Charles Kinsey's Story Is About Race. It's Also About Ableism.

Screenshot via YouTube.

Black and brown bodies — particularly queer, trans, disabled, and deaf ones — are under daily attack from state violence. Black people, in particular, have been hit repeatedly with recently released videos of police executions of black individuals who were not resisting or attempting to hurt police.

Last week, a video of police violence surfaced depicting two men of color: Charles Kinsey, a black man working as a behavioral therapist at a group home for disabled adults, who is lying on the ground with his hands up in the air; and Arnaldo Rios-Soto, a brown autistic man who lives at the group home and who has been variously identified as Afro-Latino, Latino, and partly Indigenous, sitting cross-legged on the ground and playing with a toy truck — the sight of which had earlier prompted a stranger to phone police claiming a threat.

In the video (warning: graphic), an officer approaches and shoots Kinsey in the leg. Kinsey later testified that he’d asked the officer, “Sir, why did you shoot me?” The reply: “I don't know.” Kinsey, while bleeding, was handcuffed and left on the ground for another 20 minutes before receiving medical attention. Afterward, police also threw Rios-Soto to the ground and detained him in a squad car for four hours.

Since then, the officer has claimed he was aiming for Rios-Soto, trying to protect Kinsey — as though it is less blameworthy to shoot the brown autistic man holding a toy truck than to shoot the black man on the ground.

As autistic people of color — and specifically, as a black autistic person, a Latino autistic person, and an East-Asian autistic person — this incident strikes us particularly hard. We have largely been erased from media coverage, which has instead highlighted perspectives of white disabled people, or non-disabled black and brown parents of disabled children, at our expense.

This is personal, and so, unavoidably, political. What happened to Rios-Soto and Kinsey is a story about race, anti-blackness, and white supremacy. But it is impossible to contextualize this racism without also understanding the ableism that informs it.

Disability is an incredibly salient and important part of this story, particularly in the reporting – portraying Kinsey as a hero simply for working around disabled people, or framing the situation as horrifying because it involved a disabled person, as though we are innocent from reality.

In 2010, a black autistic teenager was waiting outside a public library before it opened. A passerby saw the youth — Reginald “Neli” Latson — and called police, reporting a suspicious black male, possibly armed. When police responded, Latson attempted to walk away, but was aggressively confronted, leading to allegations of police violence, felony charges, and an initial 10-and-a-half-year prison sentence. Like Rios-Soto, Latson was profiled as dangerous because he occupied a body that was not merely disabled but also racialized as violent.

In the hands of a Latino autistic man, a toy truck became a threatening weapon. Whether the officer was actually aiming for Kinsey or Rios-Soto, he has become part of a national pattern. Disabled people represent between one-third and one-half of all people killed by police. Black and brown people are extremely disproportionately likely to die in police-involved shootings compared to white people. If you're black or brown and disabled, your likelihood of being targeted by police only increases.

(Disability is both a cause and consequence of police violence — Rios-Soto has suffered trauma since witnessing Kinsey shot, and narrowly avoiding a similar fate.)

This is intersectionality in action: a toxic, deadly combination of racism and ableism being enacted upon us.

What's sad is that Rios-Soto and Kinsey are lucky: Unlike Melissa Ventura, Philando Castile, Natasha McKenna, Sandra Bland, Mohammad Usman Chaudhry, or Steven Eugene Washington, and many others, they are still alive.

Black and Latino victims of police violence have historically been treated as automatic threats. In 1999, Amadou Diallo, a black man in New York, was shot 41 times and killed because his wallet was mistaken for a gun. Fifteen years later, 12-year-old Tamir Rice’s BB gun was mistaken for the real thing. Presumptions that black and brown people are intrinsically violent derive from a history of racist images including the black brute, the rebellious slave, and the machismo-obsessed black or Latino gangster.

Disabled people, too, experience personal and institutional violence and unwarranted stereotyping — as mentally unstable, sexually dangerous, or unworthy of life. More than 400 disabled people have been murdered by relatives and caregivers in the past few decades alone, because our lives are routinely regarded as less valuable than those of nondisabled people. Rios-Soto may also have been known by the neighbors from his frequent walks, and the call about a suicidal person with a gun may have come from direct ableist hostility toward the presence of disabled people in a group home.

One of us is a black and autistic transgender man who has been profiled as a drug user and shoplifter by Walgreens staff while browsing the vitamins; was searched by a police officer called by an employee; and has had racist slurs pelted at him in a special education classroom and by passers-by.

Another of us is a Latino autistic man who was verbally harassed and called a criminal by white fraternity brothers in a truck when he was walking on a sidewalk; and in another situation, had to leave a store because employees thought he was suspicious for sitting in a chair.

Still another of us is an East Asian and gender non-conforming autistic person who has been falsely accused of planning a school shooting stemming from an “obsession with weapons and violence;” and dismissed as exaggerating after reporting attempted sexual assault.

Any of us might be in the news next.

Many in the white disability community respond to police violence against disabled people by insisting that training will prevent misuse of force. But we know that training may not make much difference for disabled black and brown people — that unjustified police killings even of white disabled people have often been carried out by officers who were trained.

Training, at best, is a harm reduction measure that may decrease likelihood of violence for some — particularly those who are white, cisgender, and gender-conforming. But though one of us has personally written legislation requiring training, we know it will never be enough to solve the underlying structural problems that cause endemic police violence.

Instead, we must work toward dismantling the oppressions that lead to disproportionate numbers of black, brown, and disabled people unjustly targeted by police violence.

We call on those concerned with the recent heightened visibility of police violence against black, brown, and disabled people, and those experiencing additional intersections, to practice real intersectionality in anti-violence work.

White, nondisabled, straight, and cisgender people often ask what they can do. We have millions of dollars in well-resourced advocacy organizations, and have already identified some beginning paths toward a more just and equitable world, yet have little support for the work and voices of those who are most impacted.

We must recognize that partnerships with police are, at best, an incredibly limited strategy. Real accountability means chipping away at the power structures that keep police immune from consequences of racist, ableist violence — structures like prosecutors’ double standards, biased internal affairs and powerless civilian review boards, increased funding streams to local police, reliance on police for mental health crises, and lack of useful data.

Addressing structural racism and ableism requires transforming every aspect of society — from classrooms where disabled kids of color face everyday violence to curricula that exclude our very existence; from compliance-based normalization “therapy” to the criminalizing presence of police in schools.

But as much as society must change, transformation begins in interpersonal relationships: in uncomfortable but brave conversations and the amplification of personal narratives of those who live the realities that many who do not are paid to discuss without us.

It is our responsibility to build the world we want — to create accountability for the harm and trauma borne of continual state violence, and to ensure that our lives and experiences as disabled people of color remain forefront.

Finn Gardiner is the Boston Community Coordinator of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, and is an incoming Master of Public Policy student at the Heller School at Brandeis University.

Manuel Díaz is a multiply neurodivergent (Autistic and Kinetic) neurodiversity activist, a blogger and writer at Neurodivergencia Latina, and co-founder of the new Spanish-language blog Autismo, Liberación y Orgullo.

Lydia X. Z. Brown is a genderqueer, East Asian, and multiply disabled autistic writer, speaker/trainer, and community organizer who splits their time between Boston and Washington, D.C. 

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