The Continuing 'Incarceration' of Disability: Facebook Live-streams Disability 'Torture'
By Paul Dodenhoff
Well, 2017 certainly started with a massive bang concerning disability hate crime. As we are all now probably aware, a video appeared upon Facebook a few days ago, apparently live-streaming the 'torture' of a white American man said to have 'mental health challenges', 'special needs' or 'learning difficulties', depending upon which media article you engage with. Anybody who has caught a glimpse of this appalling video can vouch for its shocking depravity and sickening bullying.
Ordinarily, I would not comment on hate crimes committed towards disability outside of the UK, because the phenomena is far too complex to generalise to other cultures, Western or non-Western. What we only know for certain is that disability hate crime exists globally. What we don't really understand is the motivation 'why', and the 'why' may possibly alter depending on which culture you are observing. However, while we can only hazard a guess to the motivation behind such acts, we may certainly pick out trends and patterns within incidents that seem to put across cultures. In this way, we may start to treat such acts not as 'mindless' brutality that has no possible cause, but as highly complex interpersonal communication that has been shaped by the society surrounding us, and by which, historical patterns of dominance and oppression are possibly being re-enacted.
Within the UK, my own lowly research has pin-pointed that certain behaviours tend to occur within hate crimes committed towards disability. Crimes where we can pick out certain patterns of exploitation, accusation, incarceration or entertainment. I've argued for some time now that these acts not only mirror historical patterns of domination, marginalisation and the general oppression of disability, but acts that effectively mimic the historical institutionalisation of disability, the control and medical scrutiny of western science and medicine, the exploitative entertainment of the Victorian 'freak-shows' and the scapegoating of disabled people for all sorts of immoral and deviant behaviour. A modern day display of deep-rooted bias and prejudice that has been around for many hundreds of years, just dressed up slightly differently.
It's like we can imagine the perpetrator, intentionally or unintentionally, trying to roll back society to the days when disability was largely removed from communities and largely controlled for. A time when disability was completely marginalised and largely invisible within society, except for making fun of and for voyeuristic entertainment. Whether or not we believe this assessment to be a true reflection the situation, it's clear that perpetrators are trying to achieve something by their actions, even if it is just a way of releasing frustration about their immediate world.
While the Facebook video raises questions about the growing use of social media to disseminate acts of bullying and violence, such events also give us an opportunity to actually observe the types of behaviours displayed, where we can possibly learn what is actually going on in the minds of the perpetrators. While I haven't watched all of the video myself, there is enough information out there that may indeed give us some kind of insight into this shocking crime.
Firstly, the incident apparently took place in Chicago, in which the man was bound and gagged for two days. In one 30-minute video, the attackers can be seen cutting the 18-year-old victim's clothes, burning him with cigarettes, pushing his head back with a foot and drawing blood by cutting off some of his scalp with a knife. In other videos posted online the man is beaten, made to drink from a toilet bowl and forced at knife-point to say "I love black people". His assailants can also be heard making derogatory statements against white people in general and President-elect Donald Trump.
Police have subsequently arrested four people, two men and two women, and are said to be charging the offenders with a range of offences, including kidnapping as well as 'hate crime'.
Secondly, while the attack is being regarded as a 'hate crime', it's unclear at the moment whether police are actually treating the case of one motivated by disability or one motivated by ethnicity. A complication that perhaps highlights that while disability often becomes an overriding and often unwanted main characteristic of a person's identity, disability does actually intersect with other aspects of our identity. However, for the purposes of this article, I'm treating it indeed as a disability hate crime, primarily as the case follows a similar pattern of behaviour that we see in many hate crime cases within the UK. Case's where the victim may be detained against their will in some way or barred from using public transport or entering/leaving shops, and also often subjected to abuse and violence that seems to be marking out the victim as animal-like or sub-human. Arguably behaviours that are intentionally enacted both to de-humanise the victim, as well as further marginalising the victim from society.
As I've mentioned earlier, incidents such as these may mimic the traditional oppression and domination of disability that we have witnessed within the western world for centuries. In this way, the oppression and domination of those historically designated 'inferior' or 'outsiders' become so deep-rooted and normalised within society, that any subsequent prejudice, discrimination, violence, exploitation or humiliation becomes completely socially acceptable for many people. This new American case is particularly interesting as the perpetrators have not only have physically bound and gagged the victim, physically removing the victim from the community, but subjected him to prolonged 'torture' that may also symbolically mimic the 'medical' procedures of the past, procedures once enacted upon those deemed mentally inferior or potentially dangerous. The burning of the victim with a lighted cigarette is also not such an unusual act in such circumstances, where the perpetrator is arguably not only psychologically dominating the victim and inflicting real physical pain, but symbolically removing the unwanted individual from life itself. I.e., what do we do with 'rubbish' except bury it or burn it? Or alternatively, the snubbing out action, particularly on bare flesh, may indicate much more than a desire to extinguish the cigarette. Another not so unusual behaviour and highly symbolic act in such circumstances is the way victims are often treated as being 'animal-like', getting dragged around on a 'lead', forced to drink dirty water or to eat dog food.
Of course, all these actions may just be actions aimed at simply humiliating the victim, as well as having a 'laugh' at somebody else's expense. On the other-hand, we could argue that the perpetrators picked upon the 18 year old primarily because he was seen as highly 'vulnerable' and therefore an easy target. Another argument may see the youth picked upon because he was simple 'White' and therefore presented an easy opportunity to extract some kind of revenge or retaliation on white people in general, particularly after the contentious election of Donald Trump.
