Policing at the Synapse: Ferguson, Race, and the Disability Politics of the Teen Brain

This article is part of the following series:

In February 2014, University of Missouri (“Mizzou”) students made national news when they formed a human wall to protest the Westboro Baptist Church’s presence on their campus. Westboro arrived to denounce Michael Sam, a gay “Mizzou Tiger” who would become the first openly gay NFL player. Mizzou students eagerly donned “Stand with Sam” rainbow buttons and “WE ARE ALL COMOSEXUAL” t-shirts (an homage to “COMO,” or how locals refer to Columbia, MO). The nation turned its collective eye to “The Middle,” a North American region that has been associated (at times, stereotypically, by those on the coasts) with religious conservatism, provincialism, and intolerant attitudes toward cultural difference or sexual non-normativity. Rather than asking “what’s the matter with Kansas?” in frustration, onlookers celebrated Missouri’s anti-homophobic moment of conviction, its investment in creating an “inhabitable world” for queers living outside metronormativity’s coastal enclaves.[i]

Photo credit: Nick Schnelle, Columbia Daily Tribune
Photo credit: Nick Schnelle, Columbia Daily Tribune

While one “Missouri Mike” made his NFL bid, another would never arrive on his campus or attend his first college class. On August 9, 2014 in Ferguson, MO, Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager, was fatally shot by Darren Wilson, a white police officer. His body lay in the street for four hours, as his blood pooled on the asphalt, warmed by the same unyielding Missouri sun that shone on MU’s Francis Quadrangle as students returned in late August. Mizzou students returned to a very different campus. Many of my students were returning from their childhood homes in St. Louis and its neighboring suburbs. Many were from Ferguson. Others were the sons and daughters of St. Louis-area police officers.

In late November, Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency in Ferguson nearly a week before the grand jury decided not to indict Wilson. Politically committed MU students quickly mobilized to support the Ferguson protests. Using the social media handle “MU4Mike,” students organized die-ins in the student center and City Hall and were supported by a variety of faculty, including a Vice Chancellor.

Photo Credit: Mizzou’s Official Facebook album
Photo Credit: Mizzou’s Official Facebook album

Mizzou’s Facebook page posted photos of the event (including the one above), which incited a variety of hateful responses:

  • “White lives matter too!”
  • “…[B]lack lives appear to matter to everyone but black people…the black community is the one offing themselves in record numbers, not white cops defending themselves from charging aggressors.”
  • “Raise your kids not your hands.”
  • “I have been a staunch Mizzou fan for years and…I think it is offensive to support a criminal in protest on state property on a states [sic] sponsored site…Don’t tell me you are all naïve enough not to know what he wanted the cigars for.”
  • “How stupid. All lives matter. Stop wallowing in self pity [sic]. This was and is not a race issue. Get real.”
  • “Jus [sic] saying if their [sic] was a big group of whites that said that we’d get attacked for bein rascist [sic]! Fuckin stupid.”

Meanwhile, campus police monitored the MU Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center after an anonymous threat to the center (“Let’s burn down the black culture center & give them a taste of their own medicine.”) appeared on YikYak, a mobile, anonymous social media application.

Perhaps no image better encapsulates the abruptness with which Mizzou’s political landscape shifted than this screenshot of Mizzou’s Facebook page:

Photo Credit: Author’s screenshot of Mizzou’s Official Facebook album
Photo Credit: Author’s screenshot of Mizzou’s Official Facebook album

Enveloped in hopeful sunlight, an African-American student stands with his hands raised in peaceful protest. He stands in stark contradistinction to racist comments (“Your [sic] a thug bro!!”) as well as a meme of a white father and son pointing, as if to the man in photo, to proclaim, “Look son, a faggot!” Less than ten months after the campus had “Stood with Sam,” entangled racism and homophobia seemed more virulent than ever.

