Simmons’ treatment by customs enforcement is rooted in the misconception that stuttering is indicative of dishonesty and non-compliance, but is also influenced by institutional racism. An intersectional analysis of this incident must acknowledge the key differences in the experiences of white dysfluent people and dysfluent people of color.
Customs enforcement, the TSA, and regional transit security organizations are agents of state-sanctioned violence against bodies they deem suspicious based on appearance, movement, and communication. Most commonly these are people of color, trans people, disabled people, immigrants, and non-native English speakers. With the justification of promoting national security, law enforcement detains, injures, and kills people perceived as suspicious. In responding to incidents such as the treatment of Kylie Simmons, it is critical to examine not only Simmons’ unequal treatment but also the role of race and disability working together in the state’s policing of its citizens.
The fear of suspicious bodies and their threat to national security is spread through “See Something, Say Something” campaigns, which encourage citizens to police each other in transit and other public spaces. These campaigns are effective in maintaining a continuous state of fear, and an understanding that it is one’s civic duty to scrutinize the actions of others in order to prevent acts of terrorism.
As a disabled, gender nonconforming person who travels often with various mobility aids and medical devices, I have experienced ableism in navigating transit systems including the TSA and customs enforcement. However, when I share my stories of discrimination, it is from a place of racial privilege. As a white person, I can speak out on police brutality with relative confidence that I will not be arrested or killed for being perceived as suspicious, and that neither national security nor the suspiciousness of my body will be used to justify my death at the hands of the state.
In responding to Simmons’ treatment, I am calling for more than awareness about stuttering, or different training for airport staff. Simple outrage at this incident reveals privilege--since such discrimination happens all the time to racialized bodies that appear non-compliant. In solidarity with Black Lives Matter, I am calling for the abolition of customs enforcement, and an end to the state-sanctioned violence against suspicious bodies.