Ferguson and a lesson in empathy

For days, I felt blank about the events in Ferguson and New York City — the non-indictment of officers responsible for the death of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, the protests.

I had heightened senses of anger and grief that, strangely, seemed inexpressible.

Yesterday that grief broke open: I remembered the 2013 case of Robert Saylor, a man with Down Syndrome killed by police in a Maryland movie theater because he would not leave after a showing of “Zero Dark Thirty.” Saylor, a white man, died as a result of chest compression, just as Garner did.

For those who don’t know, persons with Down Syndrome can be excruciatingly stubborn. Saylor wouldn’t leave the theater because he wanted to see the movie again. He was 26 and accompanied by a state-provided respite aide (he lived at home, though). That’s a low-wage job. The parents had provided money for one showing, and the aide didn’t have a way to pay for a second set of tickets. So Saylor hoped, wanted, desperately to see the show again. (Saylor also feared being touched.) His mother was on her way to help when he was murdered for resisting arrest—his death ruled a homicide. As with these other cases, a grand jury failed to indict the officers.

Protesters face off with police officers in Ferguson, Missouri the night the grand jury chose not to indict Officer Wilson for Michael Brown's death.

Protesters face off with police officers in Ferguson, Missouri the night the grand jury chose not to indict Officer Wilson for Michael Brown’s death. ©Photo by Chris Andoe.

I get most of my news online. The majority of my Facebook friends posted links to progressive analyses of Brown and Garner’s cases, as well as articles on the difficulty some white people had understanding the grief and outrage that many African-Americans felt. The articles argued that our “privilege” prevents us from identifying with the often-veiled racism that blacks experience on a daily basis. When other white people are around, the articles said, those whites who are biased are suddenly on their best behavior.

I agree with these articles, although the word “privilege” makes me uneasy. As a former academic, that word feels useful as an analytical tool by professors; however, at the level of ordinary life, the term makes people defensive, shutting down discussion. One commonplace of U.S. life is that most Americans think they’re middle class when they’re not. Most Americans probably don’t think they’re privileged, even if in some ways they are—which is why identifying privilege feels so urgent to many on the left. Yet American society is complex and any given American lacks “privilege” in any number of ways.

Stepping back for a moment, the overall notion behind the concept of privilege is that you are unaware of the benefits you receive simply because of a group (race, gender, sexual orientation, economic) you inhabit. For example, you’re a white man walking home at night with your hands in your pockets through your white neighborhood—after dark. You arrive home safely. Now you’re a black man walking through the same neighborhood with your hands in your pockets. A police car pulls up: someone saw you and called the cops because you might have a gun. You’re taken downtown because they “can’t be sure” it’s you on your driver’s license. But you’re a prominent businessman, very wealthy, and you sue the ass off the police. If you’re a woman of any race, you’re probably not walking alone after dark if you can help it. Privilege and who has it and why can turn into a shouting match over who has the most or the least.

Back to Ferguson, it is true that white people often think all Americans are equal, that each of us has an equal chance to take part in the American dream. Personally, I feel keenly the startled one-step-back response, and veiled resentment, that I’ve received when I point out the advantages possessed by able-bodied people. I am not disabled, but my son Robert is; by a disease so rare he’s one of nine cases worldwide.

Dystonia 16 has left my son without the ability to move (much at all), speak or eat. He’s intelligent but locked-in, without the motor function necessary to use most communication devices. Over the 16 years he’s been disabled, my trust in government and society has radically diminished. The state, the school system, public and private healthcare—none of these entities has had his best interests at heart. I truly believe that Maryland Medicaid doesn’t care if he lives or dies.

So while I haven’t experienced biases directed at people of color, I do understand societal prejudice, which, in the case of disability, is maddeningly open. If I had a dime for each time I’ve encountered a variant of “disabled people shouldn’t even be alive,” I could retire. Dimes for “people with disabilities make me uncomfortable” would make me rich.

I’m friends with other parents of disabled children, so my Facebook feed regularly fills with stories on the abuse and murder of people with disabilities: children left in classrooms during fire drills because their paperwork didn’t specify their method of removal from a burning building (seriously); systemic patterns of abuse at institutions designed to “house” them that result in their deaths; people with disabilities killed by their own families; children denied life-saving operations because their quality of life is considered low, and even worthless; parents fighting for necessary medication not just with private insurers, but with the state.

I know your pain, parents of children with skin darker than mine. I really do. My son faces mortal threats every day. And while my fears aren’t identical to yours, do they have to be?

If you read this and experience that sense of one-step-back resentment — that sense of “sure this is a problem, but this doesn’t describe me” — remember that “privilege” isn’t always the best way to talk about injustice, and you aren’t being accused of it. Each of us may be both privileged and non-privileged in ways, large and small that aren’t apparent behind the wall of skin color, an able body, or any other big impersonal category.

I prefer the rallying call Black Lives Matter. Those of you who are white and don’t know how to respond to the long history of injustice that black men face, try to think empathetically: How would you feel if your children or siblings or parents were treated similarly?

Every step toward justice is a step for all, and I hope raising consciousness about these crimes against black Americans helps whites realize that black lives matter, and helps all Americans realize that all lives matter.

Jeneva Burroughs Stone is an essayist, poet, blogger of the rare & unknown, practical g/i nurse, interpreter of EOBs, queen of medical-necessity letters, unlicensed PT, knowledgeable wheelchair mechanic. She has a PhD in Renaissance literature with a focus on gender and sexuality, has taught high school and college students, and worked on Capitol Hill and as an editor in higher education policy.

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