

Maddy said...

With Niksmom.

A BCPSS Parent said...

This story terrifies me. My 11 year old son, with limited/non-typical speech, is growing up in a violent American City (Baltimore). I worry about cops with guns, drug dealers with guns, homeowners with guns. We can try working on it, but I am doubtful if he will ever be able to give "normal" verbal responses in high-stress out of the blue situations.

This is about more than autism. What about people with limited English? What about deaf people? I long for a time and place where violence in our society can be taken down a notch from guns to something a little less deadly.

The author said...

sometimes humour is the only way we have of dealing with evil. I think partly at the root of this given the apologetics of the LAPD is an inherent racism that autism training notwithstanding, only white folks get ASD.

I am reminded of a sketch from a satirical program long back in the UK "not the nine o clock news" I can't find it on youtube but here is a reference to it in a blog.

of course that is much lighter than being shot to death.

This whole notion of "there but for the grace of God" can be patronising, but in truth I have been there and lived. I have been the victim of a report to the police of an armed man abroad at night in suspicious circumstances.

You read the various comments on the news reports on this and you see raw prejudice against autism, "what the hell was a 27 year old with the mind of a 12 year old doing walking out at night" you know craparouni.

I was less than one and twenty when this happened to me. This was before Hungerford, before a lot of watershed events, and the University Security, were miffed that this guy (me) who they thought had a gun, just dissapeared into thin air when challenged. They called the cops, they found me and challenged me. But what impresses me is that although there were a line of cop cars who pulled up, lights flashing, I was really at a miss to understand what was going on because I couldn't associate that with me (because I was just being me)

Now this was not a movie, it was real life so nobody cried "hit the deck and freeze MoFo" A cop got out of the car and walked up to me, said in an engaging sort of way. "We have been looking for you, but I am surprised you came out here, we have had a report of an armed man"

I cannot recall what I said in return, but it was quite apparant that the report was exagerated and that I bore nothing more offensive than a flute, which might have looked in the dark like the barrel of a gun.

I have read many stories since of guys being blown away for less. Was I lucky or what?

I hear the cops say "you don't know what it is like to have to make a split second judgement when your life is in danger" but I say, when you become a cop, just like a firefighter or a soldier, you know your job might require you to put your life in danger. I an ordinary John Doe should not expect that risk merely by being me.

I was not at all scared when this happened because it was so unreal, but I have had occasion every time I read about a jumpy cop to think that I was on a very thin line when that happened, and nobody ought to be there.

Club 166 said...


There are certainly members of many other populations (as you point out) who have met similar fates.

@the author,

Glad you came out OK.

I think partly at the root of this given the apologetics of the LAPD is an inherent racism that autism training notwithstanding, only white folks get ASD.

So true. People of color get diagnosed with "Antisocial Personality Disorder" instead. :(


storkdok said...

Between this story, which just broke my heart, and the Smockity Mocking, I am at a loss for words. I am so worried about my son's future.

Anonymous said...

It is one of my fears as well. I remember thinking when my son was diagnosed: Isn't it enough that he's getting to get discriminated against for being black and Asian, does he have to be autistic as well?

Club 166 said...

@ all,

I share your concerns regarding our kid's futures. I guess that's a normal parenting thing, amplified by the whole special needs thing.

Between my feeling anxious about the future, I am also hopeful for the future. Racism, bigotry, and people treating those different from them badly are nothing new. Perhaps the internet, by bringing widely different people together, will help us towards a bit better understanding of each other, and a little more tolerance.


kathleen said...

Tolerance, acceptance, is everything. My heart goes out to the family..I hope they are surrounded by good support.

Justthisguy said...

Alfred Hitchcock famously said, "I don't hate the police, but I am afraid of them."

The police in this country are getting more and more militarized, and adopting an "Us versus Them" mental attitude.

I think too many of them really believe they have the right to boss any of us peons around at any time, and punish any slightest disagreement or demurral with force, up to and including deadly force.

Hell, I think I'm "mostly normal" and have had some unpleasant LEO experiences. At least I'm white, which may have saved me.

I advise everyone here to look at, conducted by Radley Balko. His accounts of police behaving badly will curdle your blood, or in my case, cause me to jump up and down in autistic rage at such horrible injustices.

Club 166 said...

Yes, Kathleen, there's nothing any of us can do for Steven any more. We can only hope that those who loved him obtain some peace.

JustThisGuy, the more stuff I read of yours, the more I like you. Most people don't interact much with the police, and assume that they are always on the side of justice, or at least the law. As any modern photographer that takes pictures out in public will tell you, though, that's not necessarily the case. People get hassled all the time for the totally legal taking of pictures in public spaces. And that's mild, next to actually being a minority having the temerity to walk around in public at night.


Daisy said...

The situation is so sad. Was so heartbreaking. Heck with grammar - his death was just wrong.

Casdok said...

Brings back memories of C and i being surrounded by armed police as he was also acting suspiciously. Thankfully they listened to me.
My heart goes out to the family.

Anonymous said...

It's tragic that this young man was killed however, look at it from the cops' point of view. They saw a man ignore their order to stop and reach in his waistband. They had no idea he was autistic. For all they knew he was reaching for a gun. It's not uncommon to hear about a police officer being gunned down and killed, leaving a wife and children. They have to act in a split second. Hindsight is 20-20 but I'll bet that if you saw a video of the incident without knowing any of the details you'd see a cop in danger who acted to protect himself and the community.
The problem is the proliferation of guns. If guns weren't so readily available this would be a safer country and incidents like this wouldn't happen. At the worst, the young man would have been handcuffed and taken to the station.

David N. Andrews M. Ed., C. P. S. E. said...

"People of color get diagnosed with 'Antisocial Personality Disorder' instead."

Not exactly an improvement on 'drapatomaina', is it?