On Sunday morning, Charleena Lyles called the Seattle police to report a burglary. She was a black woman, pregnant, the mother of four children (including a child with Down’s syndrome), living in housing for formerly homeless individuals.
The police showed up, found her in a mental health crisis and allegedly armed with a knife, and killed her.
The killing has provoked widespread outrage across the nation – but how do we go beyond it? How do we untangle the connections between racism, classism and ableism, and police violence?
As the story of Lyles’ preventable death unfurled, a group of non-white and disabled activists in Chicago reacted with grim familiarity.
They know this story. And they’re worried that one of the best tools at their disposal to stop the violence is being taken away.
No one knows how many of the victims of police violence are disabled.
We have some national data, which I pulled into a white paper for the Ruderman Foundation in 2015, but we’re far too reliant on anecdotes – only because police departments and state governments have been resistant to tracking use of force. The anecdotes remain telling, though. The major cases behind the DoJ investigation of Chicago involved disabled black men.
Laquan McDonald had both PTSD and unspecified mental disabilities. Philip Coleman, who died in custody, had a mental health crisis and police arrived after parents called 911. The officers said: “We don’t do hospitals, we do jails,” and took him to prison. A video released in late 2015 shows a non-resisting Coleman being repeatedly tasered and dragged from his cell. He died not long after. A Chicago police officer killed Quintonio Legrier, a young black man in mental health crisis, while also shooting the neighbor who was keeping an eye on him (a black woman named Bettie Jones).
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