Interview for Krip-Hop Nation About Journalism & Police Brutality Against Disabled Black PeopleLeave a Comment
Last week, I was afforded the opportunity to be interviewed by Leroy Moore, Jr., the founder of Krip-Hop Nation, for a special series he is doing surrounding the disabled Black experience, police brutality, and journalism.
I have gotten to know Leroy earlier this year, and am amazed at his legacy as a disabled Black advocate and the incredible work he has done. When he asked me to do this, I could not wait to see the questions he had for me. I have discussed my thoughts about police brutality and being a disabled Black woman late last year on the blog, and it is still a passionate topic for me. This is especially true when I learned about the incident in San Francisco where a Black amputee was detained by 14 police officers because he was believed to have had a weapon. The “weapons” were his crutches and prosthetic leg. The video footage of the exchange is very upsetting, and is a prime example of the kind of danger, harassment, and violation disabled Black people endure from the police. The realities, fears, and anger needs to be discussed, and this interview, and the many more Leroy plans to conduct with other disabled bloggers and advocates, will shatter the silence and ignorance, and declare that our lives matter, too.
Without further ado… here is my interview for Krip-Hop Nation:
Krip-Hop – In this series I made an effort to pick out Black disabled activists and bloggers/journalists who have been outspoken on this issue of police brutality against people with disabilities, especially Black disabled people. So tell us first, how did you get into blogging/journalism, and have the journalism world been accepting to you, not only your disability, but being a woman?
Vilissa Thompson – I got into blogging when I graduated with my Master’s in Social Work (MSW) degree in 2012 as a way to share my thoughts about the world I lived in while job searching. The editor of a social work-focused online magazine found my blog, and asked me to be a writer for them on their platform. It was there where I learned how to write about social justice and advocacy issues, especially those that interested me.
It was in July 2013 that I created my disability rights and advocacy organization Ramp Your Voice! (or RYV for short). RYV was my way of establishing myself as a disability rights consultant, writer, and advocate, on my own terms. I write about disability-related topics that matter to me as a disabled woman, as well as educate others about the plight of disabled persons. Writing weekly blog posts on the RYV website afforded me the opportunity to stand out – you don’t see many of us [disabled women of color] within the disability advocacy realm. Two years later, I’m still receiving responses about how RYV and the work I’m doing as a disabled female advocate of color is greatly needed, and has encouraged others to do the same. There is a tremendous amount I hope to accomplish as not only a writer/blogger, but as an advocate and aspiring lawyer that I am constantly brainstorming and working towards. My advocacy is bigger [literally] than I am, and could have ever imagined. People view my voice as one that’s important, and I do what I can to ensure that the messages I project into the world are empowering, inclusive, and game-changing; this is my legacy I’m working on, and I take every aspect of it seriously.
I feel that because I am unapologetically outspoken about the issues that affects those who look like me, that I am respected within the journalism/blogging world. I aim to write quality, thought-provoking, at times controversial, articles, and take stances on issues that affect the lives of disabled persons, so that some form of positive change will transpire. At this point, I have yet to meet any opposition to my presence, and if I were to encounter something, I would not let it deter me from my goal – advocating for myself, and the rights of those in my community.
Krip-Hop – You have started the hashtag WOCwD, tell us why and what is it about?
Vilissa Thompson – I created the #WOCwD [Women of Color with Disabilities] hashtag because I felt that disabled women of color needed something that were for them, and created by them. Hashtags on social media are used in many ways, and one of the most popular ways is to find others who share similar life experiences and/or ideals about the issues/topics that matter to them.
With #WOCwD, I wanted that for us – a way for disabled women of color to find each other on social media, and connect with one another. I personally know what a challenge it is to find us online, and this hashtag aims to make it easier to do so, especially on social media platforms where hashtags thrive, like Tumblr and Twitter.
The hashtag, when I debut it last month on the Ramp Your Voice! Tumblr page, received a great response from both those the hashtag targeted, and others who felt that it was a wonderful idea. So far, I’ve seen several disabled women of color use the hashtag to tag their selfies on Tumblr, which is one great way to utilize it. I hope that the usage of the hashtag continues, and allows us to establish a stronger support system in a community where we can sometimes feel invisible. Disabled women of color need the visibility and sisterhood, and I hear that every time I connect with one of us. #WOCwD aims to bridge that gap, and bring us closer together as Disabled Sistas.
Krip-Hop – As a Black disabled woman blogger, what are the downfalls when it comes to mainstream media, and even activist journalists, when they report on this issue of police brutality when it happens to people with disabilities? And what is difference from their writings and yours?
