Monday, July 25, 2016

DC Comics' Cyborg: Disabled Black Hero with a New Writer

Superhero (and related) comics are packed full of disability narratives, both good and bad, whether it's the analogy between mutation and disability within the X-Men  (not Professor X, but mutation as disability) or characters who have "real" disabilities of various sorts, though they often deal with them in high-tech ways. I wrote about Daredevil and blindness, here's a top-10 list, and here's a list of lots and lots of disabled comics characters.

Among those characters is Cyborg. He's black and disabled and an important character to many people in my community. Here's some coverage from 2015 of the direction the storyline went and how disability was included. Here's also a really interesting essay on the ways that black disabled superheroes tend to be physically altered to the point that they have trouble fitting in society, whereas white disabled superheroes get to remain fully included.

Last week, the writer Son of Baldwin alerted me to an interview from San Diego Comic Con with the new writer of the series, John Semper. As I read it, he downplayed the disability context of Cyborg.
Kanalz kicked off the presentation with "Cyborg," introducing writer John Semper. The first issue of the series arrives in September, and Semper called the issue "so spectacular you won't want to read anything else." He recounted a conversation he had at the show, where an interviewer called Cyborg disabled. "I've never thought of him as being disabled," said Semper. "He's a superhero. You never think that Kryptonite makes him disabled. I think the biggest change for me in terms of the way I want people to perceive him. He's not crippled in any way. He's going to be doing superheroic thing. We're going to focus in on his personality and his life and in doing so I think that will augment the notion of him as someone we admire. I did this 20 years ago when I reinvented Spider-Man for animation. You take a hero and you find his good qualities and you make him as interesting as possible."
I was concerned about this. It seems to say that "good qualities" would not include disabled. Moreover, it suggested that he saw disability only as impairment - not an unusual position - rather than a core marker of identity. I reached out to him and, to my pleasure and surprise, he wrote back. I've quoted some of our conversation below, with permission.

It turns out that Semper was really talking about the previous Cyborg run, in which he felt disability was used to weaken the character. He wants to shift directions WITHOUT erasing disability.
My comments were actually an extension of my disagreement of how Cyborg has been handled in the previous 12 issues of his comic book.
If we consider him as "disabled," then as a representative of disabled people, he was constantly being portrayed as someone for whom his disability was a major LIABILITY.
What I want to have happen now is to change that perception of him. I want him to be seen as someone for whom his disability is just a given and in no way prevents him from being a true HERO.
I don't want his disability to stigmatize him as being "weak", as it often was in the previous issues.
Semper then talked about his sister, who was blind, and her life of advocacy work. He also acknowledged that his words at Comic Con might not have come out the way he wanted them to, writing:
I'm sorry if my words on the panel seemed to imply the opposite of what I meant. Sometimes under the hot lights, the words don't come out exactly as you want them to. And I appreciated the young woman's question which gave me a chance to clarify my meaning. She and I also spoke immediately after the panel.
The good thing that came of this is that I am now more cognizant of Cyborg's role as a symbol for people with disabilities and will certainly pay better attention to his representing them.
I wrote back to talk a bit about disability as identity, referring him to a piece I wrote about Alice Wong, founder of the Disability Visibility Project, and the current state of assistive technology. Alice frequently likes to say, "We are all cyborgs." I hope Semper reaches out to her and others I recommended as resources, as needed..

Semper finished:
The only thing I can add is that, after thinking about our interchange, it occurred to me that in my second issue of Cyborg, which I wrote many weeks ago (I'm currently writing issue four), I created and introduced a brand new character who is blind, and I didn't even think to mention it to you. And he's somebody who gives Cyborg great advice on how to live with the fears and insecurities that his condition has engendered within him.

