One of the most topical issues in the news this past week was the alleged police shooting incident that killed a 16-year-old boy with Down Syndrome in Eldorado Park, Johannesburg. According to Nathaniel Julius’ family, the police had tried to ask him questions, which he failed to respond to owing to his disability. As with many stories of this nature, many versions will come out of the woodwork, making it harder to tell fact from fiction. What is constant, however, is that an unarmed boy with a disability was gunned down.
As a mother to a teenager with autism, the incident hit close to home and completely ruined my day. So many questions buzzed in my head, like for instance, how did the cops not see obvious signs of Down Syndrome on the child, who gave the policeman who pulled the trigger the authority to be judge, jury and executioner? Even if Nathaniel had the capacity to speak for himself, the very first Miranda Right is the right to remain silent. No-one ought to be executed for failing to answer questions. The possibility of such a horrible incident happening to my son, Victor, makes me quake in my boots. If a young man with visible signs of a developmental condition can wantonly be gunned down like that, heaven help those that look ‘normal’.
My greatest fear comes from the knowledge that Victor would be a perfect candidate for the kind of atrocity witnessed in Eldorado Park. Although he can speak, he is not always articulate, especially in situations where he feels apprehensive. If confronted by the police, he is not likely to co-operate. He would probably have an epic meltdown, or probably just walk away, which in turn would provoke the officers, who might view this as an act of defiance. Autism does not have tell-tale signs, unlike Down Syndrome. I view it as an advantage because people stare at and taunt those that look different, which can make public life very uncomfortable for people with visible disabilities. However, in light of potential police brutality, the lack of discernible signs can actually work against him. People expect him to function in a certain way, and are always shocked when he doesn’t. Because he is very tall and looks mature, I’ve had vendors or sales people enthusiastically try to sell their products to him, whereupon he just gives them a blank stare or will quickly cling to my arm so that I can intervene. The thought of him being surrounded by gun-toting aggressive policemen makes my blood run cold. I invest a great deal of time in resources to help him become an independent and contributing member of society one day. But with the constant threat to his life caused by a lack of awareness on intellectual disabilities or sheer cruelty, he’s condemned to always being tied to my apron strings for his own safety. That is not fair.
I have read many news stories and accounts of people with intellectual disabilities being harassed, unjustifiably arrested, or killed by the police, particularly in the United States. To have this in our own backyard, where the spirit of ubuntu is hyped, is both petrifying and disconcerting. They say it takes a village to raise a child. It is every society’s duty to look out for its vulnerable. Well, this village of gunslingers failed Nathaniel and the whole community of people living with disabilities. It instills great fear to know that those that are meant to protect and serve communities have turned into a lynch mob. In discussions on social media, some people have posited that Nathaniel’s disability should not be the focal point; society should just be outraged about the killing of an innocent boy. In my opinion, the disability is very much a part of the narrative. It is well documented that people with developmental disabilities are disproportionately susceptible to acts of violence. This has been attributed partly to their incapacity to protect themselves and obtain assistance within the justice system.
The killing of Nathaniel has shown that parents whose children have special needs and relevant organisations have their work cut out for them. A lot of advocacy is needed to ensure that the vulnerability of people with disabilities is eradicated, more so within the justice system. To some, people with disabilities might appear as if they should be banished to the periphery of life, but where they come from, they are loved. They have names, because they are real. They have their own seat at the dinner table. There is now an empty chair at Nathaniel’s house and his family is distraught.
This inexcusable incident has shown gaps in the policing system. How much training do law enforcement officers receive on handling people with disabilities? Or is that expecting a lot from people who appear to not even be conversant with the rules of engagement? I doubt that any amount of training can restrain a trigger happy and blood thirsty policeman.