Vilissa Thompson – The victim-blaming is the one gripe I have with mainstream media in how it reports police brutality, regardless of ability status of the victim or survivor. The media’s view of police brutality is skewed to the side of the police – they do not want to believe that a police officer would abuse their badge by violating or killing someone, even if all of the evidence points to the officer’s actions being racially motivated and intentional. Upholding the white privilege and status quo of law enforcement perpetrators is witnessed time and time again, and dehumanizing the victim is the outcome of that.
Victims of police brutality are typically “blamed” by the media for their experiences or deaths: they were defiant or non-compliant to the officer’s commands; they asked too many questions to the officer; their physicality was intimidating or threatening, and could be seen to have “warranted” such an aggressive response; their background was questionable and/or not pristine (especially if they had previous encounters with the law for drugs, assault/violence charges, etc.); and a host of other “explanations” as to why the police officer(s) acted in the way they did towards them.
All of these excuses for “rationalizing” the misconduct and murders carried out by law enforcement plays on stereotypes, hatefulness, racist views, and fears society have about individuals they fail to see as human. Basically, these persons were not “good,” their lives were less important, and they deserved what they got, either death or traumatic injuries. The media knows what prejudices and ignorant ideals to play on in covering these stories, and will do so without considering the severe consequences its unethical and irresponsible journalism will have on not only society, but also the families of the victims, and supporting the toxic, violent, and dangerous ideologies that seem to plague our police departments.
When it comes to disabled people and police brutality, the media tends to focus disgustingly on the person’s disability as a means to “reason” why an officer would use such excessive, and sometimes deadly, force. This is especially seen in stories when disabled persons have intellectual/developmental disabilities (I/DD) and/or have mental illness. Stereotypically in the media, these subgroups of the disabled community are portrayed as not having the capacity to control themselves, and have a tendency to be violent; any kind of force exerted by an officer is deemed “necessary” to “control” a situation, and the “out of control” disabled person. There is very little sympathy displayed in the media when a disabled person is violated by law enforcement because of this stereotype, and that puts all of us in danger of having our lives reduced to being nothing more than someone who behaved or acted so “erratically” that we caused our own deaths. Again, the victim is to blame for whatever occurred to them while in police custody. Many disabled people, regardless of ability level, have a real fear of the police, including myself; and that is something that isn’t widely discussed outside of the community, as it should be.
Krip-Hop – Do you think that some Black media are better reporting on this issue and understanding disability politics, language, and if so or not, give example on both ends?
Vilissa Thompson – I believe that Black media does not do enough to report the level of violence that we experience by the police, nor have a better understanding of disability politics than the mainstream media. The same issues that occurs in mainstream media transpires in Black media, which to me, is more upsetting because Black media should be able to cover our stories incredibly better than mainstream media.
The main challenge Black media has when it comes to disabled Black people is allowing us to merely exist – very few Black media outlets regularly share stories of the disabled Black experience, and does so in a way that is empowering and creates more understanding of our lives and struggles in handling multiple, oppressive identities.
I can think of only 2-3 online Black media platforms that I regularly read that covers disabled Black stories in respectful, ethical journalism, and that is a travesty, to be brutally honest. I say it’s a travesty because Black people have the highest rate of disability in the United States, which is 20.8%. To give you an idea of why this matters, the overall disability rate for the country is only 18%. We have such a critical prevalence because of the fact that we experience higher incidences of chronic diseases that can lead to disability. You would think that those facts alone would allow the stories of disabled Black people to be more visible within Black media, but sadly, that’s not the case. Disabled Black people, no matter whether our disabilities are congenital or acquired, experience the most severe underemployment, unemployment, and under education rates in comparison to other disability groups. All of these issues are ones that pervade the overall Black community – why aren’t they discussed more by not only Black media, but also by the Black leaders in our communities and in organizations that focus on the Black experience? Again, the problem isn’t just with Black media, but in how Black people collectively view disability, and the invisibility disabled Black people unfairly endure within their own community.
Krip-Hop – At this time and with the issue of police brutality, what are the good things that are happening in general, and for Black disabled people and our community around the issue of police brutality? And tell us what do you think about Black Lives Matter?
Vilissa Thompson – Ensuring that our experiences with police brutality are widely known within both the mainstream media and Black media is a powerful move disabled Black people can do, and are doing. This week, I shared the incident in San Francisco on the Ramp Your Voice Tumblr page about the horrific humiliation and intimidation a Black amputee endured a few weeks ago. If I had not heard about the story on a San Francisco-based radio station, I would not have learned of this disgusting act conducted by the police. It angered me that I hadn’t heard of this story sooner from either the Black community or the disabled community. I took it upon myself to share the story, and urged others to do the same; and so far, the reactions were of pure disbelief that the incident ever occurred, and the lack of media coverage of it.
