Black Disabled Chicagoans Goes Deep Into The DOJ Hearing & Police Brutality
This is Leroy Moore and I'm interviewing today a couple of activists, disabled activists from Chicago. We're gonna talk about the recent DOJ hearing in Chicago on police brutality. So you guys, introduce yourself and introduce your work.
CANDACE Coleman: My name is Candace Coleman. I am the Community Development Organizer for the youth at Access Living in Chicago. I have the pleasure of coordinating our youth advocacy group, youth and young adult advocacy group called Advance Youth Leadership Power. Lately this year, we've been focused on the impact of identities of being Black and being people with disabilities.
LEROY: Great. Who's next?
Timotheus Gordon aka TJ: Hello, everyone. My name is Timotheus Gordon, also known as TJ for short, and I am not only an Autistic self advocate, but I'm also one of the youth leaders of the AYLP or Advance Youth Leadership Power here in Chicago.
LEROY: Thank you. And last?
CHRISTOPHER HUFF: Yes, hello. My name is Christopher Huff. I'm a juvenile advocate, and my work focuses on empowering people with mental illnesses as well as formerly incarcerated youth.
LEROY: All right. So thank you all, you three for agreeing to talk about this. Let's get back to what happened at the DOJ hearing, who talked, and what was the subjects, and what do you think that will come from that hearing?
CANDACE: Well, just to start off, for the last couple of months, the Department of Justice has been in Chicago really investigating the Chicago police department in light of situations such as the Laquan McDonald event. One of the things that we've been noticing in our youth groups was that the voices of people with disabilities haven't really been heard. Later on, during the investigation and the release of Laquan McDonald's video, it came out that he was a person with a disability, and he went through Special Education. That really kinda drove AYLP into looking into organizing groups like Black Lives Matter and other organizing groups that really have been loud about police brutality in the country. But we just felt like there was just a disconnect of disability voice, and we wanted to use the Department of Justice hearing to honor victims of police brutality through a balloon release vigil, but also give people in the disability community--regardless of race--opportunities to kind of tell their stories at the DOJ hearing.
LEROY: I know that one of you talked at the hearing. Was that you, Chris?
CHRISTOPHER: I'm sorry?
LEROY: I heard that you spoke at the hearing.
CHRISTOPHER: Yes, I did. I spoke at the hearing. One of the main reasons behind me speaking at the DOJ event was based upon the idea of believing that the police corruption goes beyond just torture victims, but it also goes into the displacement of people with disabilities. Meaning, I wanted to shed light on my story coming in contact with the Chicago Police Department a couple of months after being diagnosed with a mental illness. And instead of being sent to treatment, I was incarcerated, and I see that tendency for the Chicago Police Department to incarcerate folks with mental illnesses rather than give them actual treatment and services is a by-product of a dysfunctional system.
LEROY: Mm. And TJ, as a person with Autism, I know about the case in Chicago that the police just got off of killing a teenager with Autism. Tell me your experience with police and with the DOJ.
TJ: Beyond hearing, even though personally I've been stopped by the police before because I was just walking around alone at night. But luckily, nothing else happened, but still I've been profiled before. But I was mainly speaking on you mentioned Stephen Watts where two police officers pretty much got away with murder along with another person where other police officers where the police also killed the person, but the community essentially actually found them and stopped the officers for killing him. And then later on, I found out that in a Chicago suburb, the police tasered an Autistic person. So it's kinda like my message was that there's a disconnect between the police and their understanding of Autism. It's like they fear Autism so much that instead of getting to know what Autism really is, they quick to shoot, arrest, profile. And it's scaring me also because not only am I Autistic, but I also fit the profile of a thug because of my race, size and my locks .
LEROY: So beyond the DOJ hearing, what else are you guys working on in the police brutality kind of field?
CANDACE: So our group has been in discussions over the last couple of months in the spring, because we really were trying to figure out where can we I guess make change. One of the things is--and I know, well Leroy, we talked about this a lot, which is--the role that the police play in how we can more so give more power back to the community versus the police. But we live in a city that's very police, we're a police state.
CHRISTOPHER: Yes, a police state.
CANDACE: And what is happening is that the police officers-- So in support of the Watts family, the Watts family wanted to put a law in place that required all police officers to get CIT training. Cuz currently right now, only 14% of the police force in this city has CIT training. But as we look at that training, that training is 40 hours, and it's not very disability-inclusive. They're not hearing from the people who have disabilities. It's more based off of a medical model language that doesn't really put a realness to how people actually are when they're in a situation. So currently right now, we're having conversations with what the training entails, who trains, and also, we're trying to figure out how to educate communities of color about disability identity and how to be a part of a community that supports instead of calls the police. So in the fall, we're looking for locations in various parts of the city to have our meetings in the community so we could start to do a community fair. So that's just some things we're working on. And then, we're doing research to possibly do a report about disability identity and police encounters.
LEROY: So is this report statewide or mainly the city?
CANDACE: We haven't made that decision yet, but we're doing research about that.
LEROY: Who is the partners for this report? Is it only your agency?
CANDACE: Again, we're at the beginning stages. We're doing a lot of research on that.
LEROY: Oh, OK. Wow. It's interesting. So coming out of this interview, what kind of advice would you give to Black, disabled activists that's trying to get into the activism around police brutality? Because I know for me in going to rallies, I rarely see Black, disabled people at rallies. So what's your advice to Black, disabled people on how they can get involved?