As an MU faculty member, I wanted to contribute my perspective to this special series—first off—to spotlight our students’ courageous (and ongoing) activism to make Mizzou a more inhabitable world for all of its students. As a critical queer/disability studies scholar contemplating Ferguson, I am thinking of the challenging questions posed by queer/disability activist Eli Clare, who invites us to map the sedimentary layers of injustice:

…How do we make the space to talk honestly and wrenchingly about all the multi-layered systems of injustice that target some of us and privilege others for who we are? The layers are so tangled: gender folds onto disability, disability wraps around class, class strains against race, race snarls into sexuality, sexuality hangs onto gender, all of it finally piling onto our bodies…How do we dig down to find, not uncrackable, unmovable rhetoric, but the concrete daily material, emotional, and spiritual realities of privilege and oppression on this planet rife with injustice? (Eli Clare, 2003)

Feminist, critical race and disability scholars have traced some of these layers. They excavate the shared racial and disability roots/routes of eugenics as well as their persistent afterlife in racial profiling, state violence, and entwined histories of incarceration and (de)institutionalization (see especially Disability Incarcerated: Imprisonment and Disability in the United States and Canada).[ii] Likewise, the hashtag #disabilitysolidarity emerged to augment #blacklivesmatter with a digital archive of various incidences of state violence affecting people with psychiatric, cognitive, and physical disabilities. One such incident was the death of Kajieme Powell.

Less than four miles from Ferguson, and a mere 10 days after Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, officers with the Metropolitan Police Department of St. Louis shot and killed 25-year old Kajieme Powell, an African-American man with a psychiatric disability.

Photo: Kajieme Powell
Photo: Kajieme Powell

His final moments of life were captured on a bystander’s disturbing cell phone video. Powell had shoplifted from a convenience store, and local business owners called 911 to report a man who was behaving erratically and wielding a steak knife. Abandoning his stolen canned energy drinks and pastries, the video shows an agitated Powell pacing and talking to himself before the police arrive. The police exit their SUV with guns drawn, and with his hands held out next to his hips, Powell advances, yelling, “Shoot me! Shoot me now!” The police fire 12 shots in less than 20 seconds, continuing to fire as his motionless body hit the ground. The officers flip Powell’s corpse to place his dead wrists in handcuffs. Although Missouri State Senator Jamilah Nasheed called for a federal investigation into the case, Powell’s death has not received the sustained media or activist exposure that Brown’s has.[iii]

As a black man with a psychiatric disability in an economically depressed neighborhood in one of the nation’s most segregated cities, Powell’s police encounter and his death are deeply structured by intersections of race, class, disability, and region. He was the fourth person with a psychiatric disability in the U.S. to be killed by the police in a two-week period, and although I am discussing Powell, I could also discuss Tanisha Anderson, Eleanor Bumpurs, Ezell Ford, Jason Harrison, Anthony Hill, Darren Rainey, Tony Terrell Robinson, or countless others.

In 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice revealed that people with disabilities became victims of violent crimes at nearly three times the rate of their nondisabled American peers.[iv] At this very moment, the Supreme Court is deliberating, in San Francisco v. Sheehan, whether or not the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires law enforcement to take special precautions to protect people with psychiatric disabilities from excessive force during arrests. Increased police violence often occurs when law enforcement officials misrecognize a person’s disability during an encounter.[v] For instance, officers beat and arrested Ernest Griglen after mistaking his insulin shock for intoxication. Police treat deaf people as non-compliant when they fail to heed a verbal command, which leads to unnecessary use of tasers or pepper spray, or worse, severe beatings. When police read Jonathan Meister’s attempt to communicate with American Sign Language as “threatening,” they beat and tasered him, and he was charged with assaulting an officer. Finally, the highly publicized death of Eric Garner, whose death, like Powell’s, was captured on video, occurred at the intersection of race and disability. Historian David M. Perry argues, “Because Garner was obese, diabetic, asthmatic, suffered from sleep apnea and had a heart condition, goes the argument, he was somehow to blame for his death.”[vi] Chilling jokes about Garner—that “his family should sue Papa John’s, Dominos, Pizza Hut, Burger King, and McDonald’s” rather than NYPD officers who heard him say “I can’t breathe” 11 times before he was choked to death—reveal how ableism and fat-phobia bolster colorblind racism.

Although the entanglement of race and disability may seem more explicit in Powell’s case, it is important to analyze how shared contours of racism and ableism also shaped Brown’s encounter with law enforcement as well as his subsequent media representation as a “troubled” teenager (i.e. John Eligon callously described Brown as “no angel” in his New York Times obituary while Wilson described him as a “demon” in his testimony), even though Brown has never been identified as disabled. In thinking through events in Ferguson, it is important to account for the cultural impacts of a broader history of the racial and disability politics of adolescence, specifically cultural ideas about the volatile “teen brain,” which I discuss in greater depth in the final chapter of my recently published book, Chronic Youth: Disability, Sexuality, and U.S. Media Cultures of Rehabilitation. A city that boasts more arrest warrants than people, Ferguson may be an epicenter of a national conversation about race and exploitative state power, but how do we map an ecosystem of oppression and privilege that is at once local and planetary?

