Emmett Till & the Pervasive Erasure of Disability In Conversations about White Supremacy & Police Violence
Content Warning: Discussion of white supremacist violence & police brutality.
Today, I answer Eve Ewing’s early morning call to “honestly reckon with history.” I will name and address one issue in brief and earnest because revisionist history and disability erasure will be the death of countless more if we do not answer this call.
In August of 1955, white supremacists kidnapped, tortured and murdered Emmett Louis Till after a white woman claimed that Till whistled at her. A jury required less than one hour to come back with a “not guilty” verdict. This week, more than sixty years since Emmett Till’s mutilated fourteen year old body was pulled from the muddy Tallahatchie River, the woman who concocted the story that led to Emmett Till’s murder finally confessed that she lied. Her “revelation” has caused a flurry of discussions and articles about white supremacy and police violence — which are in the United States, forever inextricably linked.
For many, it is impossible to ignore the parallels between this case, its outcome, and countless recent cases involving law enforcement murdering young people (often on camera) with no consequence. Many Disabled/Deaf community builders continue to warn that the failure to approach these discussions with a disability justice lens — understanding, discussing and addressing the real and deadly links between racism, ableism, white supremacy and police violence — will lead to more death.
Countless survivors and victims of white terror and police brutality were targeted because of their race, disability, class and other identities. Anyone who says otherwise is not being honest about the history and longevity of ableism, racism, classism in this “nation.” That, or perhaps they are unclear about how each of those oppressions is woven into the fabric of white supremacy and how each undergirds the other.
So intertwined are these oppressions that any attempt to rid the nation of racism without doing away with ableism yields practically nothing. The same is true in reverse. Disabled communities attempting to rid the nation of ableism find themselves having made very little headway because they are still practicing racism.
In fact, for the past several years, more than half of those killed by “law enforcement” in the United States have been disabled/deaf individuals. This group of victims is also comprised disproportionately of Black, Indigenous, Latinx people and people from other marginalized communities including low/no income and trans communities. Many have written about the alarmingly disproportionate representation of disabled people of color in statistics ranging from suspensions to state-sanctioned executions. And yet we continue to thoughtlessly erase their identities — and thus their humanity.
By this I mean that narratives shared by people of color (including “social justice activists”) about disabled victims of white terror and police brutality who also are of color erase Disability/Deafness and other aspects of these individuals’ identities. These intersections are precisely what made these victims prime targets for violence. Similarly, the narratives shared about these victims by the vast majority of disabled people (including “disability/deaf rights activists”) erase Blackness/indigeneity altogether — again ignoring the very intersection of these individuals’ identities that made them susceptible to this violence in the first place.
Although society has a tendency to erase the Disability of Black Disabled people (See, Audre Lorde, Barbara Jordan, Brad Lomax, Darnell Wicker, Eric Garner, Fannie Lou Hamer, George Washington Carver, Harriet Tubman, Harry Belafonte, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Jazzie Collins, Jesse Washington, Keith Lamont Scott, Korryn Gaines, Laquan McDonald, Maya Angelou, Sandra Bland, Simone Biles, Wilma Rudolph, Whoopi Goldberg, and countless others), studies show that disability is more prevalent in communities of color and low/no income communities — in large part because of the ways that racism and classism operate.
If you are not aware, please note that Black Disabled/Deaf people take pride in Blackness, Disability and Deafness just the same; and none of these identities should ever be erased.
Now for a bit of pertinent U.S. history (I actually refer to U.S. history as race-disability history):
Polio was far-reaching in the United States from the early to mid-1900's. Notably, polio medical and rehabilitation centers during the same time were segregated by race; and eugenicists described polio as a “white disease” that Black people could not contract (these are the same eugenicists who created scientific racism-ableism). Since polio did not discriminate like those who craft the policies of this nation, Black people who contracted or survived polio were not provided adequate medical care or rehabilitation support. Black organizers ensured an increase in the visibility of Black polio survivors which spurred philanthropic and institutional support for medical and rehabilitative support for Black people with polio; and Tuskegee Institute opened its polio center in the 1940's. Numerous people have written about this particular chapter of medical/scientific racism-ableism, so I will not delve any further.
I introduce this only to share with some and to remind others that Emmett Till, survived a bout of polio. Like many survivors, he experienced post-polio symptoms that affected his daily life activities. In his case, he acquired a speech disability that stayed with him until his death. His mother, Mamie Till, recounted having taught him different techniques, including whistling, to clear his passage and speak through his speech disability — which was more pronounced when he was nervous or in particularly stressful situations. His mother and cousins also maintain that Emmett Till struggled with certain letters and his pronunciation sometimes actually sounded like a whistle.
We also know that Emmett Till was outgoing and funny. He was full of jokes, pranks and smiles — always trying to make those around him laugh, his cousins and friends report. He was so good at telling jokes that people would pay him to tell jokes. Stories shared by those who knew him for his very brief lifetime remind me so much of other Black Disabled youth who, with all that is in them, try not to allow our racist-ableist society to steal their joy. Alas, white supremacy has a cruel way of dealing with our Black Disabled children — specially those who try their utmost to live fully & freely.
Post-murder, these children are regarded as “hulk-like,” “towering,” “incapable of feeling pain,” “menacing,” and “dangerously noncompliant,” among other adjectives. The hyper-fetishized stories spun by “concerned neighbors” and “vigilant[e] neighborhood watchmen” are so out of touch with reality that these children’s family members would not recognize the child if the story were to somehow come to life. Unfortunately, the legal system, like society, is mired in racism and ableism, so prosecutors, judges, juries, and yes, even defense attorneys, often buy into the myth that a Black Disabled child could become superhuman and inhuman all at once. We convince ourselves that these children are not deserving of laughter, liberty and life and sit idly by while they are abused and murdered with reckless abandon (by the state, no less).
