I was at work this week when the controversy erupted over Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. It immediately caught my eye as well as millions other people across America because it shone a light on an intense moment that still happens even with our first African-American president: Racial Profiling. Race relations in America have always been a sensitive and touchy subject, largely because early America had structured its culture and social hierarchy to ensure that whites had all the power. As barriers were broken, some issues still lingered around. We all know about ugly stuff underneath the surface - like racial profiling, police brutality, stereotypes, and socio-economical boundaries. All these factors charge race relations in America to such sensitive levels that sometimes it boiled over and riots broke out (Rodney King, Crown Heights, etc). BUT there were also amazing moments where strong feelings and passion prevailed through the form of civil rights rally and politics – energies that fueled Martin Luther King Jr, Cesar Chavez, and Barack Obama.
The African-American community and the Deaf community have been compared to each other in the book “Black and Deaf in America: Are We That Different?” Indeed, I feel that any “minority” culture is capable of identifying with another minority culture. The central concept is that the African-Americans and the Deaf both have a long history of oppression (through racial discrimination and linguistic manipulation/oppression) and resisting back against that.
Henry Louis Gates Jr., reminded me of another fact that links the Deaf culture inexorably with the Black culture: the constant, enduring frustration with police “overreaction.” Let me tell you something – police “overreaction” has another meaning in our communities and it’s a lot more straightforward: POLICE BRUTALITY.
The Deaf almost never have any good experiences with police. It’s not because we’re criminals or because we give them hard time. It’s simply because we can’t hear and they don’t understand that. I mentioned a while back about the “second set of knowledge” that comes from life experiences; there are too many stories of deaf people being treated with excessive force, being beaten up, being shot at, being arrested for the wrong reason and then the situation escalating because the deaf person was angry and confused and the police refused to cooperate. Deaf people have been thrown in jail for days without any interpreter or phone calls or accommodation, not knowing why they’re in there. Many times, when problems arise, the cops think that the Deaf are faking it and step up their “toughness” with disastrous results. And I know this from personal experience: When a deaf person even goes as far as to show an extremely exasperated facial expression or hand gesture, it’s good enough to get you arrested.
Worst of all, when deaf people get arrested, cops frequently handcuff the hands BEHIND THE BACK. When you do that, it pisses us off very very much. So imagine an upset, distressed, agitated Deaf person being roughly treated and now their voice is being taken away with the handcuffs behind the back. Without their hands, we can NOT COMMUNICATE and hell often breaks loose. And when they DO call in interpreters, I can guarantee you that calling in interpreters with even DC’s Metropolitan Police Department will take HOURS. Even worse beyond DC’s borders, sometimes there are no interpreters at all in rural areas. Sometimes they call in someone who can “sign” but are barely marginally qualified. And you think we the Deaf people are stupid? We’re gonna sit there at the police station and say “Hmm, that’s ok, you don’t understand us the deafies… This is all just a big misunderstanding”? No. The reality is that, we know our legal rights pretty well. We’re not afraid to speak up, to be blunt to the police, to raise our voices and demand our rights being protected. This is often met with more intense antagonism from the police’s side. When it is all over, we are disheartened and frustrated when the police "gets away with it," which is nearly always the case.
We even have our own Rodney King, only the difference was that our tragic icon died. Rodney King was lucky enough to live and become a celebrity. A Deaf man named Carl Dupree died because he was being restrained by four hearing security officials as they handcuffed his hands behind his back while pressing against his neck. He was resisting even harder because he was trying to tell them that he couldn’t breathe and they pressed on him harder. In the end, the autopsy report concluded that his larynx was broken. Carl Dupree left behind a wife and four young children.
Why are cops like that? The fact is that, they do have training. Most of the time, they should be aware of how to deal with Deaf people. But I think the issue runs deeper than just “miscommunication” between cops and Deaf people... and it hits upon the same thing that the African-Americans are constantly dealing with – the police’s inflated sense of superiority and power. They are the AUTHORITY and they are the LAW ENFORCEMENT and their sense of power can very quickly, easily spiral out of control when faced with someone who already has a history of being oppressed (like the African-Americans/Deaf) and not too long ago, that oppression was not only acceptable and legal, it was even encouraged.
That’s why… For the first time in my life, I was deeply disappointed in President Obama’s words today. Racial profiling and police “overreacting” is a SERIOUS problem that NEEDS to be addressed forcefully and unflinchingly. When he apologized to the police department for his earlier comment that they had acted “stupidly,” it was like a slap in the face. Because I understand what Henry Louis Gates Jr. felt like while he was going through his situation.
Professor Gates’ situation warrants an apology from the entire American police department and every single President in the United States’ history.
By Leah Katz-Hernandez