BLACK LIVES MATTER

BLMPhoto of Stewart Tucker Lundy by Bear Gutierrez

A Roundtable Discussion with Black Wheelchair Users
Facilitated by Alex Jackson

The world came to a halt as we witnessed George Floyd struggling to breathe while a police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes until he died. Now African Americans are voicing their opinions on issues that have been overlooked for centuries, from the after-effects of slavery to police violence.

The protests that are transpiring today are similar to how people with disabilities fought for the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. It took a rallying of people with and without disabilities who performed public demonstrations, like crawling up the U.S. Capitol building steps, to prove the need for accessibility. After such relentless advocacy, lawmakers eventually realized more had to be accomplished to better accommodate people with disabilities.

Similarly, my hope is that our country is finally realizing that police brutality is a systemic problem for African-Americans.

I interviewed Black people with SCI to get their perspective on Black Lives Matter and its intersection with disability. — Alex Jackson

Roundtable Participants

Alex Jackson

Alex Jackson, Public Relations Professional: For this article, we’re asking African Americans with spinal cord injuries to share their perspectives on Black Lives Matter, police brutality and how we can bring together all of our communities into one better society. Now to let you know a little bit about myself, I was injured at about 9 months old in a motor vehicle car accident and I have a C5-6 spinal cord injury. Even with the injury, I’m able to use my right arm and hand to pretty much do everything. Can you tell me a little bit about your injury?

Namel Norris, Rapper and Educator: I’m a T2 para from a gunshot wound. When I was 17, my cousin was playing with a gun and that left me paralyzed from my chest down pretty much. I’ve been paralyzed for more than 20 years, and I’m from New York, New York.

Namel Norris

Stewart Tucker Lundy

Stewart Tucker Lundy, Media Producer and Consultant: I got hurt in a diving accident in — this will make you feel like a baby — in 1982, when I was 14 years old. And it’s C4-5 incomplete quadriplegia. I live in Denver.

Shannon Minnick, Independent Living Services Director: I was in a car accident. I was with two friends and one of my friends fell asleep. We swerved and hit a tree, and I was in the back seat of the car with no seat belt on. I’m a quadriplegic, C6-7, for 30 years now. I’m in the Silver Spring, Maryland area.

Shannon Minnick

Wes Hamilton

Wes Hamilton, Speaker and Nonprofit Founder: I have a T11-12 incomplete spinal cord injury from multiple gunshot wounds to my abdomen back in 2012. I grew up as a nondisabled Black man in Kansas City, Missouri. The lifestyle that I chose was one that, I believe now, was designed for a Black man in poverty, living in the streets, really not even expecting to make it past 21, and I was 24 at the time I was shot. At that moment, I knew I was going to die and I didn’t have many regrets like, “I wish I would have lived to 80.” My regrets were more personal, about my daughter or something like that. But being shot wasn’t something that I didn’t expect.

Editor’s Note: These interviews were conducted and recorded individually by Alex Jackson, who asked all interviewees the same questions. They were combined after the fact to create the “conversation” you see here.

ALEX JACKSON: What are your thoughts on the Black Lives Matter movement as a whole and the response to George Floyd’s death?

NORRIS: What happened this year has been a perfect storm. The main thing was George Floyd’s death. That video gave people something to use to identify a lot of what’s been happening, as far as the policy brutality and the injustice, the racism. Then it was other things that happened with Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, the Karen stuff. [Karen is a term applied to white women who use the police to harass innocent Black people.]

You got all this going on during this pandemic and quarantine. I think collectively what happened this year is that with people not working and being able to do things, recreational things, they have to stop and actually look and not be distracted. What happened to Floyd was so horrible that it made people finally want to listen because they didn’t really have a choice this time.

Wes Hamilton talks with a young participant in Disabled But Not Really, the inclusive fitness community Hamilton founded to serve Kansas City’s east side. “How can they grow if growth isn’t represented by us?” he asked on Instagram.

Wes Hamilton talks with a young participant in Disabled But Not Really, the inclusive fitness community Hamilton founded to serve Kansas City’s east side. “How can they grow if growth isn’t represented by us?” he asked on Instagram.

MINNICK: It’s terrifying. Change is going to come, but for a police officer to feel that it’s OK to put his knee on someone’s neck when they’re telling him that they cannot breathe and when they’re calling for their mother … for someone to feel that this is OK is hurtful. It angers me. And to have other officers there and witnessing this and no one helping? Now I understand that one officer tried to step in and say, “Hey, take your knee off of his neck, he can’t breathe,” but you have to do more than that. Right is right, and wrong is wrong.