Race and Disability. The most dangerous intersection history has ever held. All that seems to exists there is violence, erasure and murder with impunity.
The truth is that it is exceedingly rare to find a victim or survivor of violence who was targeted for just one part of their identity. Past and present victims of white terror and police violence were/are more often than not multiply-marginalized. Therefore, any conversation about their murder that does not recognize and honor their multiple identities dishonors them through and through. We actually deal a heavy blow to our own liberation struggles when we engage in this kind of violent erasure.
This is why disability solidarity is critical for our collective liberation.
Image of a tweet by Harriet Tubman Collective (@HTCSolidarity) on 22 January 2017: “Folks, let’s not tack #DisabilitySolidarity onto our tweets while practicing racism. Disability solidarity is about #intersectionaljustice.”For a full image descriptions of the three infographics click this link.
Disability solidarity means that we are all advancing intersectional justice — that Disabled folks are working hard to achieve racial justice, economic justice, gender justice; and Black folks are holding ourselves accountable for disability justice, immigrant justice, indigenous justice, etc. Disability solidarity means the folks fighting for racial justice and disability justice are one and the same. In this way, no one is left behind.
Disability solidarity encapsulates the lived experience of Emmett Till and millions of Disabled youth of color living at the intersection he once occupied. These are the youth who continue to be profiled, criminalized, and killed for existing. They deserve to have their whole humanity affirmed. Disability solidarity saves lives and makes room for laughter, love and freedom at an intersection that does not have to continue to be the most dangerous intersection that we’ve ever held.
Disability solidarity honors our ancestors; affirms our present struggles and gives credence to dreams of our children — born & yet unborn.
It is high time for a reckoning with this nation’s sordid history. Ableism, racism, classism and white supremacy is a damn good place to start.
NOTE: Yes. The white woman lied. However, disability is still critically important to understanding this narrative. Disability and negative racialization combine to make it easier to be killed because to white supremacists and the State, Black Disabled people will always be less worthy of life than Black abled people and than non-Black Disabled people. As such people living at this particular intersection are at highest risk of active and passive murder by everyone.
I want to believe in peace. I want to believe we can unlearn violence & affirm our interdependency. I dream of a community of lovers, who navigate pain, joy, laughter and grief together, collectively & with care; experiencing endless beauty. I think I am dreaming of a modern day heaven, or perhaps I am dreaming of the good we were meant to be. Ki'tay Davidson, Why I Quit Philanthropy Dark rectangle with the above quote and a photo of Ki'tay during a presentation to disabled youth. Ki’tay is smiling with an open mouth and snapping in celebration of a great comment by an audience member while facilitating a Disability History, Culture, and Pride workshop for youth with disabilities during the summer of 2014. Ki'tay is holding a microphone in his left hand and snapping with his right. He is wearing a black shirt, orange pants and a faux leather black hat turned backwards.
[Please note that this written version of Ki'tay's eulogy does not reflect some of the spontaneous additions made during its presentation. Other notes: Immediately prior to presenting this eulogy, I opened by centering the space by sharing Ki’tay’s name sign (*heart touch with the eight finger*) that was given by a Deaf individual & asking participants to collectively uplift names/name signs of those who are no longer physically with us. I also acknowledged that I would be switching between tenses because I had not quite figured out this whole thing.]
Saturday, December 13, 2014
Orland Park, Illinois
What an incredible honor.
I am so very humbled, grateful and honored to be counted among those who know and love Ki’tay D. Davidson. My name is Talila A. Lewis--sign name and chosen name, TL. Ki’tay is my life partner, my mentee, my mentor, my dearest friend, and the one who showed me precisely what the meaning of love is.
It is solely because of Ki’tay that the theme of this day & of the rest of my eternity is: Love Wins.
We come together today, not only to celebrate the life & legacy of a beautiful human being who embodied everything that active love is, but also to learn about those who may come from different communities & yet be just as human as you--to learn how to affirm, love and fight with and for them. In doing so, we will love ourselves more deeply and move the world faster toward collective justice & liberation--the world that Ki’tay dreamed of and fought for with all of his being and all of his heart.
There is a quote by the poet Rumi that reminds me deeply of Ki’tay & helps me understand precisely how many of us feel in this moment about his loss. It’s a question and an answer--which is how most who truly knew him remember Ki’tay: Dialogue. Interdependence centered always.
The quote is as follows:
"My heart is so small . . . it's almost invisible. How can you place such big sorrows in it?"
"Look," he answered, " your eyes are even smaller, yet they behold the world."
Ki’tay was a lot of things to a lot of people, organizations & institutions:
While Ki’tay’s work, what he stood for, and how he transformed all of these people and entities can never be encapsulated in any language, what we can be sure of is that they will forever be changed for the better because of his existence and sacrifice.
Many here may have met Ki’tay but aren’t familiar with who he is or what he stood for. Allow me to share a bit about him with you:
Ki’tay is a Revolutionary dreamer, leader and lover. One who prized people, prioritized love & propelled action by empowering all.
Last year, for example he was awarded a prestigious White House award, honoring his contributions as a “Champion of Change” for his transformative advocacy & activism with and for multiply-marginalized people with disabilities. Upon being named the Champion of Change, he penned an open letter to the community saying this, in part:
I challenge the extent to which we place the responsibility for advocacy on those designated as leaders or “champions.” Advocacy is not just a task for charismatic individuals or high profile community organizers. Advocacy is for all of us; advocacy is a way of life. It is a natural response to the injustices and inequality in the world. While you and I may not have sole responsibility for these inequities that does not alter its reality.
