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In videos that went viral last month, a Maryland man was seen harassing Black women apparently minding their own business at an apartment complex pool. On its surface, the story might look like another incident of racism perpetuated by yet another BBQ Becky or Pool Patrol Paula. But according to multiple news sources, the man has said he’s racist because he has autism. And that complicates things.
The two poolside incidents were exposed on Twitter in late June by users @SuggSavage and @BestFlaws, identified by WUSA9 as Felecia Soso and Gaëlle Claude, respectively. Soso accused Nick Starr-Street, a fellow resident at the Edition Hyattsville apartment complex, of harassing her and her friends for playing music that apparently wasn’t even that loud.
We are told to turn our music down so we do so.. and now it’s like barely playing we have food and drinks and are chilling talking (not loudly) and enjoying ourselves..— Lil Fort Wash Posh (@SuggSavage) June 22, 2019
So he complains to the leasing office.. they come out and talk to us.. they are clearly very annoyed with this dude I show them the video.. they go back and calmly talk to him.. they leave... he leaves and he COMES BACK— Lil Fort Wash Posh (@SuggSavage) June 22, 2019
Soso’s video shows a Black woman politely talking to Starr-Street as he holds up his phone and records her.
“We literally didn’t do anything, and we haven’t been making any noise or anything and this man has his phone out,” a woman says from behind the camera.
At one point, the woman speaking with Starr-Street asks him, “What will make you comfortable?”
He then says he’ll “report” the women and walks away. He also accuses them of being “disrespectful,” which they find so incredulous that they laugh.
“He was disrespectful to us and then he started recording,” says one of the women behind the camera.
In a follow-up tweet, Soso says he called the authorities, who appeared annoyed with him. After the authorities went back inside, Starr-Street was on the phone calling the police.
Soso tweeted that even though Starr-Street did not have a problem with other (that is, white) people making noise by the pool as most people do on the second day of summer, he was back poolside as soon as another group of Black women showed up at the pool.
Claude tweeted a similar video of him following her from the pool at the same apartment complex. Soso did not respond to the Daily Dot’s requests for comment, and Claude said she was unavailable to comment before press time.
This white man literally stalked us from his apartment for damn near a mile just cause we were at the pool drinking wine and taking pictures. Called the police and all...I cannot make this up smh pic.twitter.com/96tGTSykUZ— G da baby (@BestFlaws) June 23, 2019
On Twitter, word spread that Starr-Street is known in the neighborhood for harassing Black people.
Omg I live in Alterra right by PG Plaza and this is the same man that harassed me over a parking spot at Giant and followed me in the store until security escorted him out!— Sweet Jones (@RaeLNicole) June 24, 2019
The pool incidents are far from the first times Starr-Street has caused controversy that exploded online. He was featured in Seattle Weekly in 2014 after he called online for a restaurant employee to be fired for not allowing him to wear Google Glass inside, per the restaurant’s rule.
He’s repeatedly made racist statements on his social media and even tweeted a nasty comment to a drag queen after the deadly Pulse nightclub shooting. But he says his behavior is a result of his autism, which makes him target Black people and hold prejudice against them.
“I’m autistic and lack a gauge that goes anywhere but 0 and 100,” Starr-Street wrote in a now-deleted Facebook post after the pool videos went viral, according to the Grio. “When I see a lease violation, I call it out and do everything in my power to make sure it is resolved, no matter who is the person violating.”
He thanked WUSA9 on Facebook for reporting on the story with his perspective included. Within days of the report, Starr-Street’s Facebook account was deactivated, and his Instagram profile was made private. He did not respond to the Daily Dot’s requests for comments.
The Edition Hyattsville said in an Instagram statement on June 27 that the “residents in question” would no longer live there starting July 1. A representative for the apartment complex confirmed to the Daily Dot that Starr-Street and his husband were evicted.
The pool incident and others involving Starr-Street fall at the tangled intersection of a developmental disability and racism. It’s an uncomfortable spot where the existence of one shouldn’t be used to justify the other. Yet, that’s what Starr-Street has confidently resorted to. He’s openly anti-LGBTQ and anti-Black, but using his autism as an excuse to justify these stances can potentially harm other narratives about people with autism.
The intersection of racism or implicit bias and developmental disability remains largely unexplored. A 2015 National Institute of Health report on the topic says that previous studies on the issue have remained inconclusive. Damian Stanley, who co-authored the report, says researchers found that implicit social biases “remained intact in high-functioning adults with autism.”
For those on the spectrum of autism, “there’s more of an adherence to rules and sort of black and white, there’s a discomfort with uncertainty,” he told the Daily Dot in a phone interview. “So there’s a need for things to be clear.”
So for someone with autism, it can be chaotic after their idea of normal is interrupted in some way. Thus, if Starr-Street grew up with a certain school of thought, “explicit biases that they’ve been exposed to growing up would be rules,” says Stanley, a researcher and professor at Adelphi University whose work has focused on implicit bias since 2008.
“It’s difficult to know because if you’re not used to the ways in which autism can manifest, it’s difficult to interpret the behavior in the same way that we would normally interpret the behavior,” he says, adding that it shouldn’t excuse such behavior at all.
In other words, there’s a need for people to better understand what it means to have autism, which affects about one in 59 children in the U.S. (General developmental disabilities affect one in six). That doesn’t mean any individual, including Starr-Street, can necessarily attribute behavior to a disorder that has varied implications. The problem is with larger systems of racism imbued in our society, he says.
“There is an encoding of the information that they are exposed to in the environment,” Stanley says, and those biases “are a reflection of our environment, of what we process, in the media what we see.
“Autism is a very heterogeneous disorder and it is a spectrum disorder, so the extent to which, the manner in which they’re affected is highly variable,” Stanley adds. “We don’t know to what extent we can attribute poor behavior to one thing or another at this time.”
The conversation might be shifting, though, because the way we talk about race in America has shifted in an age of social media and video testimonies. With the increasing identification of racist encounters, behavior that was previously normalized in social interactions—what may have been encoded in a person with autism’s understanding of “right”—is now being called out for prejudice.
Activism, particularly for the Black and Hispanic communities, has changed in an age of social media, which is often used as a tool for civic engagement and civil movements. In recent years, especially since Starbucks employees called cops on two Black men, many communities of color—largely Black Americans—have been increasingly using phone videos and social media to document beyond police brutality and the implicit prejudice that many live with.
The new wave of testimonies brings to light complexities at multiple intersections—of race, neurodiversity, class, and more—finally poised to be more closely examined.
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Samira Sadeque is a New York-based journalist reporting on immigration, sexual violence, and mental health, and will sometimes write about memes and dinosaurs too. Her work also appears in Reuters, NPR, and NBC among other publications. She graduated from Columbia Journalism School, and her work has been nominated for SAJA awards. Follow: @Samideque