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Personal Voices: Wheelchairs Against War
Marta Russell, AlterNet
March 27, 2003

I got arrested at the March 19 Los Angeles demo near the Westwood Federal Building. It was not planned. There were several hundred of us who gathered at noon before the military dropped Bush's "Shock and Awe" bombs onto the people of Iraq.

With drums, banners, spirit and energy the marchers headed for Senator Feinstein's office. Short of there we were blocked off by the LAPD, who were standing several feet apart; a blue barrier of armed uniforms across six lanes of traffic.

Some protestors dropped to the ground in a die-in at the cops' feet. I wanted to get in the street too, but a cop was blocking the wheelchair access ramp. "You can go the way you came but you cannot pass here," he told me several times. I told him that I needed the ramp -- I could not get down from the curb in a power chair -- but he demanded that I stay in front of him.

Soon another cop came up and asked me if I wanted to use the ramp. The "you can only go the way you came" talk disappeared into thin air.

With their eyes focused on me now I darted right back between and betwixt them into the moving crowd now on its feet and heading back toward the Federal Building. If I got behind the police line then what? Was I going to assault them? Hardly! Were they were going to beat me up? Maybe. A wheelchair user was beat up by a San Francisco cop that very day. We are not immune just because we sit in a wheelchair.

The next day a large number of police in full riot gear, looking like an army of Darth Vaders, confronted Pastors for Peace who were kneeling in the street. But this fresh first day of the protests, it seemed, held a promise for something else. At least the cops had not covered their faces with shields. One could still make eye contact.

Our demonstrators headed back toward the Federal Building in the street shouting "Whose streets? Our streets!" Police motorcycles came up behind a wave of us, passed us, then blocked our path of travel. They got off their cycles and confronted us making another line of blue that stretched across the three lanes of the boulevard and then down the yellow traffic divider.

Finding myself surrounded, I was pinned in. The people in the front sat down and chanted "Peaceful protest" over and over and eventually the mood cooled. By now the corporate media were present: CBS, NBC, ABC. Some of the protestors backed down and decided to move onto the sidewalk.

I could have wheeled out of the blockaded area but decided against it. Several things made me stay. For one, young people had come out strong at this demo and I wanted to back them up. It would not have been right to just leave them all out there after we had traveled a couple of hours together on the streets. Besides they had showed respect for my needs. Where there was no curb cut they assisted me so that I might stay in the march.

It was also the case that my presence had an effect on the officers. They clearly were uncomfortable with the thought of arresting me and I hoped that would translate into nonviolent arrests for everyone committed to civil disobedience that day. Several officers asked me if I wanted to leave the area. They asked about my medical condition. Was there anything special that I required? I told them they would need an accessible van to haul me out of there.

It made an impression on those who were facing arrest to see me do that. Don't get me wrong, these protestors would have done fine without me but there was an affinity that had evolved during this demo. Most importantly, I wanted them to know that disabled people supported them, and to encourage them to keep it up.

Keeping Peace Accessible

Crips Against War, based in Chicago, issued a statement. This administration's agenda, the group said, promises to "to rob us of the self-determination for which we have fought for so long."

Those of us who rely on Medicaid, Medicare, or Social Security know that the Bush administration, like the Gingrich congress, is out to dismantle these programs. Former Secretary of the Treasury Paul O'Neill said as much before he was fired.

"The war is a perfect smokescreen to accomplish this. Disabled people will be sacrificed at the altar of war," warns Crips Against War.

Whirlwind Wheelchair International, also against the war, works in more than 40 countries promoting the design and production of sturdy, low-cost wheelchairs so that every person who needs a wheelchair can obtain one. Still more than 20,000,000 people in the world are in need of a good wheelchair.

WWI states that it "feels a great responsibility to help people with disabilities in Iraq" having designed wheelchairs and trained wheelchair builders in post-conflict nations.

The organization Disabled Peoples' International took a stand too. In a statement called "Peace is a Disability Issue" DPI declared: "Let us call for all nations' economies to be transformed from war economies to peace economies. Let us insist that the $600 billion now spent on armaments is diverted to socially useful projects."

Let's Roll!

The LAPD officers arrested and carted away everyone else before me. It took a long, long time. Then they wanted to move me.

"You want to push me?" I asked.

I usually don't allow anyone to push me because I move myself, as a walking person would do, only in a chair. But they seemed threatened by the power of the wheelchair so this once I obliged them and disengaged my motors. An officer then pushed me over to the big blue bus where they were loading up the walking persons.

The officers gave me the option of getting out of it all, going home with no citation, but I would have none of that.

I realized that they had no intention of hauling me in like everyone else. Why? Was it not seemly to arrest a crip? Did they not have an accessible van? Were they thinking I would be a liability to the LAPD? Did they not want bad press? Were they just in a rush and did not want to take the time?

Several officers pondered my situation and one of them was told to take my picture and write my citation on the spot and then release me. The next bit was like the Keystone cops. No one knew how to write up the form. Several tried. They had to radio into the station to get advice. They talked back and forth, started to write on one form but decided that was wrong and wrote on another.

How am I going to know which court to go to? I asked. Several said they did not know. How would I know what date to show up? They had to radio the station again for an answer.

They were not ready for me, a wheelchair user.

Now engaged with me, they dropped their armor. They even smiled as they shifted the job of ticketing me from one to another. They knew how silly this looked. They were merely humans in uniforms, who were institutionally trained to dehumanize themselves and others in order to serve those who gave the orders.

The last writing officer politely gave me a green copy of the citation for a 490 violation -- failure to disperse. At long last I had a court date, place and time.

Driving home, radio news described me as the "elderly lady in a wheelchair" who got arrested. "Disabled protestor" is not such a victimized picture. I am certainly no victim, and I'm not so old either (not that old isn't gold). We need to think of disability in terms other than tragedy -- disability rights, disability culture, empowerment, and emancipation.

My friend Ken who works for the mayor's office in San Francisco told me that City Hall recently had an exhibit of more than 100 U.N. posters from countries all over the world.

"There was only one relating to disability. It was a very attractively drawn poster which showed an open door with someone welcoming in someone in a wheelchair," said Ken. It read: "Let's open all doors for all handicapped." It was from Iraq.

Marta Russell writes on the social, economic, and political aspects of disablement. She is the author of "Beyond Ramps: Disability at the End of the Social Contract."

Review by Mary Johnson of Beyond Ramps  can be found at Electric Edge

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