Today I am thankful. I am thankful for every ally and individual working, struggling and fighting to make this world a better place--thankful to any and everybody who realizes that this world is bigger than themselves, and who channels that awareness to “level the playing field.” These are people who can acknowledge their privilege and opportunity, and consciously and intentionally use their existence to transform communities...I may have earned a prestigious award, but today it is not really about me. It is about the community and I am simply a singular representative of thousands of people who give their hearts and their time to living a life of transformation. Thank you to all the champions who came before me, to those I have met, and to those who I have yet to meet. Thanks to those champions who have encouraged, listened, affirmed, fought and loved, alongside our beautiful community. Together, we have made change and will continue to make change. There are many chains that need to be broken. We all know it. I support you and welcome you to hold me accountable as we hold all of ourselves accountable to facilitating inclusive and loving environments for all.
These are what I have come to call Ki’tay’s truths.
Ki’tay found innovative ways to speak to injustice in many different contexts—from racism, transphobia, ableism, to discrimination against incarcerated persons and people with a history of incarceration. Indeed, he possessed courage of his convictions. It could be said; and it is true, that many people possess this trait.
However, it was Ki'tay's ability to sit with and actively love oppressors and those who were violent toward him and marginalized communities—most often solely because they do not adhere to that which has been deemed “normal”—that truly set him apart. He could breathe life and love into even those people within mere moments of making their acquaintance. This is what makes him special—reminiscent of what some here may call a prophet; others, a wise man; others still, a light or sage.
He was grounded in love. Always.
Ki’tay did not feign to know all of the answers to the problems of the world, but he prided himself on always learning and evolving to address injustices. Those who know him will tell you that rarely a day went by that he was not researching and sending research to others on issues that most of us could not even begin to understand. When confused about the content, we were not chided or insulted for not knowing, but affirmed for our interest and ability to challenge ourselves. He could explain the most abstract and nuanced concepts with elegance and pith such that all you could do was smile and shake your head after having struggled for days--sometimes weeks--to digest the content.
This was Ki’tay’s love language. Community-centered learning, growth, activism and healing.
He was frequently caught quoting the famed Assata Shakur:
It is our duty to fight. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and protect each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.
He has understood since, well, birth it seems [Ki'tay's mother had just shared some stories about his struggles for justice as a toddler and young child], that we can not remain silent about injustice against any group of people, be they black, disabled, indigenous, gender nonconforming, trans, homeless, sex workers, incarcerated persons, and the list continues. He understood that each individual group’s liberation was inextricably linked to the other--that justice & liberation could only be had if we all stand together and fight for the rights and liberties of the next individual or community. He understood that we are free when we use our freedom to advance the rights of all members of our community; or as Nelson Mandela put it, “to be free is not just casting off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
It was his visceral yearning for universal equality, solidarity & collective activism that explains Ki’tay's immense joy with the recent collective creation of #DisabilitySolidarity with Allie Cannington and myself. Disability Solidarity has been the impetus behind groups fighting for disability justice to dedicate themselves to racial justice and for non disability civil rights organizations to dedicate themselves to disability justice.
On October 17th, I sent Ki’tay an email for which he expressed sincere gratitude. The short email was a quote from the Dalai Lama, who, when asked what surprised him most about humanity, said this:
Man surprises me most about humanity.
Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money.
Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health.
And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present;
the result being that he does not live in the present or the future;
he lives as if he is never going to die,
and then dies having never really lived.
One thing Ki’tay did do was live fully. Another was consciously ignore the vanity that pervades our culture. He found the beauty in everything natural. He valued all people regardless of gender, color, creed, disability, sexual orientation, religious or spiritual bent (or lack thereof), or gender identity. He found & created beauty where it could not be found and shared this beauty and love with all who would listen—and with those who thought they were not interested, but had no idea.
See, many of you here are familiar with parables and stories of grace and justice that you studied and learned from holy books. I however, was fortunate to witness parables and actions of grace and justice because Ki’tay lived them.
Solidarity for Ki’tay means active resistance to the status quo--letting ALL people know that they are respected, cherished, valued & LOVED. Solidarity also means letting them know that despite our failures, we are committed to their cause because it is inextricably linked to each of our individual and collective causes. Ki’tay believed that the time is now to seek what is just.
Ki’tay did more in twenty-two years than many can complete in several lifetimes. If he were here right now witnessing for and sharing with all of you in light of all that has occurred even over these past several days, I believe his heart would share this modified message from Martin Luther King, Jr.:
Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world. This is the calling of my generation and those who are in the generations to come--who wait eagerly for your response. Will you say to us that the odds are too great? Will you tell us the struggle is too hard? Will your message to us be that the forces of life militate against our arrival as full persons, and that you send your deepest regrets? Or will there be another message—of longing, of hope, of solidarity with our yearnings, of commitment to our causes, whatever the cost? The choice is yours, and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.
In closing, I wish to offer you, a call to love & a call of action.
Here is our call to love. This, from the great Paulo Coelho:
In those moments, love appears and says: 'You think you're heading toward a specific point, but the whole justification for the goal's existence lies in your love for it. Rest a little, but as soon as you can, get up and carry on. Because ever since your goal found out that you were traveling toward it, it has been running to meet you.
And now, our call to action--again from the late great Martin Luther King, Jr.:
Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. . . .Every step towards the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.
Thank you Ki’tay for consciously sharing your love with us.
Thank you Ki'tay for your countless quiet sacrifices in the name of love, liberation, humanity.
I wholeheartedly recognize and am forever humbled in knowing that you are the mightiest of all our miracles.
May we ever uplift, share and act out your truth: Love Wins.
TW/CW: Discussion of death & violence against a transman after his physical passing. This is a relatively short post about how this world treated my partner, Ki'tay D. Davdson, upon his transition herefrom.
When you are trans, you cannot escape violence in life or death.
There is no rest.
When you are trans, you must be at the ready and ever prepared to combat violence--dead or alive.
