This is 26-year-old Ethan Saylor, killed in a Maryland movie theater in 2013 by three off-duty sheriff’s deputies who were working security. Mr. Saylor, who had Down Syndrome and an IQ of 40, had been ordered to leave the theater and had refused. He wanted to see the movie again and to wait for his caregiver, but had no money for a second ticket and was ordered out. He died shortly after deputies threw him to the ground and knelt on his back to handcuff him. Although the coroner ruled his death a homicide caused by asphyxiation, the deputies were not charged. It took until last month, after years of public struggle and legal appeals, for the Saylor family to finally win what would have to pass for justice for their son.
America is a dangerous place for some people. Identifying those most vulnerable to state intrusion or violence reveals much of what is most important about our country.
We cannot for a moment set aside the intense scrutiny required of us by law enforcement’s constant threat to African American lives. In 2017, for example, although only 13 percent of the population is Black, 23 percent of police shooting fatalities were Black. But that specific danger lies near the far end of a continuum on which every degree of difference from a narrow norm represents a risk. A lot more of us are on that continuum than we realize. In spite of national rhetoric to the contrary, the United States is really a strikingly conformist society, something we often don’t notice until a kind of confrontation suddenly pops up – that is, when the language of a public ideal collides with widespread social stigma instead of covering that stigma up.
Down Syndrome is such a good example of how that happens, even after the long, hard, and apparently successful struggle by families to transform public perception. It’s hard to believe the clumsy, rough, mean-spirited, and ignorant treatment Ethan received. He called out for his mother, yelling that he was hurt, shortly before he drew his last breath. And this happened long after Down Syndrome meant a lifetime in institutions, beginning in early childhood. In fact, America has long been introduced to both the potential and the particular charm of Down Syndrome people, many of whom have big personalities. Until you remember that they used to be routine targets – of ridicule, bullying, physical abuse, hostility, and social isolation. And it looks like, under society’s veneer, they still are – that’s the mentality exhibited by the deputies who killed Ethan. They admitted that they had immediately recognized him as disabled, but for them that clearly didn’t mean he had specific civil rights protected by federal law. For them, his disability had a meaning much older than that: Ethan was upset and uncooperative, not compliant and inferior. Thus, the deputies ignored the informative pleas of Ethan’s caregiver and moved with quick hostility put him in his place.
If we look at what I believe must be a constant struggle for humanity on the part of just this one segment of disabled Americans, we have reason for deep sadness on behalf of so many, many more of our people. Inside their hearts, it’s almost like no one really believes they fit in! Maybe that’s why so many of us are preoccupied with keeping others out. I think our nation’s legacy of slavery was so prolonged that violence crept into every crevice of American culture, where it lives like a poison in our bones.
This is Florida resident Gilberto Powell, 22, beaten in the face by police who found the bulge in his shirt suspicious. The bulge was Powell’s colostomy bag. Gilberto has Down Syndrome