Thursday, March 14, 2013

We Need To Own Robert Ethan Saylor’s Death –

What I remember vividly from Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing (1989) is Public Enemy’s ‘Fight the Power’ pumping in the background of the film’s narrative and  the death of the character Radio Raheem by a police officer. Radio Raheem was Lee’s cinematic response to the disproportionate number of deaths of young African-American men at the hands of law enforcement.
The criticism of Lee at the time was swift and intense. Basically, it was “Why so negative and angry Spike Lee?” As a ‘revolutionary mother’ I say Go, Spike! Be as Righteous as you Wanna Be. And – as for angry? Yea, I am angry, too.
Robert Ethan Saylor
Robert Ethan Saylor
I am angry that the response to the death of Robert Ethan Saylor has been about many things but not about the fact people with disabilities are disproportionately vulnerable to violence.
Instead we get hypotheses that not merely skate around the subject of violence but bends over backwards to avoid it entirely:
  1. I have read ad nauseum that Mr. Saylor’s death might be attributable to poor police training. (How do the vast majority of good police officers feel about that analysis?)
  2. The individuals involved may have had difficulty discerning what was expected of them as police officers working in the capacity of off-duty security in the private sector. (Does humanity just go out the window in the private sector? These guys were not working for Black Water. They were rent-a-cops at a movie theater.)
  3. “These individuals may have additional anatomical characteristics which may place them at greater risk for unintentional harm”. This theory suggests people with Ds are more vulnerable to dying from being subjected to a restraining hold. (This one was posted on a national site for people with Down syndrome. You can forget my donation this year.)
  4. Given people with Down syndrome are “so stubborn” Mr. Saylor  may have contributed to his own death by responding in some stereotypically Down syndrome manner in  the confrontation with the security officers. (This sounds like the inverse of an “upitty” Black man. Both depictions are repugnant and victim blaming.)*
What I have not heard enough is that the reality is people with disabilities are more likely to die in a police confrontation than someone who does not have a disability. The organizations entrusted with the messenging in support of people with Down syndrome in the U.S. have chosen to make official statements that cite the vague need for ‘awareness and training of police officers’ but no statements or statistics about the prevalence of violence inflicted on people with disabilities.
I would suggest to these organizations that they make Robert Ethan Saylor their bully pulpit. Have his death be the rally cry that calls attention to the intersection of disability and violence.  By all accounts, Mr. Saylor was a young man who wanted to watch a movie twice. He had Down syndrome. He was killed. Where is the muddy water? Where lies the fear this is not the case to make this case on?
Robert Ethan Saylor
Robert Ethan Saylor
This didn’t ‘just happen’ to Robert Ethan Saylor. It happens – period. People with disabilities are more likely to suffer from violence of all manner and on all fronts. If an individual is disabled and a child the rate of violence increases. If an individual is disabled – and also a person of color the rate of violence soars.
This violence is a symptom of how we view people who are different from us. They are the Other. They are not like US. In fact the more they do not look like us the easier it becomes to inflict violence.  Mr. Saylor was the Other in this unequal equation. His death needs to be owned by us.
Mr. Saylor was not my son but he could be. My son is six-years-old.  He has been victimized twice in his short life – first in his family of origin and then again by a speech therapist who restrained him illegally – and to the point of hysteria. Given the rates of abuse perpetuated on children with disabilities his life experience is unfortunately typical.
My heart goes out to the family of Robert Ethan Saylor.
* This particular rationale for Mr. Saylor’s death was added after I received a comment from a reader who shared with me ‘a (Down syndrome) group’ she is in has discussed this as possible explanation. In a word – disheartening.


  1. I did not know that people with DS have neck issues. Good to know! I will have to Google Robert Ethan Saylor. I will be aware the next time I am in public to all people with disabilities just in case they need protection.

  2. Sheri,

    I did not mean to imply that Robert Ethan Saylor's death is in fact due to any "neck issues" he may have had. I have no idea what Mr. Saylor's medical condition was. I was using examples I had read about this case that seemed to want to explain away his death as "accidental" rather than he was the victim of a homicide.