Particularly striking are the solemn realities of life and death for transfolk of color, transfolk with disabilities, transfolk living with little or no income; and transfolk at any and all of these intersections. For these individuals, there is no fanfare, Vanity Fair, life fair, or death fair. The world calls you what it wants and treats you how it will--dead or alive.
This is just one small part of Ki’tay D. Davidson’s life story. Ironically, it begins a day after his transition from this physical world. Despite his constant warmth & endless love in life, the cold hatred of this world could not help but try to envelop him in death.
These are partial transcripts from phone calls that took place on December 3, 2014:
. . .
Los Angeles County Coroner Investigator: Well, I just spoke with one of my lieutenants and the way we do the death certificate is by anatomical structure.
Me: That doesn’t make any sense and that’s not going to work. . . .
Investigator: I can have the lieutenant call you.
[Lieutenant calls me. ]
Lieutenant: . . . In this office, we go by anatomical reproductive organs that are intact. This happens a lot. I mean we are in L.A.
Me: Right. I get that trans people end up in your office relatively frequently. You mean that you all still don't have any policies in place to ensure that people are correctly identified on their death certificates?
[I repeat what I have shared with at least three other individuals at the coroner’s office--“anatomical structures/organs/etc.” are not in any way determinative of a person’s gender; this kind of discrimination leads to inaccuracies in government documents and dishonors and erases the lives of people; in 2014 the LA coroner must have some kind of policy on gender markers, and so on. . .]
Lieutenant: Here, we just go by reproductive organs. . . This is just the death certificate, the family can dress him up any way you want for the world.
Hurt by the brazen and casual anti-trans violence; and in sheer terror and panic at the idea that all that my partner fought for in life could be blotted out with the simple stroke of a pen, I mustered my best poker voice and let this lieutenant know that an attorney would be in touch with him about this. I suppose I thought that he might simply agree to do as requested. Not so much. I had no idea who was going to take on this case (which literally had to be resolved within less than a day or two).
And so, after his passing, I had to work to find and communicate with attorneys; organize life celebrations in three states, and a funeral in another; support Ki’tay’s mother with all that comes with a sudden passing; hold up all those who Ki'tay touched who needed to be held in this terrible time of loss; while continuing my own volunteer advocacy for disabled/deaf incarcerated individuals and wrapping up grades for two classes of university students. All of this while trying to grieve the loss of the greatest human and partner and figure out what to do about the fact that those who knew him least were busy commodifying Ki’tay:
"It is just a death certificate. You can dress him up any way you want to for the world."
I was at a loss on the phone that day, and have been in a haze for some time since, but here is what I wish I had been able to say to the lieutenant:
Mr. Smith, if your death certificate labeled you as Ms. Smith, would it be "just a death certificate" then?
It is not “just a death certificate,” and our lives & deaths are not a game of “dress up.”
This certificate of death reflects his breath in life. It reflects his triumph in life--over people like you.
Before you lies a man who packed 100 years of active love and righteous struggle into just twenty-two.
Before you lies a man who is unapologetically black, trans, man, disabled, queer, revolution.
Before you lies a man who gave his all for humanity.
After quite a bit of work from a team of attorneys and several who loved Ki’tay, we triumphed. His death certificate rightly reads, male. This was a huge victory for Ki'tay, but I still grieve deeply about this and its many implications.
How many trans people have gone through this violence before him and how many since? What about those who did not have any family who valued the whole humanity of our departed trans loved ones? Those who did not have a partner with education and legal networking privilege? What of them? What of those to come?
I have been consumed by various kinds of grief since Ki'tay's passing. This grief, however--the grief of knowing that transfolk, still have to fight for justice, love & dignity in death--should not exist. And yet, here I am, still grieving this so. Here is my call to love & action for us all:
Do not force us to fight in death like we are made to fight in life.
Do not make us grieve in death like we are made to grieve in life.
Allow our loved ones to grieve our loss, not your violence.
Let us love.
Let us live.
Let us die [of natural causes].
Let us be [free].
As for my partner:
Call him KI'TAY.
Call him HE.
Call him LOVE.
Eternal thanks to the attorneys who supported Ki’tay in death to be his truest self & to family who literally and figuratively showed up at the coroner’s to honor Ki’tay’s whole self & demand the justice that he always demanded for himself and others:
Dorcas Williams, Ki’tay’s Mother
Sasha Burchert, Transgender Law Center
Allie Cannington, Ki’tay’s Dearest Friend
Susan Mizner, ACLU, Disability Counsel
Shruti Purkayastha, Ki’tay’s Housemate & Friend
Chase Strangio, ACLU, LGBTQ & AIDS Project
Turay, Dear Friend of Ki’tay
Ilona Turner, Transgender Law Center
For my communities, this day will be remembered as "historic" not because rights were vindicated; but because of just how effortlessly this historic day trumped this historic year—the 25th anniversary of the
TL seated at the table presenting during the first-ever FCC workshop presenting testimony with some true allies in the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice including Alex Friedman, Cheryl Leanza and Charlie Sullivan. FCC staff look on from the foreground of the photo & an ASL interpreter can be seen in the background next to a large screen with live captions.
This is a piece I wrote on October 21, 2015, in the wake of the Federal Communication Commission's "historic" vote to cap predatory rates for calls for incarcerated people and their loved ones. This "historic" FCC's vote failed to ensure disability/deaf access, so the rights made available to millions by and through this vote did nothing for thousands of deaf/disabled people behind bars who are still completely disconnected.
Today the FCC voted to reduced predatory phone rates and ban abusive hidden fees on calls from jails and prisons beginning early next year. This is critical for incarcerated individuals and their loved ones--including at least 2.7 million children who have incarcerated parents. This historic order ends decades of abuse by huge private prison telephone companies that make millions by charging excessive rates to families who want to maintain contact with their incarcerated loved ones. This is also a huge victory for prison phone justice advocates who have fought for over a decade to end these excessive rates. Deaf and disabled people affected by mass incarceration, however, are not so fortunate.