In fact, last Monday I had a meeting with Geoff Johns, and Geoff is so excited about this character that he wants to see him become a recurring "mentor" to Vic.
Perhaps, from this dialogue of ours, I might have Vic realize that Cyborg is a symbol for people with disabilities and begin to take that role more seriously.
So that's the interview. I'm enthusiastic about the future of Cyborg.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Abuse of Arnaldo Rios - #CharlesKinsey Shooting

Content Notes: Abuse of an Autistic Individual

On Monday, a police officer shot Charles Kinsey, a black therapist who was trying to help his client - a young Latino man named Arnaldo Rios - not get shot. Rios had walked away from his group home and someone called 911, claiming that a man was suicidal and armed with a gun. Rios, in fact, autistic not suicidal, and was carrying a toy fire truck.

Kinsey got to the scene around the same time as the cops, lay on his back with his arms in the air to show the police he wasn't threatening, and was trying to get Arnaldo to do the same when the police shot him. That's the story we've known. I covered it here for CNN and in two blog entries.

Now here's some new information. UPDATE: Important piece from Miami Herald based on interviews with Rios' family.

First  - The officer was identified and his commander suspended for trying to falsify evidence. No further details yet available.  Notice this rhetoric though, as one of my friends on Facebook pointed out:

Second - The Rios family has a lawyer, disability rights expert Matthew Dietz, who shared a picture of Arnaldo (below) and spoke to me over the phone. Dietz told me the following.

  • Rios left the home holding a truck and Kinsey, with whom he had a close relationship, followed to help.
  • After Rios saw Kinsey get shot, the police handcuffed Rios and put him in the back of a police car for THREE OR FOUR HOURS, handcuffed the entire time. Dietz told me that Rios, as is typical of many autistic individuals, calms himself by stimming - rocking his body and shaking his hands and arms. During those three or four hours, therefore, Rios was both upset at seeing his friend and therapist shot AND prevented from calming himself AND denied any immediate assistance despite everyone knowing they had taken custody of an autistic individual.
  • NOTE FROM ME: If you want to know more about stimming and the abuse of being kept from doing it, from an autistic perspective, read Julia Bascom's essay Quiet Hands
  • Rios was eventually taken to a mental health ward of a local hospital, where he remains, despite them being completely unequipped to address Rios' needs. Rios cannot return to the group home, as earlier attempts left him showing signs of trauma. There are no other suitable facilities in Miami-Dade County to Dietz' knowledge.
Here's the picture, which shows a smiling Latino man holding a teddy bear, sitting on a bed.


Friday, July 22, 2016

911 Call and Charles Kinsey

I have a new piece up at CNN on the shooting of Charles Kinsey, protected a Latino autistic man named Arnaldo Rios [Edit: See below for correction information] and the intersections of racism, ableism, and the #CultOfCompliance.
Kinsey later told reporters, "I was really more worried about him than myself. I was thinking as long as I have my hands up ... they're not going to shoot me."
Then they shot him.
While the specifics of this case are unusual, the general pattern is not. Compliance-based policing -- when police treat noncompliance with their instructions, on its own, as a threat -- puts everyone at some risk.
The piece is about racism and ableism, compliance-based policing like ask-tell-make, and exploring the broader pattern that led to the inexplicable specifics of the incident.

Two things are missing from my CNN essay. First, after I filed, the officer, through his union, has claimed he was shooting at Arnaldo to protect Kinsey. I do not think this is credible, but is rather an attempt to create an "objectively reasonable" standard from which to defend his actions. It's astoundingly brazen but again plays on the ableist idea that people with disabilities, especially non-white individuals, are erratic and prone to violence.

Look at this picture. It's just not objectively reasonable to conclude there was imminent danger and I hope both the department and the legal system agree with me.
Second, though, why did the police arrive at the scene believing there was danger? That's the 911 call which, according to our best information, claimed there was a person armed with a gun contemplating suicide.
  • We don't know who made the call, but we do know that Arnaldo is relatively non-verbal and was holding a toy truck when he wandered off from his home. 
  • Given those facts, how did someone decide he was suicidal and dangerous?
  • I'm guessing - and that's why I couldn't put it on CNN - that this 911 caller was afraid of a Latino acting "odd" who was holding something in his hand, so made the call. 
  • It's possible of course that they were maliciously trying to get someone killed
I don't know how we build systems to prevent this kind of 911 call. There's got to be protections so that callers are safe to phone in suspicions without fear of reprisal, but we've also got to protect civilians from being targeted like this because their race, disability, or other markers of identity make someone uncomfortable.

