Just Getting to the Protests - Still a Struggle
Monday, the first day of the Democratic Convention, I was sitting in my
wheelchair in the shade at Pershing Square, waiting for my compadres to join me
for the “People Before Profits” march when a fellow activist recognized me
and came over to say hello. Garbed in a Green T-shirt, it turned out that Ron
was part of the security team for the protests. After some catching up on the
past, I began to get anxious that my fellow activists with disabilities had not
arrived at the square as planned and remarked that I hoped nothing had happened
to prevent them from getting there. Ron confidently replied, “Oh, it's no
problem at all to get here. You just ride the red line like I did.” Another
organizer called and he had to split in a flash.
moment crystallized for me -- what? Let's call it an “experience gap” in
understanding disabled peoples' material reality. Some wonder why there are so
few disabled persons who show up for demos. I wonder how many activists have no
idea what it takes for a wheelchair user to get from point A to point B in Los
Angeles (for that matter, anywhere else in the nation). So I'm going to take
this opportunity to expound upon one of the ongoing big problems - lack of a
working accessible public transportation system.
ADA mandated accessible public transportation in 1990. Buses were to install
lifts and cities were to offer an alternative paratransit system for disabled
persons who qualified to use it. Yet ten years of lax enforcement means that we
still don't have a steady and reliable transportation system in place. Take
what Ruthanne coming from Northern California had to go through to participate
in the demo in LA. In order to qualify for LA paratransit services, Ruthanne had
to get her access certification transferred from her local paratransit to LA
paratransit, better known as Access Services. On August 4 (nine days before the
scheduled protests) she requested that her local office fax that information to
LA. When she arrived on the 12th she attempted to book a ride through Access
Services but a supervisor told her that since Ruthanne did not have an Access ID
card she could not book a ride until she got one. In order to straighten out the
mix-up, it took Ruthanne more phone calls to Access Services which meant being
put on hold for long periods of time and spending more money for the toll costs
until the situation was rectified. “It seemed to be a case of the right hand
not knowing what the left hand was doing,” she explained, then added “--
that's being kind.”
another wheelchair user in our group, had other difficulties with Access
Services. Sunday the 13th those disabled persons planning to protest had set up
a planning meeting to discuss our press release and details for the two days we
would be marching that week. Everyone except Audrey got to the planning meeting
pretty much on time, even counting allowances for crip time (at our own speed).
Then, we waited and waited -- but no Audrey. At long last the manager at the
restaurant brought a cell phone to our table. It was Audrey. She had waited for
Access Services to pick her up for over one hour and they NEVER showed up. The
manager overheard our travails about transportation and shared with us how one
of his customers had come for dinner one night and was still waiting for his
paratransit ride home after the restaurant closed late that night. The manager
said he felt horrible about it, but there was nothing he could do to help.
Services contracts with private companies which have lift-equipped vans to
provide rides. The government pays them very well, something like $75 per ride
goes to the contracting company. How well would nondisabled customers react to
being made to wait for hours for a cab -- even ten minutes is too long for most
New Yorkers, eh? What would they do if their cabs regularly never showed up at
all and stranded people in the streets at all hours of the day and night? What
if a cab company were to require that nondisabled customers book a ride 24 or 48
hours in advance and even then would fail to show up on time or not at all?
Disabled customers DO complain to Access Services until they are blue in the
face but little changes. Both the government and the private companies are
making out fine, no matter that disabled citizens get treated like dirt. Some
significantly disabled persons have told me that they will not risk a ride with
Access Services because they believe their lives are endangered by such a shoddy
own experience shows yet another side of the problems we face getting places. On
the second day of Democratic Party Convention demos, the brakes on my van went
slack while I was driving on the Hollywood Freeway in route to Pershing Square.
The brake petal made a squishing noise when I pushed down on it and the brakes
would not make contact until I pressed the petal all the way to the floor.
Scary? Yes. Way-laid? More than I needed to be.
complication: I knew that a tow truck would take forever and I would miss the
demo entirely. And what about my wheelchair in the back? Lifting the van at an
angle could do costly damage to it. If I took my wheelchair out of the van, how
would I get to the Dodge dealership in Van Nuys, a long long way from where I
was? The tow truck would not be accessible. Would there be a bus stop anywhere
nearby with a bus route to where I needed to go? I decided to X all those
possibilities and drove my van with the damaged brakes along the side streets
slowly making my way to the dealership, all the while hoping the brakes would
not completely fail before I could get there. I arrived, frayed, but physically
all in one piece.
I left the repair shop, I still had hopes of making it downtown for part of the
first march activities by using the public bus and subway system to get there.