Three years ago, I launched HEARD’s Deaf Prisoner Phone Justice Campaign to gain support for deaf and disabled people who have been denied access to telecommunications in our jails and prisons for decades. Despite the fact that deaf and disabled people have the least access to legal counsel and programs and services within our jails and prisons; and despite the fact that they are most targeted for physical and sexual abuse in prisons nationwide, they have the least access to telecommunications on the inside. Countless deaf incarcerated people have gone for years without telecommunication access.
To be clear, HEARD is an all-volunteer organization. I am a volunteer with a full-time job. No one who has supported this effort earns income from this advocacy. I cannot speak for others, but I started and continue this Campaign because I dream of one day living in a space where all people are treated with love, decency & dignity. I dream of “one day” being now. Right now. This very moment. We need not wait.
This vote represented an opportunity for our government to right a long-standing, egregious and deadly wrong.
Instead, I have again witnessed the government acknowledge the abuse, neglect and isolation; pat me on the back for reminding them of the existence of this violence; then look away—each federal agency excusing its own inaction by pointing to its own alleged “lack of authority” to make this right.
Their inaction has only emboldened those who are more concerned about profits than people. As a direct result, my communities are needlessly suffering and dying. Indeed, after three years of fighting for free phones (sounds ridiculous right?!?), I have come to the conclusion that our government is very comfortable perpetuating violence against the most vulnerable among us.
I apologize in advance for the disjointed nature of this post, but I need so badly to share these thoughts. Here is a brief look into the sacrifices that incarcerated people, family members of incarcerated individuals, advocates and attorneys have made; some of the lessons I have learned; ire for those who claim to represent deaf/disabled people who actually contributed to this injustice; and sincere gratitude to those who have supported my communities by practicing accountable advocacy during this heartbreaking journey.
CHOICES: LAW SCHOOL VS. LITERAL LIFE
I had just completed my fifth & final law school exam of the semester. It was a few hours before midnight on December 20, 2013, and the Federal Communications Commission’s midnight deadline was fast approaching. I had not even begun drafting HEARD’s comment. Most of my fellow phone justice advocates had submitted their comments hours earlier. As a full-time law student who doubled as the volunteer director of an organization serving hundreds of deaf and CODA incarcerated people (and their loved ones), early comment submission was a far-off dream.
This would be my fourth extensive comment to the FCC in less than a year explaining abuse and exploitation of deaf and disabled prisoners which necessitated telecommunications access and exposing prison telephone companies who continued to charge loved ones, legal counsel and advocates of deaf incarcerated individuals excessive rates for practically no communication.
Exhausted, I cried and cried. Then I cried some more.
I did not cry because I had just completed my fifth grueling law school exam—ending early despite desperately needing more time to work on it (this would end up being my lowest law school grade and I am still upset about that)—and wanted more than anything for my mind, eyes & body to rest;
I did not cry because I was being asked to find more ways to say exactly the same thing as I had in my previous three comments;
I did not cry because it seemed as though each FCC deadline always landed on the worst of days & my peers were taking one to three less courses than me notwithstanding all the work that I was voluntarily undertaking (the injustice of their internships counting as credits while my running an entire organization counted for none...);
I did not cry because a national deaf/disability organization took an interview with a national news outlet attempting to discuss deaf in prison issues mere days before the FCC vote but did not so much as mention this critically important issue or HEARD’s ongoing pathbreaking volunteer advocacy;
Nor did I cry because the disability rights and deaf rights communities continuously failed to even show up for our incarcerated community members whilst HEARD volunteers did all of the heavy lifting.
I cried because I knew that even as I sat and wrote this comment, that deaf people in prisons across the nation were becoming depressed, going insane, and attempting & completing suicide because our government was failing to ensure that they had equal access to something as basic as communication.
How else could I call injustice, injustice?
My partner, gave me much-needed space to grieve and release, then helped still and steel me for the task ahead. I worked for at least another six hours straight.
While all of my peers were off enjoying the “holidays” and the end of our penultimate semester of law school, I could not rest. I sat in the mock courtroom of my law school with tears streaming down my face, exhausted beyond measure, and I dictated and typed, typed and dictated--faster than I’d ever done before. I was deathly afraid that I would not be able to submit a comment by the deadline, so I worked on this comment as if there was no tomorrow--remembering that for many in my community this could very well be true if I did not find the right words.
I had to find the words that would move those who had the power to change this.
MY WORDS & THEIR TORTURE ARE APPARENTLY NOT ENOUGH
Letter is from a Deaf advocate at "Big Deaf Unit Huntsville." The letter came with 22 more surveys from deaf & hard of hearing men (we already had more than forty from this prison). This prison has more than sixty deaf/hh men & no videophones, CapTel, etc. IMAGE DESCRIPTION: half a sheet of college ruled paper is jaggedly torn in half [note: paper is a precious commodity in prisons, and often is hard to come by] with a hand-written letter that reads as follows: Here's more names of the Deaf prisoners who wish to participate in the HEARD's great cause . . . please add their names to the mailing list as well. We discussed about many other things that we believed that the TDCJ shall not fix the system, but shall engage in the improvement of the system, and many of us decided that we thought it would be best if we could focus on getting accessible telecommunications—videophone-first, as it's essential that you and I both establish an effective communication through videophone. Therefore, many of the Deaf prisoners will be able to communicate effectively with you and the other agents from HEARD to tell you more about our real basic needs. We look forward to hearing from you all and witnessing our new endeavors in our new journey to fight for our fair and rights. Thank you very much. [Signature Omitted]
Words fail. Again. And Again. And again.
