Our calls to action against anti-Black state violence cannot be ableist
To my fellow Black folks living with disabilities... know you are not a coward. You are not a failure. You are loved. You are worthy.
by Tahirah Alexander Green
Since the global COVID-19 health crisis began, my post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms have intensified. With non-stop discussions of hospitals and medical care in the news, in our homes, at our jobs, my memory keeps reaching back towards every violent hospitalization I’ve ever experienced or witnessed. While my chronic illnesses are never far from my mind, recently I’ve felt their implications even more heavily.
“It’s bad,” I recently told my therapist during our weekly session, and quickly shifted the subject. I set the boundary clearly, with power. I refused to go into the details of my trauma because it would disrupt the stability I felt at the moment. I said this with five words—don’t wanna talk about it. I didn’t. Not then. Not now.
Only a week after that session, I crossed that boundary—not because I was ready, but because I felt I had to prove my disability.
The week it happened, I hadn’t showered in days. I spent most of my nights scrolling Twitter for updates on the uprisings against police terror that began in the wake of the deaths of Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Sean Reed. I was checking Twitter constantly to stay updated on the protests in my city, Washington, DC.
The District is one of the most heavily policed places in the country. We are not only subject to local police, but also federal, university, and more. DC’s local government invests heavily in policing — the Metropolitan Police Department’s budget is approximately $522 million dollars, and this year’s budget proposals would increase it by $1.7 million. As more of us take to the streets to demand justice, the policing of my city only increases.
45 (Trump) recently threatened us all with armed forces, but in DC there’s a unique risk of him seizing power over local police. My timeline is filled with accounts of police violence, ranging from officers kettling protestors, descriptions of mass arrests, and alerts of police spraying mace through a window on protestors sheltering in a house on Swann Street.
This is a police force that is under the leadership of Peter Newsham—a perpetrator of domestic violence, who was once found passed out on a sidewalk with his gun, and who has a history commanding wrongful mass arrests. I remember the #NeverNewsham campaign in 2017, remember watching the hearings where community members shared their fears of his confirmation, and I remember the kick in the gut when the DC Council voted to appoint him police chief anyway.
My emotional support animal, a six-year-old pitbull with soulful eyes, curls up on my lap, as I rapidly thumb through my timeline. I see a Black person in another city dragged out of their car by a cop. I feel myself in another city dragged out of a car by a doctor. I feel myself hauled into solitary confinement. My heart pounds. My breath is unsteady. The muscles of my shoulders tighten in stress. I close my eyes. Inhale for four counts, exhale for six. Repeat. I pet my dog, listen to her heartbeat, hold her tight. Eventually, I fall asleep.
The next morning, I hop on a call with a comrade. My unwashed clothing is stained with the residue of several meals, and I blink away the heat behind my eyes. We talk about the moment, work things, and about how we’re feeling. When they ask how I am, I try to evade the question. I try to set the boundary that I set for myself in therapy a week ago. I mention my PTSD symptoms are bad, and that I feel frustrated with myself for not protesting.
In the days before this call, I’d thought I was a failure, a coward, as I stayed at home. I’d engaged in remote calls to action, donated, shared medical supplies, and offered pro-bono support in my skill set. It wasn’t enough. I should risk the panic attacks, I thought. I should risk COVID-19—a virus that would likely kill me, with my immunocompromised body. My thoughts reeked of martyrdom, a goal I long ago decided wasn’t mine to fulfill. Still, I felt ashamed.
As I begin to explain this feeling, I watch my comrade’s face change. They add fuel to my flames of self-hatred with one statement—”My loved one went out to protest, while they were sick.” All the times I’ve experienced this type of ableist aggression before come rushing back.
It doesn’t matter how much unlearning I’ve gone through to hold myself with compassion. It doesn’t matter that I know my comrade is hurting, and that I am simply the closest target for their frustration in this moment. All that matters is proving that I am worthy of the limited safety I have in my own home. All my life I have contorted my being to appease the skepticism of those who can’t see my disabilities. This is no different.
Shortly after the call I send them a text explaining specifics of the traumatic assault I’ve experienced. I apologize for fearing the breakdown that would come should I verbalize it. I apologize for my body the way I’ve done for years.
I think about these interactions for the rest of the day. As the evening comes, so do the tears. I’d let myself down. And it’s not by staying home. I’d once again heeded the notion that a disability didn’t count if it wasn’t visible. I’d once again let my power waver because I wasn’t living the values of someone else.
As we rise up against the injustices faced by Black people in the United States; as we educate our people on the abolition of slavery’s legacy that is the Prison Industrial Complex; as we take to the streets to demand a new world that values Black life and Black joy; we must center the most marginalized amongst us. Our movement will not succeed if we are ableist. Black Disabled Lives Matter.
This past weekend, activists and organizers gathered to uplift those words: Black Disabled Lives Matter. Two Black women—Keri Grey and Justice Shorter—led a protest demanding that Black disabled lives are recognized in a movement that at times forgets us. In the words of Shorter, “This [was] not a separate protest, this [was] not a separate action, it [was] people with disabilities coming to protest for Black lives and an end to police brutality. We know that so much of police brutality affects Black people with disabilities and we are here to shout out to everyone the fact that Black disabled lives matter.”
The march gave disabled folks an opportunity to protest with as much support for their health conditions as possible. As Gray described, “It’s not always easy going out there, when you’re unsure of what your body is going to look like in that type of situation.” The remote support team they created for this protest was one of the first opportunities I had to engage in the current protests. Many of us disabled folks on the team shared time and time again how important it was to be able to engage in real time.
To my fellow Black folks living with disabilities, those of us who have made the harrowing decision to not express our rage outdoors: know you are not a coward. You are not a failure. You are loved. You are worthy. Your life matters.
Quotations edited and condensed for clarity.
Tahirah is a literary artist living in their hometown of Washington, DC. As a writer, they’re passionate about celebrating Black queer weirdos in their work. They are a firm believer in the power of art for social change– stories matter, and sharing our stories to effect change is a crucial component of movement work. Tahirah is a 2019 Lambda Literary Fellow, 2018 Sanctuaries DC Arts for Social Impact Fellow and a member of Black Youth Project 100’s MelaNation Zine team. Follow them on twitter to get updates on their work @TahirahAGreen