Thursday, December 2, 2021

#AutisticWhileBlack #SaveDarius II The MTA, In Black And White


Darius McCollum image of an older African American Male
with a short full beard. A blurred rail car behind him.
He is wearing a black ski cap, black coat with a dark blue
zipped up inner-lining. Image credit Adam Irving

“But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.”― Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

Darius McCollum memorized the MTA map by age eight, spent his entire adult life volunteering for the MTA, and was criminalized and jailed for it. He was given a diagnosis of Asperger's by a prison doctor at age 40. He has all the characteristics of a prodigious savant. But we will never know, because, at age 53, he has been given the final blow to the crime of being autistic while black, damned to an institution where he, who is not violent, does not belong.

I would like to live in the dream that had Darius McCollum been born in say, 1992, he might have been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome while still in grade school. Perhaps, if he hadn't lived years before people acknowledged or accepted that Black children could be autistic too he would have made the evening news for volunteering at the MTA while still a young autistic child. Perhaps he would have been rewarded for his intense interest in the transit system and earned a training internship with accommodation for his disability. Perhaps he might have transitioned into a job as a disabled adult. Perhaps when the MTA rejected his repeated applications for work, he might have found legal representation and sued for discrimination based on disability. Maybe, in a parallel universe, Darius McCollum is living a happy life doing the only thing he has ever wanted to do, work as an MTA employee.

Perhaps he would not have felt the urge to drive a bus six stops on its route, flawlessly picking up and dropping off passengers as any driver would do, at age 15.

But I know that Ta-Nehisi Coates is right. I always wake up from these reveries feeling gut-punched in the truth that everything lands with great violence upon the black body.

Darius has the world's thirst for entertainment and the media's lust for ratings against him. News stories about Darius are less like human-interest reporting and more like circus creations at a world's fair where he's the oddity du jour and his suffering saga is a marriage of stereotypes, Jim Crow minstrel shows of a disabled black body. How can we expect justice when the structural racism of government overreaction to any nonconforming Black male body stands like a mountain in every NeiliArnaldo, and Darius' path?

At age 53,  the doom of this verdict is the final hammer blow to this singular mind. It is too much like the way the widow of Blind Tom Wiggins' slaveholder tricked his mother into signing over custody of him with the promise of freeing him then used the courts to declare him mentally incompetent simply to enrich herself. Tom Wiggins is known as the last slave in America because of this abuse.

I haven't studied all the publicly available charges piled up against him. But from what I have read, they are marked by McCollum following proper procedure as he did while volunteering. He gets "caught" because this is not behavior he has the impulse control to eradicate on his own. He has been labeled a thief and given a devastating punishment for compulsive behavior. Meanwhile, he has become the subject of a movie, and others will profit from his suffering.

What do I mean when I claim that Darius is caught in the sinkhole of racist ableism?

Sometimes it is easier to see the reality of this when black lives are compared with white ones..

So let's look at someone else from New York, with the same love of the New York transit system, and how his life turned out.  Jonathan Mahler's The New York Times Magazine essay, The Case for the Subway, includes a brief history of a man named Max Diamond. He lived in Park Slope, not Jamaica, Queens. Max displayed the same hyper interest in trains and the subway system. Like Darius, Max had a prodigious knowledge of detailed information related to trains, subways, track layouts, signals, and switches. While Darius was trained by employees to such a degree that he could cover their shifts, Max had the resources to start his own YouTube channel under the handle Dj Hammers at age 14. 

Max became a celebrity and gathered a following of fellow subway lovers.  Per Jonathan Mahler: "In 2016, Diamond was hired by the M.T.A. as a paid intern, and at 21, he now crunches numbers in its performance-analysis unit while he works toward an economics degree at the City College of New York. " Darius McCollum repeatedly applied for employment with the M.T.A. but was repeatedly rejected. The M.T.A. staff who trained him and were complicit in his impersonating staff by teaching him to do their jobs and cover their shifts have not been held accountable for leading him into his present predicament. Darius' family had set up a job for him driving a bus route in the Carolinas, but because Darius had a parole hearing in NYC, he fell back into seeking out his 'friends' in the M.T.A. and back to the pattern of indulging in his singular focus, the city's transit system.  

Max Diamond filming and sharing details about the NY transit system was never considered a security risk. Darius McCollum, trained by M.T.A. employees and knowledgeable enough to correct issues when they occurred in the same transit system was considered dangerous. Max Diamond is now a conductor for the New York City Transit system. Darius McCollum has been rewarded for the same interest and hyperfocus on the same transit system by a lifetime in prison. 

Within the autism conversation, the violence visited upon the Black autistic body is never felt as we who are African American, feel it. Yet  we have been denied the platforms and resources needed  to counter the harm done to our people. The number of late-diagnosed Black autistics in the carceral system is a statement of the difference between being disabled and Black, or white. The question is, is our community going to act to solve the inherent injustice of structural ableist racism and how it impacts autistics like Darius? 

This is the second time I've asked that our community act to build a bridge to a better life for Darius and others who should never have been behind bars in the first place. 

Either our entire community acts to aide Darius or accepts their complicity in the harm done to him.

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