After years of working on criminal legal system “reform”/dismantling, including several years on this Campaign—which quite simply asks our government to ensure that all people have access to counsel, and their loved ones—I have become ever more disheartened, dismayed and dejected.
And so, I have no more words.
No words adequately convey our government’s treatment of people with disabilities. This abuse, in our names, with our money—at the expense of the most vulnerable, for the benefit of multi-million dollar prison corporations—is ghastly and grotesque. The terrors are so many, that I do not know where to begin . . .
For decades, family members of deaf people, CODAs and disabled prisoners were paying the same—often higher—exorbitant rates for substantially less communication via antiquated and unreliable TTY technology that forced the user to type and communicate through a relay operator or with another person who has a TTY machine.
For example, in June 2015, a Deaf fiancé of a Deaf incarcerated man in Florida sent HEARD several phone bills for intrastate calls from her incarcerated partner. The bill was from CenturyLink, operated by the prison phone giant Securus.
The cost? $720.63 for 120 minutes.
That is $6 per minute for a call from Florida to Florida.
Keep in mind that American Sign Language is the first language for both of these individuals and that this was just one of four bills sent to us for TTY-to-TTY communication. In the outside world, we pay practically nothing for phone and video calls but the unregulated prison phone industry has exponentially increased rates. Moreover, prisons and prison phone companies charge deaf/disabled people additional fees to connect to relay, causing rates for deaf people to be even higher than the rates for hearing people and their loved ones.
All this, while yet other deaf people literally go years or decades with no telecommunication while incarcerated—most often because telephone systems of multi-million dollar telephone companies are not in compliance with federal disability rights laws (and because no federal agency tasked with enforcement of disability rights laws is willing to enforce our laws in prison settings). Instead, these prison telephone companies rely on voice-recognition, the ability to hear and dial specific codes within specific time parameters, the ability to comprehend and type English, and other grossly inaccessible methods of telecommunication.
As of the writing of this post, not one prison telephone company has a system that is compatible with current videophone technology used by the vast majority of the signing Deaf community in the United States.
Instead, prisons and prison phone companies refuse to provide any technology that would enable deaf or disabled incarcerated individuals to access telecommunication. Those that do, only do so after years of costly litigation. These cases are always won by Deaf/CODA incarcerated individuals but taxpayers foot the bill and deaf incarcerated people suffer mercilessly before, during and after the case.
HEARD’s DEAF PRISONER PHONE JUSTICE CAMPAIGN
The Deaf Prisoner Phone Justice Campaign illuminated these and other egregious civil and human rights violations by and through comments from HEARD and from hundreds of deaf prisoners and their loved ones who we organized all across the nation. We also mobilized and supported advocates, attorneys and organizations to submit comments on this important issue. The FCC even invited us to share our concerns with the FCC at two separate FCC workshops on reform of inmate calling services.
The heartbreaking comments from deaf incarcerated individuals spoke to the isolating impact of inaccessible technology, sky-high rates, and additional fees being charged to those using relay, that in most cases prevented them from communicating with anyone outside of prison. These comments also illustrated how the absence of videophones and captioned telephones prevent deaf prisoners from connecting to their loved ones. They also highlighted issues related to systemic abuse of deaf prisoners that necessitates communication with advocates and attorneys via sign language—a language that is wholly unique from English.
I have personally written six comments to the FCC on this issue emphasizing that in 2015, equal access to telecommunication for deaf incarcerated people and deaf family members of hearing incarcerated individuals, means, at minimum, access to captioned telephones, voice carry over, TTYs, and, most notably, videophones. I provided exhaustive commentary about Deaf Culture and communication; the egregious conditions of confinement for prisoners with disabilities and deaf prisoners nationwide; information on deaf wrongful convictions that stem from lack of access to counsel; about my inability to work on deaf wrongful conviction cases of my community members who are languishing for decades in our prisons depsite evidence of possible innocence; and about federal disability rights laws which establish clear and comprehensive prohibitions against discrimination on the basis of disability.
In my most recent of six comments on this issue to the FCC, I wrote this:
Before we respond to the Commission’s inquiries, we wish to call the Commission’s attention to the myriad comments on this issue from hundreds of deaf prisoners, and scores of preeminent national civil rights organizations and law firms, including the American Civil Liberties Union; the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice; the Human Rights Defense Center; the National Association of the Deaf; the National Disability Rights Network; the Prison Policy Initiative; Rochester Institute of Technology/National Technical Institute for the Deaf; Rosen, Bien, Galvan & Grunfeld, LLP; the United Church of Christ, OC Inc., and signatories; Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs; and several public defender offices, among many others. Most commenters have never met, but the similarities among their comments are staggering and deeply distressing:
Deaf and disabled prisoners can not communicate with loved ones or report abuse, isolation and discrimination; attorneys and advocates can not effectively represent clients who use sign language as a primary or only language, or those who struggle to read or write English; and deaf and disabled prisoners report abuse most often after filing grievances about lack of access at prisons—including lack of access to telecommunications.
The record of manifest injustice is clear. We now make what we hope will be our final appeal to the Commission for justice.
And yet, here I am again, bitterly blogging because that was not my final appeal. Instead, our Federal Communications Commission and the United States Department of Justice have yet to take any meaningful action to protect the safety, sanity and lives of deaf and disabled prisoners.
Of course I am pleased with today’s historic vote that ends discriminatory and predatory business practices that have disproportionately affected incarcerated people with disabilities for decades, but equality demands more.
How can today’s order not address these serious and sweeping accessibility concerns—raised by hundreds of people related to the absence of videophone and other technology in all but one handful of prisons in this nation? How can the FCC and Department of Justice be justified in their failure to ensure that prison telecommunication is affordable and universally accessible?