Reminder: Both John Crawford and Tamir Rice, to pick two names you know, were killed after 911 calls indicated threats where none existed (though Rice's called said 'probably fake').

Correction: The individual's name was widely reported as Rinaldo, but is now reported as Arnaldo Rios. Changed in this and previous posts. 

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Trump and his VP as Predicted by Montesquieu

Yesterday, this New York Times story went around on Trump's plans to empower his Vice-President. 
'One day this past May, Donald Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., reached out to a senior adviser to Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, who left the presidential race just a few weeks before. As a candidate, Kasich declared in March that Trump was “really not prepared to be president of the United States,” and the following month he took the highly unusual step of coordinating with his rival Senator Ted Cruz in an effort to deny Trump the nomination. But according to the Kasich adviser (who spoke only under the condition that he not be named), Donald Jr. wanted to make him an offer nonetheless: Did he have any interest in being the most powerful vice president in history?
When Kasich’s adviser asked how this would be the case, Donald Jr. explained that his father’s vice president would be in charge of domestic and foreign policy.
Then what, the adviser asked, would Trump be in charge of?
“Making America great again” was the casual reply.'
In an interview, Mitch McConnell showed he fancied himself, as I put it, Trump's Cardinal Richelieu.
As a historian, I know the story of the foolish but headstrong king surrounded by courtiers fighting for influence. On Facebook, in a discussion on the NYT piece, in fact, Craig McFarlane pointed out that Montesquieu described this pattern exactly in The Spirit of the Laws. The first thing a despot does, Montesquieu says, is appoint a Vizier to run everything, so that the despot can hang out and enjoy the luxuries of power. 
Spirit of the Laws, Book 2, Chapter 1: "a despotic government, that in which a single person directs everything by his own will and caprice."

ibid, Book 2, Chapter 5: "From the nature of despotic power it follows that the single person, invested with this power, commits the execution of it also to a single person. A man whom his senses continually inform that he himself is everything and that his subjects are nothing, is naturally lazy, voluptuous, and ignorant. In consequence of this, he neglects the management of public affairs. But were he to commit the administration to many, there would be continual disputes among them; each would form intrigues to be his first slave; and he would be obliged to take the reins into his own hands. It is, therefore, more natural for him to resign it to a vizir, and to invest him with the same power as himself. The creation of a vizir is a fundamental law of this government."
Meanwhile, Ezra Klein has penned an excellent piece about the dangers Trump poses to the country.  

Charles Kinsey: Cops shoot Black Therapist Protecting Latino Autistic Client

Last night, a new story in the ever evolving evidence for the #CultOfCompliance and the dangers it poses to marginalized people when they encounter police went viral. A police officer in the Miami area shot a black man lying on his back with his hands in the air. The man, Charles Kinsey, is a mental health professional who was trying to keep his client, a Latino autistic man (Arnaldo), from being shot. There's both audio and video. Kinsey is going to be ok.

Note that Arnaldo's ethnicity has not been identified and I am making assumptions.

News coverage with video, from the local station (ABC 7) that broke it:

My tweetstorm starts here:
Here's how I parse this incident.

1. "Someone" calls police because there's a big Latino guy with a gun contemplating suicide.

But the man was in fact just out in the street with a toy train.

2. Kinsey, a mental health professional, knows this is potentially a deadly situation for the autistic man, because a) police are likely to perceive brown-skinned people (especially but not exclusively) with disabilities as not complying properly in the face of police commands* and b) police are trained to take non-compliance as a threat.  So he goes to his client and lays down on his back, raising his arms in the air, both as a signal to the officer AND as a way to show Arnaldo** what to do to survive this.

*Sentence edited lightly for clarity that this is about police perceptions. 7/21 8:20 PM CST.
** Correction: The individual's name was widely reported as Rinaldo, but is now reported as Arnaldo Rios. Changed in this and previous posts. 

But also the officer comes in loaded with stigma that people with disabilities are unpredictable and dangerous, likely to lash out. 