CANDACE: Chris, you wanna start off?
CHRISTOPHER: Absolutely. I would say don't settle for anything less than what's needed to be done. I think at this stage, as it relates to the police brutality in Chicago, there needs to be a system wide restructuring, a complete restructuring of the entire police system in order to focus on empowering communities and providing communities with the skills and the knowledge and the resources necessary to secure and protect their communities. I think policing less and a full restructuring or the development of a fundamentally new system of policing here in Chicago, I believe that disabled community should not settle for anything less.
CANDACE: I think that one of the things that I saw at the DOJ hearing, we have been in community with various people who have been victims of police brutality and didn't even know it until they showed up at the hearing. I think I would say that I wouldn't want a hearing to be the point of contact to find out information like that.
CANDACE: And I think it speaks to us really having a space to have that conversation, open and not in a hidden space. So I think I would give the advice to just always stay true to your story, and if you can or are open to it, to tell it. Because even like outside of this building community, people who probably don't even wanna reveal themselves as having a disability. There's still this shame and this stigma and this idea that I don't want people to know. And people are suffering for it.
LEROY: Yeah, yeah.
TJ: I would also like to add, not only and if you want to be encouraged to share your stories on how the police affects you as a person of color with a disability, not just share it with it with mainstream media either. We in the age where we can share our stories through almost any form of information blogs and other medias sources outside of NBC, ABC, stuff like that because you get to notice that while there are some forms of media that get our stories out there, mainstream still taking its time to get it. So the more that we tell our stories, the more that the mainstream media will eventually get the connections between what's happening to us as disability community and the police brutality phenomenon, period. And just like I said, to tell our stories through all available media, even like media outside the mainstream. That was very helpful, like blogs, websites, things of that nature.
LEROY: Yeah, you brought up a good point. What do y'all think about how cultural work plays in this movement of police brutality? What does cultural work plays into that, especially for Black, disabled artists?
CANDACE: I think we have a lot of work to do within the disability movement and outside of the disability movement. For example, this weekend it's the Disability Pride Parade in Chicago. People don't know. People mix it up with other identities, thinking that it's related to Gay Pride or something. It seems like we still have to reveal our identities to the world. That's how I feel. So I think truly, within the disability rights community, we still need to do a lot of cultural competency work because there's still a lot of white privilege that is keeping the issue of police brutality and disability quiet. But then also, in the non-disabled community, the idea that people don't care about people with disabilities is also on their side. So we just got a lot of cross-cultural work to do.
CHRISTOPHER: There. And I think in addition to that cross-cultural work, I think that there has to be a fundamental change in the way that we interact with people that are across disabilities, whether it be the way people with mental disabilities interact with or work with people with physical disabilities and begin to build that rapport within the current organizing activities and kinda really begin to build those relationships. Cuz right now, I think the biggest thing that's hurting a big part of the movement is the kind of stigma and fear that Candace talks about within the disabled community. It's almost like we've kinda learned that our voices don't matter. We kinda learn to a large extent that our stories don't matter cuz nobody cares. I think the only way that we can break that mold and break that culture of silence and not talking about the issues and the things that we care about, I think that in order to do that, we have to fundamentally come together, begin to share our stories across different lines.
LEROY: Totally agree, totally agree. One more question. How is the Black Lives Matter chapter in Chicago? Have they embraced people with disabilities, and have they collaborated with you guys?
TJ: As far as collaborating with AYLP, not yet. We would like to, though, it being the beginning phases of that. But as far as at least the citywide level, they recently put out a statement about the story that I mentioned earlier where a police officer almost killed a Autistic young man. But the whole community saved him, basically, from it. While I commend Chicago chapter of BLM for at least putting the idea out there that police brutality affects disabled people in the Black and Brown communities and just under-represented communities in general; however, they're still some language that would still kinda get me. Like for instance, when they mentioned about 80% of police brutality happens to people with mental health, the issue with that is people come up thinking of Autism with mental health. When actually, Autism is a developmental disability, not mental health. So it still needs to be education on what disability really is between the disability community and groups that are acivists like BLM. And also, we need to figure out how can we participate with BLM, because it's inaccessible as of right now. I'm sure the other two could chime in on that.
LEROY: Yeah, anybody wanna chime in on that?
CANDACE: No, I think TJ summed it up.
LEROY: OK. Any last words that you guys wanna talk about around this issue or any upcoming campaigns or events?
CANDACE: I just wanna say that everything that we do is tied to the system, whether we in education or whether we're not. The services we need, whether mental health is crucial schools/institutions are closing. Unfortunately, every arrow is leading to the prison system, and as a organizer, I know it's important for me to figure out ways to block that path. Which is one of the reasons why we work on the school-to-prison pipeline. But in adulthood, when you're just at home in your community, trying to skate or trying to hang out with your friends or being out and about and something happens, and the police is called, we need to switch from institutional, heavy base support for more community support. And I really wanna work on that.
TJ: Yes, I second that!
CHRISTOPHER: Yeah, and I guess the last thing I would like to say is just thank you for having this conversation, and thank you for utilizing your media/column as a platform to really look at these issues. I think the more opportunities that we have to engage in dialog like this, discussing movements, discussing our vision or the impact we would like to make on the system as people with disabilities, I think the more opportunities we have to do this, the more opportunities we have for the movement to grow and develop over time.
LEROY: Well, with that, thank you so much.
ALL LEROY: Thank you.