One thing I’ve learned as a disabled advocate of color – if you sit and wait for those in the majority group to care about your issues… you’ll be waiting forever. If we want our stories and voices heard, then it’s up to us to carve out a space, and not wait politely for a seat at the table. No one is falling over themselves to include us, and we know this; the beauty of technology is that we don’t have to beg or seek approval to discuss topics like police brutality, or racism, ableism, sexism, discrimination, etc. We have the advances now to write, blog, vlog, film, compose music, create art, and other forms of expression to tell our stories, and reach a global audience that cannot ignore us any longer. Honestly, that’s why I created RYV – I didn’t want to wait for someone to care about my passions; I decided to put it out there, and make them care, whether they wanted to or not.
When it comes to the Black Lives Matter movement, I believe that it’s a powerful example of what I stated above – demanding a place at the table and having your voices heard. However, I do want the BLM movement to be inclusive to disabled Black people, and cover our stories of police brutality, and other forms of violence and injustices that disproportionately affects us. The BLM movement cannot just be about able-bodied Black people, or the able-bodied Black experience in America – all Black experiences need to be recognized, and considered important. And if the BLM movement fails to do that, then disabled Black people will have to band together and develop our own movement; again, refusing to wait politely, even at the “Black community” table, cannot be accepted.
Krip-Hop – What should bloggers in general know when reporting on cases of police brutality against people with disabilities who might have more than one identity?
Vilissa Thompson – Before reporting about such cases, bloggers should do a self-check regarding how they view disabled people, their racist and ableist biases and prejudices, and how such feelings and ideas could be problematic if consciously or subconsciously seen within their writings. Tackling those prejudices as a writer or reporter is essential so that unbiased and ethical journalism and blogging can be associated with one’s name and brand. If a blogger realizes that they hold offensive, discriminatory views about a particular group of people, then they need to seriously consider if they possess the capability to report on such stories in an effective, positive, and respectful manner. At this point, they have a decision to make: decide not to write about that group because they cannot be objective and ethical in their reporting; or attempt to unlearn those harmful ideas by educating themselves on who members of that group actually are, and why the stereotypes and prejudices they have against them are inaccurate, and will negatively affect their stories on that group.
One step a blogger can take beyond educating themselves is reaching out to members of that group, and listening to them. Hearing from those within the disabled community who hold multiple identities about police brutality shatters the ignorance on the subject, and creates a better view of what we endure, and our concerns. I know that some disabled people don’t feel that it’s their “job” to educate others about themselves, and I completely understand that viewpoint; however, for me, if you want effective change, educating others about why your life matters plays a huge role in that. Bloggers publish erroneous articles about our experiences because they don’t know what’s going on with us; and many of them may not know a disabled person, and thus, fail to have a firmer grasp of understanding. Though disabled people are the largest minority group in the country, there are people who have never met or befriended a disabled person, and have no clue of the inequalities we endure every day. The educational, combined with self-advocacy, pieces are crucial in reshaping the thoughts bloggers have about disabled people in general, and more specifically, disabled people with multiple identities and our encounters with the police.
Krip-Hop – What is your experience in the disability media and activist world around this issue of police brutality?
Vilissa Thompson – I have seen many self-advocates write and share articles about the experiences disabled people have with police brutality, but I have noticed that it is the stories of disabled White people that get the most media attention, especially if any media attention goes beyond the disabled community. Diversity and intersectionality are very real challenges we have within disability media and activism – it is hard to find the voices and faces of disabled people of color, and that is discouraging to us. It erroneously makes us believe that we are not important, and that we don’t belong in this community. I cannot tell you how many responses I’ve received from other disabled Black women who have reached out to me, and proclaimed that they were happy to find another disabled Black woman to connect with. Seeing each other should be the norm, not the exception, within this community. The disabled community has a ton of work to do so that all disabled people, regardless of race or ethnicity, can feel truly included and believe that their experiences matters to the collective group. This is profoundly true when it comes to reporting police brutality cases – the disabled media and community should be the main ones to get it right and lead as an example for what that looks like.
Krip-Hop – On December 16th, 2014, you wrote a blog titled, “Why I Can’t Breath as a Black Disabled Woman in America.” Tell us why you wrote that article, does it still holds true today, and as a blogger, what do you want to see happen?