LUNDY: I read a quote from Will Smith, “Racism’s not getting worse; it’s getting filmed.” And I just see the arrogance when people say there is not any racism in the police force. Well, we’ve been talking about this for a long time.

In regards to the deaths, George Floyd’s hit home. I mean, Alex, you’re a Black man. You know what it takes, pride-wise, to make a Black man yell in desperation for his mother. That almost brought me to tears.

When he said, “Mama, mama.” Oh man, I just want to tear up right now because I know those times when I’ve yelled for my mom, I wasn’t in a good place. So my heart went out to him, because I’m like, “Man, this brother about to die and he’s calling out for his mother.”

Alex Jackson, above in Charleston, South Carolina, interviews Denver resident Stewart Tucker Lundy, left.

Alex Jackson, above in Charleston, South Carolina, interviews Denver resident Stewart Tucker Lundy, left.

JACKSON: That really struck a nerve for a lot of people. You realize that it could happen to you.

LUNDY: I’m glad for the younger generation — the rainbow generation as far as you got mixed kids, white kids, Asian kids, you got everybody into it. And I think that’s ultimately what we need, because we’ve been fighting this battle for a long time by ourselves or with few allies here and there. But they’re coming out in full force now. And I’m so proud of them for being our civil rights activists.

MINNICK: I haven’t done any protests, but I’m the director of Independent Living Services at the CIL in my area, Independence Now. I’ve been talking to my director and saying that we have to do something. At first, I said, “Let’s have a protest outside the office,” but with the pandemic it’s not safe.

Instead, I had a group of 15 youth with disabilities, and we had a conversation about everything that’s going on. It allowed them to talk about their feelings and their fears. That was pretty amazing because they’re male, female, brown and Caucasian. We had a speaker come in to help us explain what’s going on and how they could have their voices heard safely. And they’re actually holding a live protest on Zoom later this month.

JACKSON: Have you experienced police brutality or racism, either before or after your accident?

MINNICK: I’ve been in a car and the police pulled us over and asked me to get out. I told him, “Officer, I can’t get out. I’m quadriplegic, and my chair is not in the car.” Thankfully they understood but if they hadn’t, how do you deal with that?

LUNDY: I was with a friend of mine, we were in Washington, D.C., getting ready to go into Georgetown, and we got pulled over. This was after my accident. My friend used to pick me up, put me in his car and we’d go ride around.

I remember thinking to myself, “If I have a spasm or make a wrong move or something, this joker is going to shoot me in the back of my damn head.” And I got a lot of different things going through my body right now. I was like, I’m scared, I want to shit my pants, literally. I’m telling my friend Jerald, “Let them know I’m in a wheelchair, man. Let them know I’m in a wheelchair.” Because I could see the cop in the mirror, where I was sitting at, coming up along the side of the passenger side, and he had his hand on his gun. It wasn’t drawn yet, but I was like, “Oh my God, what are we getting into?”

And I’m thinking to myself, “This is not going to be good.” I mean, I’m laughing about it now, but I was scared to death.

NORRIS: I’ve dealt with racism all my life. I feel like a lot of what happened to me and a lot of my friends, like gun violence and the way it’s affecting the Black community, is part of racism in a way. A lot of times when somebody sees me in a wheelchair, they just assume I was shot or whatever. But the thing is like, why? Why are people so criminalized in the neighborhood? It goes back to a lot of things, like poverty, schooling and the way we over-police in the community.

Before I was in this chair, I ran from the cops plenty of times for stupid things, like smoking weed. I got a friend that I grew up with who was running from the cops. He jumped out a window. He died running from the cops.

Wes Hamilton is active on Instagram at @iamweshamilton. When he posted this photo, he wrote, “I hear you brother, we hear you, they should’ve heard you.”

Wes Hamilton is active on Instagram at @iamweshamilton. When he posted this photo, he wrote, “I hear you brother, we hear you, they should’ve heard you.”

HAMILTON: I’ve always felt like I’ve experienced racism. I lived in a radius of zip codes that were defined here in Kansas City as high crime areas. And growing up as a kid, we were always harassed by police because they thought we could be criminals.