The Racial and Disability Politics of the Teen Brain

Michael Brown’s death refracts a longer cultural history of American adolescence and the metaphors of disability that have been used to describe it. By the 1990s, disability was becoming increasingly visible as a cultural identity and politicized as an issue of citizenship within activism for the 1990 passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was preceded by disability activism in the 1970s and bolstered by other post-1968 movements like Civil Rights, women’s and sexual liberation, and anti-war movements. Rather than being characterized solely as a medical pathology, “disability” increasingly signified a culturally valued minority identity that was part of the multicultural tapestry of American society, and as such, it acquired new discursive mobility. One site of disability’s discursive mobility, I argue in Chronic Youth, could be found in the proliferation of disability metaphors used to describe and address teenagers from the 1970s onward. On television screens and within the pages of young adult literature, cultural producers likened the process of overcoming disabilities or illnesses, such as stutters, arthritis, or cancer, to the process of “growing up.” As cultural producers depicted the intangible instability of adolescence using the “material metaphor” of disability, the language used by parenting experts and policymakers to describe adolescence shifted from the criminalizing rhetoric of juvenile delinquency to the medicalizing rhetoric of disability (i.e. adolescence as “temporary insanity” or “brain damage.”).[vii]

Beginning in the 1990s, the “Decade of the Brain,” truth claims about the brain permeated popular culture in a variety of ways. A variety of parenting books emerged in the early 21st century and popularized “neuroparenting,” my term for a neuroscience-inflected parenting philosophy that blames the brain (specifically, an “underdeveloped” pre-frontal cortex) for negative traits that have been culturally associated with adolescence (i.e. poor judgment, hair-trigger anger, or moodiness). Neuroparenting entered popular media in a variety of ways. Take this popular advertisement for Allstate Insurance, for example:


This ad invokes popular contemporary neuroscientific knowledge about the “incomplete” teen brain to explain poor driving: “[e]ven bright, mature teenagers sometimes do things that are ‘stupid.’ But it’s not really their fault. It’s because their brain hasn’t finished developing.” Meanwhile, parenting literature increasingly drew on new neuroscientific discoveries to reimagine adolescence as a temporary disability rather than a willful rebellion or worse, a form of criminalized juvenile delinquency. Although the use of disability rhetoric may seem to pave the road for more compassionate parenting, neuroparenting generally only essentializes culturally undesirable characteristics as brain-based. Moreover, this universalizing (and seemingly race-neutral) perception of teens as “neurologically-impaired” or of adolescence as “self-induced learning disability” (see the image below) drew upon post-ADA aspirations for understanding and inclusion of difference but retained ableist ideas of disability as an undesirable obstacle to be overcome or eliminated.

Photo Credit: Harvard Magazine (2012)  (*Note the “self-induced learning disability” portion of the teen brain on the upper left as well as the lack of non-white bodies represented in the image)
Photo Credit: Harvard Magazine (2012)
(*Note the “self-induced learning disability” portion of the teen brain on the upper left as well as the lack of non-white bodies represented in the image)

Cultural ideas about the teen brain also took shape in relation to highly publicized school shootings of the 1990s, most notably the Columbine massacre, and it became painfully clear that neuroparenting was far from race-neutral. Racial and class politics of school shootings formed an unacknowledged center strand of their media coverage. As cultural theorist Todd Ramlow argues, journalistic coverage of white school shooters actively ignored the suffering of “[u]nderclass and inner-city teens [who] ha[d] faced quotidian school violence for decades…” when they accentuated the “surprising” horrors of white suburban school violence.[viii] Neuroscientific truth claims about the underdeveloped teen brain quickly entered the conversation about teen school shooters. Newspapers repeatedly noted that Columbine shooter Eric Harris was being treated with Luvox, an antidepressant, and Columbine ignited cultural debates about pharmaceutical treatments for youths diagnosed with psychiatric disabilities. Following the Charles “Andy” Williams school shooting in 2001, Daniel R. Weinberger, director of the Clinical Brain Disorders Laboratory at the National Institute of Health (NIH), wrote a New York Times op-ed piece to state that, although knowledge about the brain should not “absolve” criminals, “[t]o understand what goes wrong in teenagers who fire guns, you have to understand something about the biology of the teenage brain.”

