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  • Writer's pictureMichael Astor

When Activism is Denied Access

Updated: Aug 15, 2019

Activist Nadina LaSpina confronted by police at the Dignity Not Detention - Close the Camps march in New York City

On Saturday, I got up early in the morning for a rather busy day of activism. I'm very, very upset by the concentration camps that the Trump administration has opened up along our border with Mexico and our country's seemingly inexorable descent into fascism. So I decided it was time to do more than post things on Facebook and Twitter decrying the situation and take some action. My first stop was a "Congress on Your Corner" event at 8:00 a.m. with Rep. Hakeem Jefferies. I thought Jefferies did a pretty good job questioning Robert Mueller about how his report seemed to establish that president had clearly committed the crime of obstruction of justice, but for some reason he has not yet come out in favor of impeaching the president for that crime, among others. So I went there to impress upon him the need to impeach the president and the argument I made to him was that I had a disabled son and we all know how fascism never ends well for people with disabilities. You need only to look at Trump's mocking a disabled New York Times reporter during the campaign to see where he stands on disability issues. While Jefferies assured me that Congress would protect Medicaid and Medicare, I warned him that it may not be able to if Trump is allowed to remain in office for much longer and I pointed out the backsliding on the Muslim ban after some initial success in attempts to stop it.

My next stop was the #DignitynotDetention -- Close the Camps March at Madison Square Park. Initially, I was very disappointed to see that there were more people in line for Shake Shack across the park than there were showing up to protest. But once things got going, the numbers picked up a bit and I found this somewhat heartening as we marched out of the park and all the way to the Westside Highway.

There, marchers completely blocked the West Side Highway. Some media reports I've seen say the highway was only partially blocked. But since no cars were abled to move in either direction, it looked completely blocked to me.

Marchers protesting the concentration camps along our southern border blocking the West Side Highway

As this was happening disability activist Nadina LaSpina jetted out into roadway only to be stopped by police. At that point they didn't try to arrest her, just get her back onto the sidewalk and they succeeded in doing that. But she was not to be stopped. She rode her wheelchair through the crowd to the front where she joined the marchers blocking the highway, about 100 of whom were later arrested.

Now here's where the situation gets a little odd. According to a post on her Facebook page LaSpina joined the protesters who were being arrested for sitting down on the highway but because she was in a wheelchair they wouldn't detain her.

"Once again, though, they couldn't take me to jail, because the paddy wagons are not accessible. They didn't want to bother calling Access-A-Ride, as they have done at times. They processed me on the sidewalk, gave me a pink slip and a date to appear in court," she explains in post.

So is this a cause to fight for? Fully accessible paddy wagons? It seems like an odd cause but don't people with disabilies have as much right to be detained at protests as anyone else? It was after all a symbolic action and the symbolism is denied somewhat when all you get is a summons, rather than being detained like your abled peers.

I read a post on The New Yorker website the other day by Bill McKibben where he wonders while detained in an upstate police station whether there is any point in getting arrested to protest the camps and I understand his ambivalence. I was also ambivalent and chose not to get arrested, despite my rage that lately most people's activism seems confined to venting on social media and not getting out and doing something. But I was beaten up by the police when I was 13-years-old and I do not take police detention lightly. So much can go wrong and if you doubt that please take a look at the excellent, albeit hard-to-watch, Netflix series "When They See Us." Still, I fully support such actions and I'm very proud that LaSpina and the other protesters who had no such qualms.

Now if you're wondering what all this has to do with disability rights other than Nadina LaSpina having been there and getting only a desk appearance ticket for her troubles, I'll leave you with the words she uses to end her Facebook post:

"Last month, in my speech at the Disability Pride March and Festival, I called our pride "the pride of the oppressed." I said "No walls keeping people out or keeping people in! No locking up people in nursing homes or in detention centers!" Today I wanted to act on those words, show how strongly I believe that we're in the same struggle."

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