The history of Kansas City is that [developer] J.C. Nichols created a dividing line that eventually the rest of the country implemented. The model was, “Here’s one block that separates the whites from the Blacks,” and the blocks on the west side of town have it written in their deeds that you cannot sell a home to a person of color. On the east side are all the houses of poverty. So, our city has a huge racial divide.

JACKSON: Do you think there are any differences in discrimination, based on race and disability?

HAMILTON: I think about the resources that I was never given as an African American becoming disabled. Nobody ever even told me I could drive, bro. I didn’t know I could drive until, like, three years later. And so, I started searching and I found some hand controls. Then, I found out that there was a place here that actually did driving classes.

Most of the people that don’t look like me were able to have access to Craig Hospital or some other nice spinal cord injury hospital outside of Kansas City that, when they came back, gave them a little bit more mobility. I meet someone that’s not of color and I ask, “Hey, have you driven?” And they say, “Oh, yeah. We’re just waiting to get our van now.” And I’m like, are you serious? I’ve had people pull up in trucks and stuff and they get their houses remodeled! You see that?

And when I asked all the Black people here in our community, have they heard of driving? No. But now that I have my nonprofit, I have people that tell me, “We learned driving while doing rehab.”

It plays a part in everything I do.

LUNDY: When somebody gets injured at a young age, they’re the flavor of the month. And then it kind of dies off after a while, because it’s like, “OK, we helped said person, blah, blah, blah, blah.” And it’s almost like a charity case. But I’ve noticed with a white woman or white kids, they’re just America’s little sweethearts. I don’t feel like we get that kind of love, as African Americans, sometimes.

And then funding-wise, a lot of stuff that we need is very expensive, and sometimes agencies don’t pay for things, or it’s set up so you can only make so much money. And then when you get out of that, you pay an arm and a leg to pay for it out of pocket. So it’s like dang, come on, this system is set up to not let you get far. And then on top of that, you’re Black, so you’re really not going to get far.

MINNICK: Have you heard of Michael Hickson? He is the 46-year-old Black man who died in Texas. He was a quadriplegic and he was refused healthcare because the doctor said that he had no quality of life. And so he died six days later of starvation. They didn’t feed him. [For more information about Hickson, see tinyurl.com/y2dzjxws.]

I called my director and asked, “Oh my God, have you heard the story?” She said, “Yes.” We talked about it and I said to her, “If I get COVID-19 and go to the hospital are they not going to treat me? Because I’m a quadriplegic and they don’t feel that my life is valued?” I have two daughters, and I reached out to them and said, “If I get sick and have to go into the hospital, I have a right to have one person with me. I don’t know which one of you that’s going to be, but my life is valued and you have to be my voice if I can’t be my voice.” I also gave them a list of phone numbers to call in case it came to the point where doctors say they weren’t going to treat me because I have a disability and they were not going to be able to improve my quality of life.

Namel Norris raps at United Spinal’s 2016 Roll on Capitol Hill.

Namel Norris raps at United Spinal’s 2016 Roll on Capitol Hill.

JACKSON: That’s so inhumane.

MINNICK: I was looking at Red Table Talk with Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, and I came across the recorded conversation of Mr. Hickson’s wife talking to the doctor. It’s one thing when you read a story and think, “Oh my God, this is crazy,” but to actually hear it and see it, that changes how you feel about things.

JACKSON: It’s really sad to hear things like that but it’s good that people are realizing what’s happening. What can the disability community do to help end racism?

HAMILTON: Most people have been around someone with a disability of a different race, whether at an Abilities Expo or some seminar. I highly encourage people with disabilities to use their voice and their platform to support those of a different race who are part of their community in whatever they are doing.

Also, say there’s a sports day or ability camp, and it’s in a location that maybe you don’t go to because it’s too far or it might be in a community like mine. Go. Meet some different people. Find a way to network. And start listening to dialogue. It’s hard for me to tell anybody to take more action without understanding first.

LUNDY: I think the visibility part is important. It is putting Black folks, and especially Black men, in elevated areas, where we’re more visible, and somebody is able to relate to us. Because sometimes I’ll see pictures of a group of disabled folk, and it’ll be one or two Black folks. It won’t be a lot, but just maybe one or two. And then all of the rest of them will be white.

MINNICK: I think that we have to also be open. We have to find a common ground and get together and have these discussions. It doesn’t have to be a bunch of us walking down the street protesting. Some people are doing Black Lives Matter events via Zoom.

NORRIS: I get confused with the fight because on one hand, it’s disability. On the other hand, it’s being Black. Those two things go hand-in-hand so much because both sides don’t get the respect.

