Dis-abled person: n.- A person one is able and entitled to dis, regardless of the standing in society (STANDING!) or the status of the offending person, without fear of any social consequences.
(from “Emma’s Lexicon” –a work in progress)
I went to the city library today and while waiting to check out cds, a young latino man behind me, started calling me “Wierdo, in a wheelchair” “Don’t look at me” “What I said, what I said” and “bitch” and started posing aggressively. He continued this for some time, right in front of the librarian. NO ONE SAID ANYTHING, not even library personnel. Afraid for my safety and offended, I said to the librarian, “This is hate speech, please call security.” When three public safety officers (the library cops! Did you know L.A. had library cops!!???!!) arrived, they talked to him (man to man!) and before even speaking to me, dismissed him. As I began to tell my story, they cut me off, and with hostile indifference for my safety, my civil rights or for what he had said to me, told me they couldn’t do anything because of free speech which apparently includes harassment and hate speech. They told me that they didn’t know what happened since they weren’t there, refused to interview anyone who was, and added that they get all types in the library, including “people from skid row” and “mental cases.” They continued to tell me that this sort of thing happened all the time and there was nothing they could do, since they couldn’t arrest him.
But there should be some remedy (such as removal from the premises), other than arresting someone or doing absolutely nothing at all! And regardless of what he said, verbally accosting a total stranger is more than just speech, it is aggressive and threatening. Furthermore, it can hardly be city policy that people with dis-abilities, along with other protected classes, be required to accept abusive language in the course of accessing public services or working for the city. I asked the officers, one of whom was Latino and the other two were African-American, “What if I used racist terms toward you?” one of them asserted that that would be my right, that it was part of his job. “No it’s not” I told him. “It would constitute a hostile working environment and it would be wrong, and if I heard someone speaking to you that way, I would say something.”
Offended by their indifference, I asked them their names. Two of the public safety officers walked away, one muttering, “I’m through here.” I demanded to speak to a superior. and the remaining officer took me to a sergeant, who basically repeated the same policy and was equally reluctant to give me his name. While I was talking to the sergeant, Officer “Through Here” interrupted, quite angrily, reprimanding me in front of his supervisor, as if I were a small child, stating that he had feelings too and that he walked away to calm down. He stated that I had talked down to him. The sergeant went on to tell me that they have to deal with knives and guns all the time. I think he said this to assert how insignificant my complaint was, but it also illuminates how outrageous their reaction to me was, as well: A retired school teacher in a wheelchair is too much for the library police to handle, despite all the other “types” they come in contact with every day. One uppity woman with an ambulatory device explaining the nuance of hostile working conditions, civil rights, harassment and hate speech and asking for names and badge numbers to three fully armed and uniformed city officers trained in weapons confiscation, is infuriating and justifies abandonment of their duty to provide a safe environment for everyone.
One would-be witness did come up to me later: -¿que pasó con ese tipo? Preguntó (“What happened to that character? He asked.) -nada se pasó, -contesté (“nothing“, I replied). Surprised, he expressed outrage that someone would be allowed to yell insults in the library like that.
You would think that there would be a code of conduct in the library. Can one YELL hate speech? Is it a matter of decibels? Are the badge wielding, armed, and academy trained (I was later informed) law enforcement personnel of Los Angeles, suddenly more schooled in the civil rights of L.A. youth, (I don’t think so), most of whom are harassed by the police routinely, simply for walking down the street? than in how to handle assertive women in wheelchairs? (Apparently!) Or is it that PWDs have such low status, that we’re fair game everywhere we go? (And are “skid row types” and “mental cases” less threatening than cripple gurls who have the audacity to take down names and badge numbers?) This is just one more example of the widespread acceptance of dis-ability discrimination! Teasing me apparently is a right law enforcement is trained to protect, my protestations, the actual violation, the instigating young man, the apparent victim.
The sergeant, eventually did give me his name, and did walk me to my car, in response to my concern for my safety, so there was that. But he continued to justify the behavior of his officers, even going so far as to state that perhaps they had expected me to take my anger out on them and had reacted in anticipation and that I should consider that. I told him that that’s where training should come in. –apparently they had been trained to respect “mental cases”, “skid row types” and “free speech” but not innocent citizens being harassed or how to handle articulate women in wheelchairs who have the audacity to assert their rights and have a voice. Hate speech and harassment should not be tolerated in public spaces. No one, including PWDs should be subjected to ridicule and humiliation for simply entering a public facility and such abuses SHOULD be seen as a security issues. There is no reason to arrest this young man but he should have been told, in front of me, that he can’t speak like that, that he was to let me alone, and if he did not, he would be asked to leave, and his library card revoked.
Check out the following video– what happens in this video, happens to PWDs all the time, with not only the same indifference, but with patrons or others (in my case, the library cops) actually jumping in to take the side of the offender. Also note what happens when just two people take action— how it changes the entire social dynamic.