3. And then the officer shoots Kinsey. Kinsey asks why and the officer says he didn't know, and that's likely to provide some legal accountability in this rare case, as the officer won't be able to retroactively claim he felt reasonably threatened (esp with video and audio).

And then what lessons will we learn? Unless this is a pathway to reconsider compliance-based policing as a norm, nothing will change except for getting one officer off the street.

4. After shooting him, Kinsey was put in handcuffs. Why? I have no idea - is it policy to put people you accidentally shoot in handcuffs to see if later you can construct a scenario in which shooting him was reasonable? Here's where the "threat" argument will go:
Police said the autistic man had something in his hand, but Kinsey's lawyer said it was a toy fire truck and could not be mistaken for a gun.
"It is not silver. It is not shiny. It is not black. It doesn't look like a gun," Napoleon said. "In fact, you can see the autistic guy playing with it."
5. The language around autism itself in this is pretty indicative of the ways that Arnaldo was pre-emptively constructed as a dangerous threat:
Clint Bower, who runs the group home, told Local 10 News that Kinsey was shot three times in the leg and that the man he was caring for is non-verbal and has "relatively low function."
Function-discourse is a problem. But also this from the cops:
“Arriving officers attempted to negotiate with two men on the scene, one of whom was later identified as suffering from autism,” said North Miami Police in a statement. “At some point during the on-scene negotiation, one of the responding officers discharged his weapon, striking the employee.”
Arnaldo does not "suffer" from autism. He was suffering from police officers threatening him.

From Gawker's coverage, here's a still of the video. It shows a black man lying on his back with his arms in the air next to a man dressed in grey clothing, sitting cross-legged. Critically, no one is near them. As near as I can tell, there's no reason for the officers to even have their weapons drawn, though clearly I don't have a sense of the whole tactical situation.

See above for image description

This is not like any case I've seen before in its specifics. I've never read about police shooting the mental health professional who was clearly identifying himself AND telling the officers that the client didn't have a gun. But the generalities, the ways in which the #CultOfCompliance feeds into this incident, those I read about every day. 

Follow the "cult of compliance" tag at the bottom of the post for more.




Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Wisconsin Senate Race: How Does the ADA apply to Private School Special Ed Programs?

There's a disability-related twist in the Wisconsin Senate race.

Ron Johnson, as I understand it, has advocated both for special-ed private-school vouchers and keeping the federal government from inspecting such programs. Russ Feingold is against vouchers and, if we're going to have them, at least advocates for them being regulated.
Wisconsin U.S. Senate campaign rivals Ron Johnson and Russ Feingold disagree over Johnson’s plan to limit federal enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act at taxpayer-funded private voucher schools.
Johnson, the incumbent Republican, said his proposed amendment to a spending bill would curtail U.S. Justice Department probes into disabled students’ rights at the voucher institutions. The plan comes after a four-year investigation of Milwaukee's voucher program... 
Johnson denied his measure would harm disabled Children. But Democratic challenger Russ Feingold accused Johnson, in effect, of saying disabled students at voucher schools don't deserve equal protection.
If this develops, I might take a trip across the border, eat some cheese curds, and try to learn more.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Melania Trump does not advocate respect for people with whom she disagrees

By now you've heard about Melania Trump plagiarizing Michelle Obama. Omissions are as telling as inclusions. Consider the following:

Here's Michelle Obama. Absences highlighted, instead of copying.

"Barack and I were raised with so many of the same values: that you work hard for what you want in life; that your word is your bond and you do what you say you’re going to do; that you treat people with dignity and respect, even if you don’t know them, and even if you don’t agree with them."

Here's Melania Trump:

"From a young age, my parents impressed on me the values that you work hard for what you want in life, that your word is your bond and you do what you say and keep your promise, that you treat people with respect."

Notice how Trump cuts the part about "even if you don't know/agree with them."

Now that's a tell. 

Common Words: How does Trump's Plagiarism Happen

Last night, as you know, Melania Trump plagiarized Michelle Obama. Here's a link.

