Panel 2: "Authority and the non-recognition of racialised disability"
Flipped webinar (9/Jul/21): 'Intersectional Approaches to Disability and Race' (here)
Policing: An intersectional analysis of race and neurodivergence
PhD student in Sociology, University of Warwick
My rationale for this blog is to try and make sense of an overlooked trend in broad academic circles and mainstream media discourse. Further, my blog seeks to move toward understanding why police and the criminal justice system, more broadly, seriously mistreats autistic Black men. In doing so, this blog examines the cases of 3 autistic Black men who were critically mistreated.
At the time of his encounter with the police on 6th June 2014, Michael Gilchrist was 55 years old. High Court records (see para.1) confirm that his mother described him as having severe learning difficulties and an autism spectrum disorder. On this day, he suffered an acute behavioural disorder episode, during which he broke a window in his flat and communal stairwell. Initial calls to the police show that he was found outside, bleeding (see para.69). Two police officers arrive at the scene at 6.02 am, and one of them first sprays CS gas into Michael’s face. The other police officer then uses his taser on Michael for 2 ‘cycles’ for a total discharge of 6 seconds (firstly a 4-second burst, a 10-second gap, then a further 2-second volley). Michael is then sprayed again in the face with CS gas. By 6.03 am, another police officer has arrived, and he tasers Michael for a total of 8 cycles lasting cumulatively 72 seconds over a period of 113 seconds. Michael is not reported to have been harming anyone at the time. Due to Michael’s autism and state of health resulting from this ordeal, he was eligible to sue Greater Manchester Police for negligence. Subsequent media reporting by the BBC in 2019 says Michael is now largely mute and a shadow of his former self.
Some details of the training report are explained in the High Court hearing (see para.40). It is reported in this hearing that police officers are trained to press the trigger for the taser for 5 seconds and discouraged from pressing it again. Michael was tasered at least 10 times, and on one of these occasions, the taser gun was pressed against Michael’s back before being discharged in what is called an “angle drive against the claimant’s upper back/shoulder and lasted 13 seconds” (see para. 18). In this instance, the prosecution argued the use of force to be for Michael’s and the police officer’s safety and to prevent harm. This Queen’s Bench division case was heard in 2019 (see here for the courts discretionary powers re costs; and here for an example of claimant being ordered to pay costs), meaning that Michael and his family could not seek to overcome these injuries for another 5 years because court proceedings were ever-present, involving a constant requirement to relive the events from 2014. Such stress is likely to have been exacerbated with exponentially rising court costs. However, the purpose of this blog is to focus on how Michael’s treatment by police officers through their multiple uses of CS gas and tasers strongly suggests Michael was treated inhumanely on 6th June 2014.
18-year-old Mzee Mohammed’s fatal contact with the police took place on 13th July 2016, where he was restrained and arrested by security staff and Merseyside Police. A YouTube video taken by a bystander following his restraint shows Mzee not moving and lying on the floor, restrained with his arms cuffed behind his back prone and not moving, with 2 police officers kneeling beside him. Another 3 police officers stood over him while 2 paramedics can be seen checking his blood pressure. After this, he was transferred by ambulance to Liverpool Royal Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Before the restraint and arrest, his mother had contacted the mental health crisis team and explained that her autistic son was acting in a paranoid manner. He was subsequently seen in the Liverpool shopping area after leaving his father’s flat. Merseyside Police say he was seen on CCTV carrying a knife.
Osime Brown was arrested for theft of a mobile phone at the age of 16 years old, in 2016. Just like Michael and Mzee, Osime had been diagnosed with autism. At 18, he was convicted as an adult for this offence and has just completed serving a 5-year sentence. The grounds for his conviction are contested on the basis that he was a victim of ‘mate crime’ (see here). While in custody, he was chemically restrained and has now developed a heart condition requiring surgery. Osime was awaiting deportation to Jamaica until earlier this month. The Home Office have withdrawn their application for deportation, but on a without prejudice basis, meaning he can still be deported if new information comes to light. He has lived in England since he was 4 years old.
Oyeronke Oyewumi is an award-winning sociology professor educated at Berkeley, California, and based in the US. In The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses, Oyewumi argues that in the “West, biology presides over other means of knowing a person. The body is given a logic of its own. It is believed that just by looking at it, one can tell a person’s beliefs and social position or lack thereof” (p.1). The bodies seen in these 3 examples are all black. One of these Black men was bleeding profusely from their hands, having sustained cuts from broken glass, another was reportedly wielding a knife, while another was allegedly involved with a group stealing a mobile phone.
Thomas Curry is a professor of philosophy at Edinburgh University. In “This Nigger's Broken Hyper-Masculinity the Buck and the Role of Physical Disability in White Anxiety Toward the Black Male Body” (2017), Curry argues, “in the West, sight analyses the body, and becomes the instrument used to identify biological deficiency…degeneracy and inferiority….just as distortion of the mind suggests the savage degeneration of the body” (p. 322). Curry continues, “the recognition of physical or mental disability by white onlookers is subsumed by white fear. In other words, disability in the Black male is unrecognisable by whites because of a “very real racial anxiety.” (Curry, p. 325.)
Oyewumi argues gender as conceived in the western European realm is not universal, Curry argues that the racialised Black male body is hyper masculinised and policed unjustly. Statistical evidence uncovered by media reports shows disparity in the use of tasers on Black people in England.
Despite evidence of racialised structural inequity in policing, it is through an academic understanding of intersectional aspects of race, gender and disability that the analysis of the above 3 cases shows how autistic Black men are especially vulnerable. Due to a combination of factors like race, gender and neurodivergent behaviours, perhaps the police regarded these 3 men as exceptionally dangerous and reacted with violence where perhaps they might not otherwise have, had one or more of these factors differed. Maybe, their autistic behaviour skewed the police officer's frame of thinking. It exacerbated the situation to the point where one was tasered, and CS sprayed multiple times by multiple officers, another was restrained and died, while another was imprisoned (on still contestable grounds) and threatened with deportation.
Thank you for taking the time to consider this blog. I am grateful for your time and perspective.