While neuroscientific discoveries circulated in neuroparenting and in relation to the culpability of (and even, at times, sympathy for) white school shooters, the image of the teen brain functioned very differently in relation to African-American or Latino teenagers. In 1992, Dr. Frederick K. Goodwin, Director of the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH), began publicizing the “Violence Initiative” as the federal government’s “top priority” for psychiatric research.[ix] Presented as a public health project, the Violence Initiative sought to screen “inner city” children as young as five to identify those who “might be more likely to go on to becoming labeled eventually as delinquent or criminal” and to design psychiatric interventions that would prevent their becoming violent or criminal. Goodwin compared these “inner-city youths” with “violent, oversexed monkeys who live in the wild” while presenting his research.[x] In 1994, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray argued, in their infamous book The Bell Curve, that genetics, moreso than structural inequalities, largely determined racial disparities in IQ, and the authors racialized the relationship of IQ to crime, unemployment, premarital pregnancy and poverty. One year later, legal scholars at the University of Maryland organized a meeting to discuss the relationship of genetics and criminal behavior, which was vociferously protested by African-American activists and some psychiatrists, because research on the genetics of criminal behavior would likely disproportionately target people of color.

Three years later, Princeton University sociologist John Dilulio, Jr. made headlines with his controversial “superpredator” treatise.[xi] Fueled by the infamous “Central Park Jogger” case of 1989, this neologism described a new generation of “radically-impulsive, brutally remorseless youngsters, including ever more preteenage boys, who murder, assault, rape, rob, burglarize, deal deadly drugs, join gun-toting gangs and create serious communal disorders.” [xii] Dilulio commented, on two separate occasions, that superpredators were overwhelmingly black, and neglecting well-documented histories of racial profiling and the prison-industrial complex, Dilulio argued that if “blacks” were “overrepresented in the ranks of the imprisoned,” it was because they were “overrepresented in…the violent criminal ranks…”.[xiii] No white school shooter to date has ever been called a superpredator, and journalists never medicalized the superpredator’s “incomplete brain” in the same way that they had Andy Williams’s. Rather, building from The Bell Curve, proponents of the superpredator myth correlated low IQ with a propensity toward violent behavior. Despite research about impulsivity and the underdeveloped teen brain, nearly every state passed draconian legislation between 1992 and 1999 that trended toward sentencing juveniles as adults. By the twentieth century’s close, the increasing medicalization of white adolescence paralleled (and, in some ways, facilitated) the increasing criminalization of black and Latino/a youth in an age of “school-to-prison pipelines,” in which nonwhite students are disproportionately diagnosed with ADHD, placed in special education programs, suspended, and criminalized.

Neuroparenting attempts to humanize teenagers by explaining their emotionality or waywardness through “politically-neutral” neuroscientific truths and metaphors of disability. Yet this not only essentializes adolescence as negative but also reinforces associations of psychiatric disability (“brain damage” or “temporary insanity”) with impulsivity and threat, which endanger youth and disabled people in encounters with police. Robin Bernstein persuasively argues that the exclusion of black youth from childhood innocence has been central to its formation since the nineteenth century.[xiv] “Diagnostic regimes,” such as IQ tests, were devised in the early 20th century as a eugenic tactic to identify and segregate “unfit” (read: nonwhite, disabled, or poor) students, and neuroparenting forms another chapter in this story, as white innocence continues to be bolstered by ableist biological essentialism (i.e. the incapacity of “disabling” adolescence) as well as racist accounts of the congenital criminal predisposition of nonwhite youth.[xv]

Overlapping layers of ableism, ageism and racism deeply shaped Darren Wilson’s description of Brown as a “demon” with superhuman strength, but I have yet to find an account of Brown’s death that notes (borrowing from Weinberger) that we “need to understand something about the biology of the teen brain” in order to understand Brown’s encounter with Wilson.

Photo Credit: MU4Mike (Students on MU’s Francis Quadrangle)
Photo Credit: MU4Mike (Students on MU’s Francis Quadrangle)

Breeding Futures

MU students and faculty continue to grapple with the legacies of Ferguson in our classrooms, and an account of the intersectionality of oppression is vital. However, in offering this crip genealogy of adolescence, I am decidedly not invoking the world-erasing, colorblind racism of “#alllivesmatter” (Here, I am reminded of Arthur Chu’s sardonic tweet: “Do people who change #blacklivesmatter to #alllivesmatter run through a cancer fundraiser going “THERE ARE OTHER DISEASES TOO?”). Racialized and ableist visions of criminality overlap and reinforce one another. Ageism adds another layer. Homophobic epithets wrap around gender and race. Biological evidence, when made to seem irrefutable rather than culturally constructed, forms the connective tissue of ecosystems of injustice—“all of it finally piling onto our bodies.” How might #disabilitysolidarity with #blacklivesmatter begin to offer what Audre Lorde once named “a litany for survival:” the work “seeking a now that can breed futures” in a society in which some “were never meant to survive?”[xvi]