Notwithstanding today’s vote, countless people with disabilities across this nation are still completely disconnected from loved ones and advocates.
THE HUMAN COSTS OF THESE FAILURES
Federal law protecting the rights of individuals with disabilities proscribes prisons from directly, or through contractual or licensing arrangements, denying people with disabilities the opportunity to participate in or benefit from a prison's activities, programs or services. The same laws require that prisons make reasonable modifications to policies, practices, or procedures when necessary to avoid discrimination on the basis of disability. In the case of a deaf, disabled or blind incarcerated people, equal access does not mean the same access as hearing prisoners.
In sum, prisons and prison phone companies must ensure that deaf prisoners and hearing prisoners with deaf loved ones can benefit from telephone services to the same extent as their hearing peers—and they must not charge more for receipt of this comparable service.
Again, the issue of equal access cannot be dismissed, especially considering the rate of disability found within our nation's incarcerated population. Enforcement of federal disability rights laws and regulations is necessary to reaffirm the right of all people to maintain contact with loved ones. To be quite frank, this telecommunications access issue and the failure to enforce the law is a symptom of a much larger systemic crisis of abuse, isolation and neglect of deaf and disabled prisoners.
Despite increased awareness about the plight of deaf inmates and the wide availability of low- and no-cost measures that can readily eliminate access barriers and provide safety to deaf incarcerated people, inequities and violence persist in jails and prisons nationwide. For instance, in the past year—even as the nation celebrates the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act—attorneys have successfully litigated civil rights cases on behalf of deaf prisoners in the District of Columbia, Kentucky & Maryland. This month, a judge in Illinois certified a class of deaf prisoners after a four-year effort by attorneys to gain equal access for deaf incarcerated individuals.
Attorneys should not have to sue for prisons to provide reasonable accommodations—including accessible telecommunication—to be provided for the most vulnerable people under their "care."
These systemic failures are not mere technical violations of federal law. These failures and the failures of government agencies to enforce the law are a direct threat to public health and safety. These failures transform the traditionally grim ordeal of incarceration into a nightmare of extreme language deprivation, physical and sexual abuse, and depressing solitude for deaf individuals. Mental illness, suicide, and an increased likelihood of violence and recidivism are among other unintended consequences of prison phone companies' greed and prisons' failures to ensure communication access for this population. In short, failure to provide equal access for deaf prisoners creates public safety risks for the deaf/disabled individual, other inmates, prison officials, and the public.
LESSONS LEARNED, HEARTFELT GRATITUDE AND KEY TAKEAWAYS
And so it is yet another bittersweet ending. A continuance of an agonizingly painful journey for justice’s sake.
My heart is so exceedingly heavy with the burden of having to carry this message to hundreds of people that I serve who are still completely disconnected from their loved ones despite today's "historic" vote. At the same time, I celebrate what we have been able to accomplish by coming together and working as one for the sake of our communities and our children.
I am forever grateful for the lessons that I have learned and the allyships that have been forged through this journey. It is my sincerest hope that United States Department of Justice and the Federal Communications Commission can come together to ensure that all people at every prison and jail in this nation have equal access to “just, fair and reasonable rates” that, only now will be experienced by millions of prisoners and their loved ones nationwide.
To the deaf/disability organization that took an interview from the USA Today just days after the FCC announced this upcoming vote but failed to try to tip the scales in our favor or to adequately discuss deaf prisoner justice—the issue for which you were being interviewed but about which you were unprepared to cover (so you should NOT have taken the damn interview!): Thanks for being more committed to your media op than our community; for putting profit over people; for not having done any real work on deaf prisoner justice issues or even having sufficiently followed HEARD’s advocacy to guide journalist into raising the profile of this critically important then-upcoming decision. Thanks for erasing years of all-volunteer community advocacy and struggle from the most marginalized in our communities (including literal life-risking advocacy by our incarcerated community) just so you could plaster the face of one of your several paid attorneys in the paper with inadequate commentary on what truly should be explained as nothing less than a “nationwide crisis of deaf access to justice.” A whole lot of good your photo is doing our community affected by mass incarceration. Consider yourselves responsible for this tragedy. I do not say this lightly: the blood, tears and pain of our community is on your hands.
To any journalist who did not do your due diligence: do diligence next time so you don't have to call me for the story about deaf prisoners going mad and committing suicide in the months and years to come.
To those I serve who have fought along side me from inside of jails and prisons across this nation, risking your life for that which what you know is your human right: I honor you and am so proud to know and love you. Thank you for supporting me. I am not sure how I will explain this situation or the fact that you will have to spend yet more years completely disconnected. Thank you in advance for comforting and encouraging me when I give you this heartbreaking nonsensical news.
To my brilliant phone justice allies who now care so deeply about deaf and disability access: Your active love and support has quite literally carried me through more nights than you know over the past three years. I am inspired by and in awe of your decades-long journey for justice with and for our incarcerated community and their loved ones. I am beyond humbled to call you allies and friends. My deepest gratitude goes to Ki'tay D. Davidson, Malkia Cyril, James Kilgore, Cheryl Leanza, Steven Renderos, Amalia Deloney, Paul Wright, Charlie Sullivan, Galen Baughman, Bernadette Rabuy, Susan Mizner, Lee Petro, Nick Szuberla, Brian Dolinar, Peter Wagner and numerous others.
To Commissioner Mignon Clyburn: Thank you for your steadfast leadership on this issue.
To Jason Tozier: Thank you for showing up to every FCC workshop and vote—including today’s—to practice active love and to demonstrate collective accountability for our incarcerated community and their loved ones.
