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. Thorin 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.

18 thoughts on “We Need To Own Robert Ethan Saylor’s Death –

  1. Yes. The fact that there isn’t proportionate outrage in cases that involve intellectually disabled people still speaks to an attitude of us vs. them. Somehow I feel that a lot of ‘awareness’ is apologetic and steers even deeper into that ‘otherness’. I now believe that acceptance and full and meaningful inclusion is the only way forward. What is visibility, when it’s the visibility of a marginalized minority that for most people barely meets the requirements of humanity and for some doesn’t even do that?

    My heart goes out to the family of Robert Ethan Saylor.

    • Excellent points. I am “taking” your last line to add to my post. This was a difficult one to write and in my haste I forgot the most important point.

  2. OMG!!!thank you!!! I am so freaking angry I can’t even formulate words that convey the feelings. A man died! And if I hear one more time how people with Ds can be stubborn, (as if this is a reason for restraint that leads to death!?!?)……..I honestly think I might explode! And this is from our “group”. We have been lulled into thinking we aren’t worth it by our anti advocacy groups.

    • I don’t know if I heard the “stubborn” rationale before. If I did I blocked it out. Ugly.

      Thanks for the comment. I wish our collective angry for the death of Robert Ethan Saylor was at a national level.

      • I am so saddened by this. This guy was killed by three other guys who used excessive force. Classified as homicide, and ‘stubborn’ do NOT gel, in any universe.

        I can’t imagine what his family must be going through.

  3. My kid is stubborn, too. Not a reason for him to die, though. I’m so fucking mad about that poor excuse. I mean, seriously? How about wait a few minutes? or get someone who knows what they hell they are doing to help? It was not life or death for this guy to get out of his seat. Stubborn. Yup. He’s too stubborn to live. Screw you. (just a little bit angry)

  4. Thank you for this. How frightening for me, a mom of an 8 month old with Down syndrome to know that he was born into a world that dehumanizes him. I get to go home and hug my baby today, Ethan’s mom and dad do not. My heart breaks for them.

  5. Pingback: What Do I Want? - Hope And Coffee

    • I worry about the same thing. It’s not one answer, right? But, we do need more education on acceptance and inclusion..

  6. The linked article briefly mentions that there was an aide… WHERE the HELL was the aide through all this???

    Would it have been so darn impossible for someone to have bought him a ticket to watch the movie again? Either as a comp, or a “we’ll call your mom so she can pay for it” or something? Holy crap, people! From the descriptions, Ethan sounds like he was developmentally between the stages of my (neurotypical) children who will be 6 and 3 in a few months. They get stuck on repetition, want to see the same thing over and over again (thank goodness for Netflix some days), eat the same thing over and over again, and have trouble dealing with people they don’t know. WHY is it so hard for authority figures to understand how life is with developmental disabilities? I’m physically disabled, my children are all able-bodied/minded, and the nearest family connection I have is a cousin who is developmentally disabled but still capable of independent living with some assistance, not to the level of what this family was dealing with… if I’d seen something like that going on, I would have pulled out my wallet and just paid for his ticket and been grateful that I had the privileges in life that enabled that act of generosity. What small, sad lives these workers – at the movie theater and the police – must be living, that they were incapable of such a small act of human compassion as to let Ethan just watch the movie again.

    • Ahmie,

      I’ve become obsessed about the need for JUSTICE to be served, something, anything so that Ethan Saylor’s needless, senseless killing will not be in vain. To that end I agree with everything you say EXCEPT your first sentence. No way should this be the fault of Ethan Saylor’s aide. She had no part in the homicide that was committed by the moonlighting deputies. My understanding is his aide remained in the theater with him while his mom went to get the car, watching him get attacked by these goons when all he wanted was to stay in the theater as he’d been told to do. She was probably completely freaked out.

      • I think it is clear Ethan Saylor’s aide is not to blame.

        – author atypicalson

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