At the time of writing this article, thousands of protestors across the country are seeking social justice for the tragic death of George Flyod and other deaths by racists police officers. Too many people of color have died by the police throughout the decades. The protests have created a timeless debate on how Americans can voice their freedom of expression. Should your protest be entirely peaceful means or does it involve property damage in order to make an economic impact? Where should the protest be held and who should be included?
For the last question, I would answer that such protests have done very little to include the disability community. Only two protests in our country have included accessibility and safety measures for all disabilities during the COVID crisis. This is disheartening because disable people of color, who face double discrimination, are forgotten even when the issue of racism has gotten national attention. It is also a missed opportunity in figuring out how to target the very institutions that have ignored racism and to do so through peacefully protesting. I say this because the disability community can claim bragging rights to having the longest protest in America history that successfully targeted a government institution.
The 1977 “504 Sit-in” protest in San Fransisco was the longest non-violent occupation of a federal building in US history, even today. After decades of not being able to access government officials simply because the buildings or transportation was inaccessible, the disability community had enough. In April 5, 1977 throughout large cities from coast to coast, protest occurred at the then Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW). While most of the 504 Sit-in protests ended that day, the one in San Fransisco did not. In fact over 100 protesters packed with overnight supplies stayed inside the HEW building for about 26 days!
What did the protest accomplish? The 1973 Rehabilitation Act had been signed to require equal access to any federal benefit, activity or federal building by individuals with disabilities. However, only the secretary of the federal HEW could put out guidelines to ensure that such discrimination in all of its federal activities and buildings didn’t occur. The 1977 “504 Sit-in” directly led to guidelines to include equal housing programs through HUD and other federal benefits needed by the disability community.
The disability community in 1977 brought change by not creating new legislation but to force the government and its institutions to create a vehicle (i.e guidelines) that would successfully enforce the 1973 Rehabilitation Act. In other words, the disability community went to the heart of the matter and not the streets, to exercise their freedom of expression. It was not an easy task. Remember access to the federal buildings were not accessible. Additionally, brutality by police could occur and for some, choosing to stay to protest over getting daily medical treatments could be deadly.
The brutality of people of color face by police throughout the nation is not a matter of making it illegal. The civil rights act of 1964 and other laws already makes it illegal to treat a person differently simply because of the color of his or her skin. Rather, like the Rehabilitation Act, what is missing is a national police guidelines to stop racist practices. It is my heart felt belief that if the disability community can truly have a seat at the table in the protests, both minorities can bring about change.