I will never comprehend the oppression and violence perpetuated against my communities at the whim of our “government.” I will never be able to reconcile how we can be okay with concessions in civil and human rights struggles that always come at the expense of those at the margins of the margins—how on this "historic" day millions of people will rightly gain access to "just, reasonable and fair rates," unless they happen to be disabled or deaf. And I will never understand why a lone student-activist (who has been fighting this manifest injustice so long that they are now a professor-activist) cares more about the safety, sanity, human rights and lives of deaf and disabled incarcerated people than our very own government.
There is, however, one thing I am sure of. For my communities, this day will be remembered as “historic” not because rights were vindicated; but because of just how effortlessly this historic day trumped this historic year—the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Today we post the final part of our response to the Daily Dot article. Please read Part One & Part Two of this three-part series if you have not already. Please join our next Twitter chat on December 8th at 7:30 p.m. EST, where we discuss "Deaf Education in the Age of Mass Incarceration."
Here are our final responses which includes our perspectives on the impact of the #DeafEd Movement, some of our goals for the Movement, and our thoughts on why people should continue to care about & join this Movement.
Q5: Do you feel that you are currently reaching those goals?
MAC: As for myself, I think it's always going to be a journey to self-analyze and improve/adjust in how to best advocate or provide resources for other students. #DeafEd has helped me in this, in that I have gained a better understanding of my rights to education while I'm still in college as well as how my upbringing plays a significant role in my perspective of life.
In general #DeafEd is taking steps in the right direction, as a tool for anyone and everyone involved to be able to gather and share resources and ideas.
HEIDI: I do. Like I said previously, each month is inconsistent in participation. However, we are getting more new people joining our conversations. Even a few college professors are having their classes tweet and even joining the chat! I don't think we will ever reach the goal because we will never reach every person we hope to reach, but the more awareness of #DeafEd we bring each day, ultimately the more lives of children we are impacting.
TL: We are constantly working toward those goals and many others.
Education is a journey, not a destination—a practice, not a test score, grade, or lecture. #DeafEd is where you learn all of this and so much more. This will be a life-long effort for all involved.
Q6: What next steps would you like to see?
MAC: I would love to see #DeafEd continue, and continue witnessing teachers/professionals/parents adapt to better suit the current students' needs.
Seeing more people host these chats and what new topics they bring up would be greatly beneficial, because there may be topics or perspectives that I still am not yet aware of.
HEIDI: As a group, we feel it is time to pass the torch on to others who can move #DeafEd forward. We hope to find someone who can enhance what we have started and bring fresh perspectives and ways of attracting more people to Twitter and the chat.
LAUREN: While the #DeafEd movement is still a new concept to many, it is a critical platform to disseminate information on current trends in Deaf Education, and to have an open dialogue on issues in a field that is seemingly controversial to many due to varying perspectives. This platform is one way to tear down walls, and to connect educators throughout the world. Often times, teachers of the Deaf are isolated due to the low incidence population, so coming together for a monthly chat, helps to bridge all of us together and share resources.
TL: I would like to see how we can connect with people who may not have access to the internet or linguistic, economic, or other privileges to be able to effectively participate in these sorts of dialogues. We have done well to ensure that this space is as accessible as possible. I would like to see the physical version of current virtual #DeafEd chats established in communities in accessible spaces and languages.
I also would like to see Youth serve as consultants to administrators and educators in schools and universities across the nation. This should be standard practice.
Q7: Why should readers care about #DeafEd?
LAUREN: Our voices as teachers must not be silent. We must work with the system that has been handed down by those who think they know best for our Deaf students. We may be teachers, but we are also leaders. It is how we raise our voice that matters, not our titles. We do not need a certain position of power to reverse injustices. We know deep down what is best for our students and we cannot be afraid to promote it. We must teach our students to be advocates of their own lives, because if they do not advocate for themselves, they will not be able to navigate their way in this world. #DeafEd is an opportunity to advocate for our students, and to spread awareness on what defines #DeafEd.
MAC: Access to education plays a significant role in how far people are able to go, as well as how aware they become of their rights.
Students with disabilities are more likely to be suspended (even more so if the student is a person of color) and sucked into the School to Prison Pipeline, a major contributor to #DeafinPrison (another area that I am getting more involved in, as an intern for Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf).
Schools will hold high expectations for "normal" behavior even when the school environment is "abnormal" for the student theirself. As such the student is often set up for failure then due to lack of education, lack of awareness of their rights (due to not having education on this), and the frustrations of being in a world that is not set up for their needs, their culture, their language & tools (whether this is ASL, tactile sign language, cueing, etc).
Almost every person knows someone who was "that kid" in school; problematic, lashing out, aggressive, and/or needing extra attention from the teachers. But have they really taken the time to consider why that is, or whether the negative perceptions of "that kid" are coming from a place of ignorance?
#DeafEd is a great starting point, in getting to learn from actively-engaged advocates of #DeafEd, and the DDBBHH students that are affected, because we are the ones that ARE the source. There is a serious issue of people who need "proof" of how education impacts DDBDDHH students in the form of written research by multi-privileged academic peers, rather than believing marginalized people's stories in the first place. Please note this is common in all areas of injustice, especially racism and ableism.
In conclusion, there needs to be a deliberate inclusion of DDBDDHH people into education to ensure competency amongst everyone as this is an area that often serves as a gateway in/out of prison and/or a better, safer life.
TL: #DeafEd is where we move toward freedom and liberation in education & society.
I have participated in numerous education-centric chats. There are many things that set #DeafEd apart from others. The one that I want to name here is the fact that #DeafEd centers perspectives from multiply-marginalized DDBDDHH Youth like Mac (@macgreenfelder ), Alex (@AVHadvocacy ), Tina (@TinaxBanerjee ) and Cortez (@csh7893), just to name a few. This is exceptional—though it absolutely should not be. Perhaps #DeafEd will start a trend in ed chats where we center the voices of those whose education, lives and future are at stake.