From the disability side, I feel like the disability community doesn’t get a lot of support and respect from the mainstream media. Then, coming from the Black side, now people don’t even want to acknowledge racism and speak about it.

But look at the landscape and how things trickle down. Then you see who the money goes to, and how programs are implemented. It’s not directly in the hands of Black people. If you’re Black and disabled, you’re getting double the short end of the stick. That hasn’t changed.

JACKSON: How can the disability community and society as a whole change the viewpoint that law enforcement has on African Americans?

MINNICK: I knew this question would come up. Folks need to be educated on systematic racism. We African Americans are oppressed, and violence accompanies that. If I feel like somebody’s knee is on my neck, I’m going to be angry, and I’m going to want to fight because I’m struggling to live. Police officers, and people, period, need to be educated on that. Not just have to sit down in a classroom and watch videos and hear stories, but they have to understand it, actually feel it.

Sometimes when you learn, it has to come from the heart. And you have to teach people compassion because if they don’t care about life, then they just don’t care about life. And sometimes with these police officers, I think they’ve been doing this for so long that they need to be let go. You’re not going to be able to change their perspective or what they think.

If this is an officer that’s had three strikes, he has to go. If I get three strikes as the African American, I’m going down. So why is the system different for a police officer? Just think about it.

If you look at child molesters, how much time do they usually get? A year? Two years? But if you have marijuana, they trying to get you 10 years. Why? People have to be treated equally across the board.

We have to educate people on history, and once they get educated they will sometimes — not all the time, but sometimes — learn. We’re human, we’re people. It’s hard for me to think that someone can think of me as an animal because of the color of my skin.

But you know what? Everything comes out in the light. So there’s a lot of people in our lives, even some of our white friends, whose eyes are being opened today.  And if not for this whole incident, we would all still be in that same place of thinking that everything is OK when it’s not. So this had to happen. I’m sorry that it happened, but it has awakened people. And enough is enough. We’re tired.

JACKSON: Definitely. Yeah, hopefully, this will be a wake-up call.

MINNICK: I think it is a wake-up call. I pray all the time that it is. People are waking up. We’re seeing it every day because they’re out on the street every day marching.

Instagram @iamweshamilton

Instagram @iamweshamilton

NORRIS: Well, I don’t think we have to do anything — they have to do it. That’s why I like that Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote, “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that is pretty important, also.” I feel like that’s the key: Having things in place to keep people in order. Then over time, just working through the process of communication and coexisting with each other will help. I don’t think everybody has to feel the same, but everybody has to be respectful.

LUNDY: I think white police officers have a fear that goes back to slave days, like, “Oh, he’s going to come get me, I’ve got to draw first,” that kind of thing. And training is essential, as far as how you approach someone.

I was telling my wife this the other day that I think, when you come out of the police academy, if you arrest somebody, you should know the person you arrest. Like, “Man your aunt, such and such, you know good and well, she wouldn’t want you out here. But I’ve got to take you to jail.”

The police officer would have a better understanding, instead of going on a stereotype that he has in his head. Or the monster that lives in his head. So I think the training would help a lot.

They’ve got a lot on their shoulders. They have to be social workers, they have to be relationship experts, things like that. And I know when I’ve got a lot of stuff on my mind that I’m not going to do too well, so I can only imagine what a police officer feels when he has to go out and deal with someone in the public acting all crazy or whatever. They’re just not trained for it. And some of those guys are really young, they don’t know nothing.

HAMILTON: We’ve got to test the police’s outlook on Black people, especially if they’re a person who’s not of color. Right? Black cops need training, too, because sometimes there’s a code that everyone lives by. So, they fall into that trap.

Everything has to happen at the grassroots. White people, you’ve got to go to Thanksgiving dinner and have that conversation. You know what I mean? You’ve got to see Grandma’s views. Grandma might not even share her views with you, but she instilled them in your mom.

I have an 88-year-old grandma who still stays in the hood. She’s got 80-something grandkids. The majority of her kids got killed. Most of the males have been in jail. Eighty-something grandkids and great-grandkids, and I’m the only one that makes her happy every day. I’m the only one showing her something different.  But she stays in the house. She hasn’t left that house in 50 years, unless we do events.

I asked her, “Why you don’t leave?”

“It’s safe in here,” she said.

I have to let my grandma know that it’s safe now. Right? If we want to make it safe, then somebody else has to let their grandma know that we’re in it together now.