On Jan. 12, 2013, Robert Ethan Saylor walked into a movie theater in Frederick County, Md., without a ticket. He’d watched Zero Dark Thirty once and wanted to see it again. When he was asked to leave, he didn’t. He resisted. Ultimately, three off-duty deputies moonlighting as security guards — and not wearing uniforms — held him facedown on the ground, handcuffed, until he stopped moving. He suffocated and died. Observers say that while he was on the ground, he called out for his mother.
His death was ruled a homicide by asphyxiation by the medical examiner. It’s a heartbreaking story, but what makes it worse is that last month, the grand jury chose not to indict the three deputies. Today, they’re back on the job.
Saylor had Down syndrome, and to me, his story illustrates how our fears and stigmas can affect a person’s life — even end it — with no consequences for the people responsible.
My column is called “It’s Feminism, Y’all,” and let me explain why this is a feminist issue. Feminism is a social movement working to eradicate all forms of oppression that keep people from achieving their full humanity. This case demonstrates how our societal stigmas keep people from being recognized as fully human.
People with Down syndrome are often seen as profoundly different from typical people. They’re seen as incomprehensible, even frightening. One parent I know was telling me about her perceptions of Down syndrome before she had a child with the condition. “The baggers at the grocery store and the greeters at Wal-Mart I had seen, but I had never spent any time with anyone or had a relationship with anyone with Down syndrome, so I didn’t know,” she said. “I was just as prejudiced as the next person in terms of what kids and people can and cannot do with Down syndrome.” Another parent told me that when he learned his child had this genetic condition, he felt that “the world comes to an end.”
Individuals with Down syndrome are seen as “defective.” As a result, up to 90 percent of fetuses identified with the condition are terminated. These fears and stereotypes — widely shared, even if most of us wouldn’t want to acknowledge it even to ourselves — are partly responsible for Saylor’s death.
And the fears and stereotypes aren’t accurate. Parents of children with Down syndrome will tell you that the condition doesn’t define their children. They’re different than their peers, but those differences aren’t simply because of this particular genetic condition. Down syndrome is a form of diversity, not a deficiency. People with the syndrome have an intellectual disability, but they’re able to talk, to read, to attend school, even to attend college at places like the College of Charleston and 250 other universities nationwide. They’re able to have all varieties of intimate and casual relationships. They have people they love and who love them in return. They have favorite music and TV shows, even movies that they enjoy enough they want to watch them more than once.
I wish that the deputies in Frederick County, Md., had identified themselves to Robert Saylor and asked if he was there with anybody; after all, his aide was getting the car. Although the National Down Syndrome Society has said that this incident indicates that law enforcement must undergo more training, I wish they would denounce the actions that led to Saylor’s death as an example of prejudice. I also wish that feminist organizations would speak out on this tragedy.
As the mother of a child with Down syndrome, this cause is near and dear to my heart. I’m working for all of us to live in a feminist world, a world that supports my daughter in achieving her full humanity, rather than killing her for trying to watch a movie.
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