Arguments that would perhaps draw upon the work of McDevitt, Levin and Bennett (2002) who formally identified four broad categories of racial or religious hate crime offenders:
Using these categories, we could certainty argue that the perpetrators in this case tick at least two of the boxes, where 'thrill-seeking' and 'retaliatory behaviour' becomes more of the more obvious motivational reasons for such cruel behaviour.
However, sticking by my own disability hate crime musings. Apart from the obvious role of 'thrill-seeking' behaviour, by physically removing the victim from the community, the perpetrators may in some kind of weird way also believe they are actually defending their community from disability, from mental-illness or mental-inferiority that has historically and traditionally often been designated as needing medical control/intervention and the subsequent removal from society.
Within the rest of the hate crime literature available, both Robert Merton's 'strain theory' and Barbara Perry's structured action theory of 'doing difference' have also been widely used to explain why crimes primarily motivated by racial or religious prejudice continue to effect communities. And such theories should not be overlooked when discussing disability hate crime itself. However, while all such theories ultimately fall down by their inability to explain why some individuals commit hate crimes while others do not, they may certainly help to illuminate the possible variables that may help to create the fear, animosity or hatred that we witness towards various identity groups. Particularly when traditionally dominant groups begin to perceive their historical dominance and privileges being eroded, particularly when 'inferior' groups push for greater equality or when economic resources are argued to be in decreased supply and therefore open to increased competition. As we saw during Nazi-Germany in the 1930's, the scapegoating of whole communities for the ills of society becomes a rather easy task.
At the very least, we all would probably agree that disability in most societies, whether in the past or in the present, is considered to confer inferior status upon an individual. In the West itself, negative public perceptions and prejudices surrounding disability may be argued to stem primarily from dominant capitalist thought and ideology, where individual self-responsibility, work ethic and productive-ness are considered to be virtues, and anything less not only designated as abhorrent but something which needs controlling for.
Within the UK itself, and since at least 2008, we can easily pin-point negative, exploitative political and media rhetoric that paints a picture of disability as being one borne primarily out of deviancy and a lack of personal motivation, rather than one created by life's lottery. I've argued for many years now that discrimination and disability hate crime should be regarded as two sides of the same coin. Phenomena that flows from the same socially poisoned well. Behaviour that intentional or not, conscious or sub-consciously, works to marginalise disabled people even further, and effectively removing disability from all sections of society (at least for a short while). A 'removal' process that is arguably another dimension of the principal of incarceration, and one that is often preceded by an accusation of some kind. Accusations that the disabled are faking disability, are simply unmotivated, or at the very least, unproductive and troublesome.
Certainly under the banner of discrimination, we may regard UK welfare reform as simply being another dimension of discrimination, where state institutionalised exploitation, accusation and incarceration continues to be displayed towards disability. For many disabled people, government has not just deliberately focused upon disability welfare abuse merely in order to sell welfare reform to the wider general public, but dispaly deliberate actions set out to effectively marginalised even more disabled people from the community. Rather than getting more disabled people into employment, current welfare reforms have not only managed to exclude many more disabled people from housing opportunities, transport and employment, but have effectively pushed disabled people back into being the 'second-class' citizens that they historically have been. Deliberate, institutionalised behaviours that started to kick in form the global financial crisis of 2008 onwards, working to increase marginalisation and inequality, and all as a 'tool' to bludgeon a work-ethic into disabled people. Beginning with the introduction of the Labour Government's Work Capability Assessment (WCA) in 2008, a non-medical 'work' test that some disabled people argue is not only designed to be intentionally humiliating, but an ideological attempt to redefine what disability is and what it is not.
By March 2016, a House of Lords Select Committee report concluded that the current British Government had indeed failed in its duty of care towards disabled people, particularly over employment discrimination. In June, the UN's long awaited investigation into the human rights abuses of Britain's disabled concluded that the UK's government's 'austerity' policies had breached its international human rights obligations. And in July, The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) launched a blistering attack on British attitudes, prejudices and practices towards disability, arguing that thousands of disabled people are indeed being treated like 'second class citizens' within their own country.
Two news items from the UK broke this week which for me actually emphasised the continuing 'second-class' nature of disability within Britain today. Recently, a British Paralympic athlete was forced to urinate in her clothes on a Cross-country train because there were no working disabled toilets on the train. Another story told about an 11 year football fan with Downs Syndrome who was widely abused upon social media, days after he won the Scottish Premier League goal of the month competition. With one commentator even calling him a "disabled piece of s**t."
Ok, we may like to regard events like these as mere 'blips' in a society that tries to do the right thing most of the time, but doesn't always get it right. However, like the American hate crime case above, such events may actually indicate the highly antagonistic relationship that the abled-bodied often have with disability. A relationship where we feel the disabled are getting special privileges or receiving special treatment(s) that has traditionally been the preserve of others. In this way, inter-personal interactions between the abled-bodied and the disabled become micro power-displays of the larger world. A power display which seem to be saying loud and clear to disabled people -- get back into your box and stay there.
Whether or not we actually physically bound and gag a disabled person, put deliberate economic blocks in the path of disabled people simply because we feel that they should be more 'motivated' to work or work harder, or simply fail to keep disabled toilets on trains in repair, all these events work in exactly the same way. We are simply telling disabled people that they are not welcome within modern society, and in our dash to make people 'invisible' again, we may simply be incarcerating, imprisoning or eliminating disabled people by any means possible.
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