[i] The term “metronormativity” names the privileging, in queer studies, of urban histories and narratives of queerness that occludes rural spaces and disavows the classist attitudes that attend the idealizing of cosmopolitanism. See Scott Herring, Another Country: Queer Anti-Urbanism (New York: New York UP, 2010); Mary L. Gray, Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America (New York: New York UP, 2009); Judith Halberstam, In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (Durham: Duke UP, 2005). See also “Queering the Middle: Race, Region, and a Queer Midwest,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 20.1-2, eds. Martin Manalansan, Chantal Nadeau, Richard T. Rodriguez, and Siobhan B. Somerville (Durham: Duke UP, 2014).

[ii] Many scholars have been working at the intersection of race and disability, including but not limited to Ben-Moshe, Disability Incarcerated; Ellen Samuels, Fantasies of Identification: Disability, Gender, Race (New York: New York UP, 2014); Alondra Nelson, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013); Chris Bell, Blackness and Disability: Critical Examinations and Cultural Interventions (Ann Arbor: Michigan State University Press, 2012); Nirmala Erevelles, “Unspeakable Offenses: Untangling Race and Disability in Discourses of Intersectionality,” Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies 4.2 (2010): 127-145; and David T. Mitchell & Sharon L. Snyder, Cultural Locations of Disability (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).

[iii] David M. Perry, “How police can avoid shooting the mentally ill,”, August 26, 2014,, Accessed 17 March 2015.

[iv] David M. Perry and Lawrence Carter-Long, “How Misunderstanding Disability Leads to Police Violence,” The Atlantic, May 6, 2014,, Accessed 17 March 2015.

[v] Scott Kaufman, “California police use taser on deaf man trying to communicate with them via sign language,” Rawstory, February 16, 2014,

[vi] David M. Perry, “When disability and race intersect,”, December 4, 2014,, Accessed 19 March 2015.

[vii] The phrase “materiality of metaphor” is David T. Mitchell’s and Sharon Snyder’s. See Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001).

[viii] Todd Ramlow, “Bad Boys: Abstractions of Difference and the Politics of Youth ‘Deviance,’” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 9.1-2 (2003): 117. See also Elman, Chronic Youth.

[ix] Natalie Angier, “Disputed Meeting To Ask if Crime Has Genetic Roots,” The New York Times, September 19, 1995, C1.

[x] Douglas P. Shuit, “Angry Blacks Say Conference Links Genetics, Crime,” Los Angeles Times, October 14, 1993,, Accessed 21 March 2015.

[xi] These findings were later published in book form. See William J. Bennett, John J. Dilulio, Jr., and John P. Walters, Body Count: Moral Poverty…And How to Win America’s War Against Crime (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996).

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Dilulio in Elaine Brown, Condemnation of Little B (New York: Beacon Press, 2004), 109.

[xiv] Robin Bernstein, Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights (New York: New York University Press, 2011).

[xv] “Diagnostic regime” is David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder’s term. See Mitchell and Snyder, Cultural Locations of Disability (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).

[xvi] Audre Lorde, “A litany for survival.”


Julie Passanante Elman is Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Missouri. She is author of Chronic Youth: Disability, Sexuality, and U.S. Media Cultures of Rehabilitation (New York: New York University Press, 2014). Her research interests include disability studies, queer theory, media studies and feminist science studies. Her articles have appeared in Television and New Media, Journal of Bioethical Inquiry, and Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies.


Inhabitable Worlds is a series that examines the theoretical tools and approaches that scholars bring to the study of disability in the social sciences and humanities. It is edited by Michele Friedner (Stony Brook University) and Emily Cohen (New York University).

4 replies on “Policing at the Synapse: Ferguson, Race, and the Disability Politics of the Teen Brain”

In studying the Lew Archer novels of Ross Macdonald I’ve tried to identify certain characteristics, themes, motifs, images – call them what you like – that crop up frequently throughout the various books. I don’t claim that the following are particularly important or have any special significance or meaning; nor do I say this is a comprehensive list.

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