How does this actually happen? I'm assuming no speechwriter conspiracy. I'm also assuming Trump didn't write it herself, despite earlier claims, because the campaign has since talked about her "team of writers."

When my students end up plagiarizing, it's usually not due to attempting to sneak something by me, but through a combination of ineptitude and panic. The deadlines are approaching, they aren't sure what to write, so they skim the internet for ideas. They start grabbing a sentence here, a sentence there, and then they change some verbs around to make it "original." When it shows up in their final essay, it rings out to the professional grade as not having been written by a student.

Why wouldn't Melania Trump, or really any writer, begin the process by reading the speeches of previous potential First Ladies introducing their husbands? If she came to me to write a speech, it's what I'd do! You gotta get to know the genre first.

But then as a writer, you need to put that aside and create a draft wholly independent from the source material, because you're aware of how easy it is to plagiarize. And you check and re-check.

Today, like a student called into my office, the Trump campaign will spin this as unintentional, using "common words," claiming it's sexism, and otherwise try to move past it.

Honestly, the plagiarism doesn't matter. What does matter is the additional evidence of the utter ineptitude of the Trump team.

Monday, July 18, 2016

#CultOfCompliance - Autistic Boy Tasered by Police

The White House is hosting a forum today on disability and criminal justice. They are announcing the "AVID prison project." Here's a press release with live-streaming information. Here's a useful summary from the Center for American Progress. I'll write more tomorrow, plan to watch the stream as much as possible, and will be engaged on Twitter.

Over the weekend, I've been following the case of an autistic teen who was tasered in Burbank, CA. His mother was pulled over in a traffic stop (no reason for the stop has been announced, to my knowledge) when the officer noticed the teen wasn't wearing a seatbelt. The officer demanded compliance and the situation escalated. Here's coverage from the LA Times and an interview with Tawnya Nevarez, the boy's mother.

Lots to unpack. Overall, my take remains: Compliance-based policing endangers people with disabilities.  People of color are at much higher risk of encountering police and being forced to comply. The #1 reform I propose for policing is to teach officers NOT to take non-compliance as justifying escalation absent other threat indicators (and to hold them accountable when they ignore this training).

Here are the details:
In an interview earlier this week, the boy’s mother Tawnya Nevarez said through tears that she repeatedly warned the officer that her son was autistic while apologizing for his unresponsiveness.
“How is it that this routine seatbelt traffic stop turns into a parent’s worst nightmare?” said attorney and autism advocate Areva Martin. “Son on the ground, pepper-sprayed and tased, despite her consistent pleas about his developmental disorder.”
So let's start here: This is a Mexican family. An officer noticed there was a teen in the car not wearing a seatbelt, so pulled them over. Would this happen to a white family? It's hard to prove the counterfactual, but I instantly engage such incidents through the lens of the routine use of traffic stops to over police minority families. As we saw in the Philando Castile killing, such moments of contact can easily escalate into violence. When disability is involved, moreover, the demands for compliance rapidly become incredibly dangerous. I'm glad the boy wasn't shot.

