Sunday, November 16, 2014

Making Neli Latson Matter: The Invisible Intersected Black Members of The Autism Community

I have been haunted by the case of Reginald "Neli" Latson, a victim of racism and ableism for four
Neli Latson in 2010
years.  His case has taken a grisly turn. He attempted to take his own life, barricading himself in a room of the group halfway house where his abuse had become intolerable. He is now locked in what is in essence solitary confinement (he was taken out of straight solitary and is now in isolation with suicide monitoring) in a Virginia prison.

Solitary Confinement is torture.

According to the definition of torture under 18 U.S.C. §§ 2340–2340A :

1) “torture” means an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control;
(2) “severe mental pain or suffering” means the prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from
     (A) the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering;
     (B) the administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality;
    (C) the threat of imminent death; or
    (D) the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering, or the administration or application of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or personality;

Any research into the effects of solitary confinement on any human being will quickly make it clear that solitary confinement, regardless of the reason it is being done, is torture.

If you are anyone who is Black in America, you know the sequence of events that results in arrests for Black males. There is no rise in social class, no degree of education, no party affiliation that can save your sons, spouses, fathers, friends, from this. It is part of the racism that we live with. It is the fear we carry. You cannot train a human being to not abuse power. You cannot foresee the hate in a person's heart. You cannot tell if a man is a bigot if you are white. Your race is not the one such a person holds in enmity.  Not three days ago I was asked to describe disparities in the way healthcare was delivered to my son when I was with him. When I described an incident, the interviewer said "are you sure it was racism?" Probably the worst thing you can ask someone like me, who lives with racism everyday, is if I am sure it was racism. In the past, when I was a younger and more patient person, I would insist that people who asked me that question simply come to a mall with me and lag behind me as I walked through stores and watch my interactions and what was done when I entered shops. The shame they felt as they watched security guards and staff follow me from aisle to aisle to insure I wasn't stealing anything was enough. Yes I am sure it was racism.

Reginald Neli Latson
Tell me how do I explain to such a person that the problem with Neli Latson is not simply "autism causing him to act out"?  How will they understand that there is a world in which the color of one's skin is enough to get an arrest record whether one commits a crime or not? How to hammer home that all of this combined with a bigot who called 911 as a "concerned citizen" saw a black man in a hoodie waiting for the public library to open and decided to lie and say they saw a gun doomed Neli before he ever encountered that school resource officer? Because I've tried. And they just can't leave the world they live in long enough to understand this one.

Their world is comfortable and safe. They don't have to do anything but mumble words of sympathy because they are so confident it won't happen to their autistic child. Why should it? They are sure their social position, income, and race keeps their children safe. They forget something very important. Neli Latson would not have come to this horrible pass had he not also been autistic. This disaster is the intersection of autism, ableism and racism colliding with the school to prison pipeline. See everyone who is poor in Black America prepares their son for that moment. They teach them the social cues and red flags. They tell them to have a way to make that phone call and an understanding that they will be harassed by police at some point.  But autism parents are told they need to teach compliance and concrete ideas about police to their autistic children. It gives autism parents a false sense of security about their teens encountering police.

 Every autism parent who  secretly thinks a police training course,  safety movie,  who they know,  their race or wealth will keep this from happening to their child can think again. Ableism is as obvious in this case as racism. Neli was a popular student,  well known in the area and that is why he was able to walk to the library alone without prior incident. But the person who called 911 that day was tired of seeing the Black autistic kid waiting for the library to open. Black and neurodivergent was just too different for tolerance. The fact that to this day, the caller's identity is hidden is very damning.

Neli did not understand the intersection of racism and abuse of power. He understood the rules of police engagement and was taught that everyone had rights under the law. That of course does not leave room for how to react when racism places a black body in jeopardy. No one told him that Black males are routinely harassed by police and if the officer doesn't like the look of them, they will arrest them on any excuse. Neli wasn't taught what to do if the police should continue to escalate or try to incite an act that might result in an arrest. He was not told to remain passive even if insulted, beaten or arrested even if he had done nothing wrong. He reacted as he did in high school wrestling matches when set upon. This reaction destroyed his life.

