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Just Getting to the Protests – Still a Struggle


Marta RussellOn

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.

That

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.

The

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.”

Audrey,

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.

Access

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

system.

My

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.

First

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.

When

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.

I

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.

To

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.

Many

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.

During

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

wracking.

I

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!”

Fortunately,

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.

I

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.

For

me, that exhilaration was worth all the hell of just getting there.