Vilissa Thompson – I wrote that article to share how I know that I could easily become a victim of police brutality based on the fact that I hold three multiple identities that put me at great risk if I were to encounter corrupt officers. That is my reality, and it’s a frightening truth. As a writer, I always aim to discuss the truth, even if it’s ugly or makes others uncomfortable. If what I wrote made someone uncomfortable, then I’ve done my job – I popped the bubble of oblivion and made him or her see reality with no filter. This isn’t a shock value tactic; this correlates with the “eliminate the blissful ignorance in society” angle I’m going for. My blog post was to be jarring, harsh, and make people understand the world some of us live in that isn’t covered by the mainstream. My reality, and the realities of others, deserves to be heard, and that was my purpose – to share the whole truth, no matter the reaction or acceptance of it.
The article still holds true today because of the continued prevalence of violence all Black people are susceptible to, and the failure of our justice system to indict and prosecute law enforcement who abuse and kill Black people like we’re game. What I want to see is more disabled Black people telling their fears, their abuses at the hands of the police, and why our lives matter, too. I want the criminal justice system to actually work, and make it right so that officers will know that killing Black people will be intolerable crimes. I want our police departments to start admitting that there is a problem within the police culture of breeding such gross acts of violence and hatred, and stop protecting offenders who abuse their badges and the oaths they took to protect and serve. I want the media to call these police officers and acts of violence what they are – racists, terrorists, murderers, and forms of domestic terrorism; and use their platforms to collectively demand that we as a society will not accept non-indictments, acquittals, and mistrials in such cases.
Most importantly, I want disabled Black people and able-bodied Black people to stop dying in our streets at the hands of police officers; living in fear of the police; constantly worrying about our loved ones who may be targeted; and to no longer have to learn the names of Black people who have died in police custody, and have to march and protest for justice to prevail and to have our lives and deaths validated.
Krip-Hop – Have you heard of the hashtag, Say Her Name? If so, as a Black disabled woman, what do you think about it?.
Vilissa Thompson – I believe that the Say Her Name hashtag is phenomenal – the police brutality Black women endure tends to not get the same level of attention or outrage as that of Black men who experiences this. The lack of media coverage, community awareness, and anger displayed are unacceptable since Black women have two evils we have to overcome – sexism and racism (which is known as misogynoir). Black women experience an incredible level of violence and abuse based on their race and gender; we cannot ignore the intersectionality those two identities play for Black women who endure police brutality, as well as other forms of violence.
I’ve written about how Black women are the mules of the world – we have been carrying the burdens and ills of society ever since we were brought over from Africa, and honestly, no one has it harder in this society than Black women. Why would I say that? Bell hooks, one of my favorite writers and Black theorists, said it best:
White women and black men have it both ways. They can act as oppressor or be oppressed. Black men may be victimized by racism, but sexism allows them to act as exploiters and oppressors of women. White women may be victimized by sexism, but racism enabled them to act as exploiters and oppressors of black people.
Both groups have led liberation movements that favor their interests and support the continued oppression of other groups. Black male sexism has undermined struggles to eradicate racism just as white female racist undermines feminist struggle. As long as these two groups or any group defines liberation as gaining social equality with ruling class white men, they have a vested interest in the continued exploitation and oppression of others.
bell hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center
Due to the above quote, it is crucial for Black women to establish a movement that proclaims that our lives matter too. We cannot, nor should we, expect anyone else to carve out that level of visibility for us, when others do not have the double burden of racism and sexism as we do. When you add disability to that mix, it is even more critical for disabled Black women to take a stand, within all of the communities they identify with, and demand that others say their names.
Krip-Hop – Any last words, and how can people contact you?
Vilissa Thompson – I want people to stop being quiet, and start making noise about all of the injustices that are running rampant in our society today. The level of violence isn’t new; this country was built on violating the rights of others, and devaluing their existence and humanness. Uniting together, no matter what identities you have, as a force to stop such occurrences can happen, but only if we decide that enough is truly enough. We can’t change the past, but we possess the power to change the present, and reshape the future so all of us truly feel safe in our society, and feel included despite our identity differences.
Please feel free to write me, and comment on any posts you see on the website, and anything else I share on the following social media pages:
Twitter: @RampYourVoice , @VilissaThompson
Doing this interview caused me to consider how intertwined my multiple identities are to my safety, the way others view me, and most importantly, how I view myself in a world that does not value the existence of those who share similar identities as myself. It is sobering to realize the negative perceptions people can have about who you are without even getting to know your name first. However, that does not mean that one cannot enjoy life or allow the fears keep you from having joy; it takes a great amount of work to find that balance, and to hold onto it steadfastly. Though what I wrote was difficult, as it always is, I have learned how to separate the ignorance of the society I live in and prevent it from tainting my spirit. I hope that other disabled Black people are able to find that kind of balance, too.
(Featured headlining image: Courtesy of StockSnap.io.)