For four years, I have felt like I've been in a nightmare where I scream and people see my mouth move but no sound is heard. No matter what I did or do, no one sees or hears Neli.  Neli's former attorney was ignorant of autism so the defense was a disaster as it in fact supported the case that autism makes Neli dangerous.  The Washington Post at one point flipped its initial  and recent balanced coverage of the case to support this incorrect perspective of the "dark side of autism" complete with parent interviews.  The presentation of the unfortunate defense case opened the way to a 25 year sentence. Autism organizations used Neli's case as a cautionary tale of the evils of not using  early intervention where "therapy" means compliance training through ABA and then promoted their own first responder training materials.

I have been unable to make all of this injustice felt to organizations, advocates, and activists. They don't get that arrests for no reason, stop and frisks, and any number of incidents are regular issues that those who are Black and poor learn to prepare for, but when one is Black and neurodivergent, may not be able to process, even with parental help. Add to this something else well known in services circles and you have Neli's recipe for disaster. Parents are told the dirty little secret to getting a rapid placement for your autistic adult child who has aged out of the education support system in times when no available placements exist is to document proof that the young adult is a danger to himself and others. "Call the police", they tell parents. Have documented proof they need immediate placement and social services will have to step in.

I have been unable to stem that tide. Parents do this never thinking that in their rush to get this large autistic adult off their hands they may be setting that person up for a lifetime of suffering. In the end that is what happened to Neli. He ended up having a prior incident, as happens with many young autistic males growing up, where police were called and should not have been called. Then the catastrophic encounter with a school resource officer when all he wanted was to go to the library. He was Black. He was wearing a hoodie. He did not know the script for reacting to racism in an authority figure who could incarcerate him. He does not know what is happening to him now.

As I have written before, great demands are placed on those of us who are Black activists for content, supporting presentations, speaking out about racism, intersectionality and ethnicity by organizations and groups, but when our disabled loved ones are in desperate need of help they are silent and absent. Neli needs help now. If I have been a good ally to cross disability causes and other marginalized groups I expect that when one of us is the victim of injustice allies will step up for them. If they don't that tells me that they won't be there for my family either. When we activists of color step away from organizations, communities and groups where others feel we are underrepresented, those stakeholders should look in the mirror. Neli Latson could be my son or anyone's son. Not helping him is akin to turning your back on all Black disabled children, adults, and their families.

The Autistic Self Advocacy Network decided to step up and try to help Neli. You can read about their efforts here. They are one of the very few autism or disability rights organizations that seems to give a damn. So many disability rights advocacy organizations are filled with attorneys who won't touch this. Shame on them! They have no right to call themselves advocates of the disabled if they turn their noses up at defending Neli. It makes them part of the systemic erasure of intersected Black disabled males who are victims of a criminal justice industrial complex they cannot avoid or be free from without help. What do these people do? I see them hobnobbing with congressmen and senators. In the meantime God knows how many Neli's are deteriorating in prisons across this country. Isn't it time disability rights advocacy organizations and advocates join with organizations like Solitary Watch and add  ending solitary confinement, humane conditions and therapeutic supports for neurodivergent prisoners to their diversity related national agendas? Shouldn't their attorneys be fighting for this? No organization can insist they represent us or our children unless they address this urgently. 

Anyone who isn't making an effort to help Neli does not speak for of Black disabled people or their families. That is my position. Wonder why I don't respect your organization? That is why.  When you make Neli and so many others like him matter, you'll matter to me. Otherwise, lose my email address and don't put your hand out for my money every December and my voice, support, and content year round.



  1. What can I, and other concerned people, do to help with this situation?

    1. email Governor of VA at online form and tell him to free Neli now

  2. ASANs campaign to help free Neli is here:
    A Washington Post writer is following his case and write the obstacles keeping him from being released here:

  3. I did donate some money to ASAN and was thinking of becoming a member. I'm hoping to start a community page with some friends. I'll check out this link and see if I can spread the word.

    1. I am trying to find an address for Neli and trying to restart a mail campaign to him

  4. I hope you can. Thank you for all of your hard work on this case. The more I learn, the angrier I get. Neli no doubt needs all the support he can get right now. You are full of love and anger and courage, three things he needs.

  5. Having read up on this, I find it very disturbing. I work with kids with various disabilities, and I can see some of them ending up in trouble with the law just because they don't know how to react and people in authority misread them :-( Don't know if that makes any sense.

    1. Yes that is half of this problem. The other half is that someone who knew Neli did not have a gun and was not at all engaged in criminal behavior called 911 and falsely stated they saw a Black man wearing a hoodie and carrying a gun in front of the library

    2. No charges pressed against this person who filed a false report, I presume?


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