Moreover, I'm struck by the seatbelt issues. My son has had a hard time with seatbelts at various stages of his development, often - we suspected - related to sensory discomfort of the belt pressing against his chest. I don't know whether that's in play here, but it could be.
According to Burbank police, the officer stopped Nevarez just before 4:30 p.m. near Burbank Boulevard and Hollywood Way after noticing the front passenger, the teenage boy, was not wearing a seatbelt.
The teen told the officer that he forgot to put it on, while his mother, the driver, said she was in a rush to get somewhere, police said.
During the stop, the teen began to argue with his mother and the officer, at one point indicating that he wanted to fight the officer "hand-to-hand," said Burbank Police Sgt. Claudio Losacco.
Nevarez said Wednesday that during the stop, she asked the officer to step back so she could calm her son down, but the officer would not move.
According to police, the officer, who's been with the department for four years, explained that everyone is required to wear a seatbelt.
We need to hear the audio recording. I'd like to know when the mother said "autism" and how the officer reacted.
After the boy interrupted him with “inflammatory dialogue,” the officer decided to "deescalate" the situation by returning the driver's license to the mother with a warning instead of a citation, Losacco said.
The officer then asked the teenager to put his seatbelt on. He reportedly responded that he would only do so when the officer walked away. When the officer stepped back, the boy put on his seatbelt.
According to police, sometime after the boy put his seatbelt on, he removed it and told the officer he was going to "fight him right now," kicking the car door open into the officer's knees. He then reportedly dared the officer to call for backup while his mother tried to keep him in the car.
Things get out of control.
Eventually he got out of the car, police said, took off his sweatshirt and approached the officer in a fighting stance, telling the officer to pepper spray him.
The officer used pepper spray, but it didn't have an effect on the teenager, who then punched the officer multiple times, knocking off his glasses, Losacco said. At that point, the officer shot him with a Taser and handcuffed him.
Nevarez, a single mother of three, said that her 14-year-old daughter was also pepper-sprayed, and her 3-year-old niece was also in the car. Police said the teenage girl got out of the car during her brother’s confrontation with police and was struck by residual pepper spray.
After the incident, we have the following:
After the boy was medically cleared at a local hospital, he was admitted to a mental health facility, police said. Police said they have not independently verified the boy’s disorder.
On Friday, the teen was reportedly booked on suspicion of assaulting a peace officer, fighting in public, obstructing a peace officer and battery of a police officer.
“The goal with the charges is not to prosecute this child, it is not to incarcerate him, it is not to cause him further grief,” Losacco said. “It is to actually to get him some services.”
"Was admitted" is a very euphemistic way of saying the child was incarcerated in a mental health facility.  It's not a jail, but it's still incarceration. And then this "get him some services" line - Is there any reason to think he's not receiving all the services he needs, and that absent this police officer, he'd be fine?

Bottom Line: We need the audio recording. There's likely going to be a lawsuit, so it'll come out. Often, police escalate in the face of non-compliance, which doesn't seem to be the case here. Instead, it seems that the officer made a stop (for legal reasons) and, even when informed of the child's diagnosis, ordered compliance. When the child got belligerent, the officer did try to disengage, but by then it was too late. I suspect he'll be exonerated in any suit.

But even without knowing the details, we can know this: Compliance-based policing endangers people with disabilities.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Ken Burns' Historians on Donald Trump: Old white guys mostly

This all started because noted cranky scold Stanley Fish wrote a New York Times piece chiding historians for having opinions about Donald Trump as historians. Here, read Erik Loomis take it apart over at Lawyers, Guns, and Money. Honestly, the original essay makes no coherent argument about why it's not ok to use one's expertise to make arguments and is best dismissed as another example of Fish's mastery of the fine art of concern trolling.

Fish wrote his piece because Ken Burns, the filmmaker and historian, started a Facebook page called Historians on Donald Trump. It presents 21 history professors, mostly via video, assessing Donald Trump. The video currently at the top, by David McCullough, has 2.7 million views. Others have views ranking from around 5K to 500k or so. This is not a minor endeavor. Each post begins by listing the credentials of the interview subject (which is what irked Fish), and they are super impressive. Pulitzer prizes. Best sellers. Distinguished titles at elite universities.

There are only 3 women, one of whom is a Latina (Vicki Lynn Ruiz)*
There is one Latino (Albert Camarillo)*

There is not a single African-American historian (not to mention an Asian-American historian, anyone identifying as a Muslim, or anything else to diversify this collection of scholars).

Ken Burns is a savvy, rich, well-connected image maker. While the profession skews white and male, especially in US presidential history, there are in fact many people with superb credentials at elite universities who are 1) not white men and 2) would be powerful voices speaking against Trump. I hope, if Burns continues this project of lending his platform and expertise to historians seeking to make public comment, he'll diversify.

EDIT: Historian Leah Shopkow pointed me to the "Trump syllabus" at the Chronicle of Higher Ed which a  brilliant letter to the editors called, "As white as the man himself." A very analogous situation and, from the letter, links to resources for more diverse comments on the Trump phenomenon.

* Note: I don't know these two historians and am making assumptions about how they identify.