Second complication: I made my way to the bus stop on Van Nuys Blvd. and sat for
about 20 minutes out in the direct scorching heat (temperatures here during the
demos were in the high 90s) because the bus stop did not have any shelter from
the sun. There was just one bench and no shade anywhere nearby. When the bus at
long last came the driver attempted to deploy the wheelchair lift but the curb
was too high for the lift to make a landing. He said “I cannot deploy the
lift.” I replied that he could drive the bus to the corner which was just a
few feet away and let the ramp down directly onto the street. He looked rather
confused and then refused to do that. Instead, he told me I would have to wait
for the next bus and abruptly left me sitting there eating bus fumes.
was fuming by then. Nothing to do but wait. I commiserated with others who had
since come and were waiting for the bus too in the unrelenting sun. Time passed,
but excruciatingly slow. Fortunately, the next driver was competent with
wheelchair lifts. He immediately went down to the corner and deployed the lift
in the street (as I had requested the first driver to do) and I boarded the bus.
My hopes were dashed though for making it to the demonstration because an extra
45 minutes had been spent trying to get a driver to pick me up. But never mind
cause, hey, I was wiped out by my hour in the direct sun to do much more anyway.
get back to that first day when I was waiting for the others to arrive, I wound
my way through the growing crowd to park my chair near the Metro station - the
most likely spot they would see me. By then about 35-40 LAPD officers had
planted themselves at the corner and across the intersection. I was so close to
them that I could count the bullets in their ammunition belts, the chemical
weapon shotgun shells criss-crossed across their chests, and the buttons on
their shirts. As they stood stiffly holding their pepper spray guns and other
assault weapons in front of them I felt cold. Even in that heat a chill went
down my spine. It wasn't from fear, it was from disgust; from an in-my-face
reminder that I lived in a police state. The riot cops were amassed in
unprecedented numbers -- fully armed -- for a peaceful civilian demonstration
for which permits had been obtained. For weeks, the LAPD had put up a struggle
to violate peoples' constitutional right to protest by insisting on isolating
the demonstators far from the convention at the Staple Center. The ACLU had
prevailed in court on our first amendment rights to protest at the convention
sight and the LAPD did not like the fact that they had lost that battle. As the
sea of blue grew larger, hundreds and hundreds of cops, it seemed like overkill.
Perhaps they were chomping at the bit for revenge. Indeed Carol Sobel of the
ACLU read the attack on the civilian crowd that Monday night after the Rage
Against the Machine concert as retaliation of sorts.
have reported on the unnecessary violence on the part of the police that Monday
night but the LAPD had shown its bravado much earlier (days before the delegates
arrived) by harassing people who were making puppets and banners at the
Convergence Center. Several unannounced visits were made by the police to the
store front. Those at the Convergence Center reported that overhead, police
helicopter flashed lights on the building fifty times a night.
the four days of protests, I repeatedly witnessed a city long block of about 30
cop cars with their sirens turned on full blast barreling through the streets of
downtown LA. When asked what that was all about, one bystander replied
“psychological warfare.” Indeed, there were no real emergencies to warrant
such behavior on the part of the LAPD and the sound was both deafening and nerve
unfurled my banner in front of the officers gathered at the Metro intersection
on chance that they might cut their eyes my direction. It read “ 'New' Economy
Shaft$ Disabled.” “Disabled” was not spelled out -- I used the universal
symbol, you know, the blue wheelchair. Making the symbol into a cartoon figure,
I gave it an eye and a down-turned mouth. A big word cloud came from the mouth
that said “Ouch!” I painted black skid marks emanating from the wheels.
Maybe too cute, yes, but it stood out and got lots of attention. Photographers
took photos of our group, co-marchers gave us the high fist salute, and many
came over to say “we're glad you are here with us!”
my friends arrived not too late to make the 4:00 march. As we were wheeling with
the other 7,000 demonstrators towards the Democratic Convention, a Green Party
member confided to me “we feel safe when you are here with us” -- meaning
the disability contingency. I quickly broke the news to him that the cops had no
more respect for us than for him. If one has ever been to an ADAPT demo one
would know that the police will jerk a disabled person out of their wheelchair,
rip a respirator from one's mouth, refuse to honor our need for medications in
jail -- hey mistreat us just like they do nondisabled people.
told him, “I feel safer with you.” By “you” I meant with the 7,000 -
15,000 protesters composed of every age, ethnicity, gender, disability and race.
Browns, blacks, Asians and whites were everywhere. There were 200 members from
the Lawyers Guild monitoring the marches. In our mass there were striking
members of the Screen Actors Guild. There were members from the International
Longshore Union, Labor Party, and Oil Chemical Workers Union. The Green Party,
International Socialist Organization and about 200 supporters of the Anarchists
dressed all in Black joined the ranks. Many have made the point that this is the
kind of unity that will make us truly strong but to experience all that energy
in one place at that moment is worth recalling again and again - no matter that
we already know these intellectual truths.
me, that exhilaration was worth all the hell of just getting there.