There are several tools that, as advocates and activists, we use to be effective in our work. Most of us tend to use what I refer to as the "nice" tools - letter writing, meetings, action alerts and - quite often - policymaking, which is crafting public policy or legislation to address or resolve an issue.
In fact, in the disability advocacy world, policymaking is a favorite tool, as it is considered "safe". It is used almost exclusively by the large "mainstream" disability organizations. Some even offer training on policymaking for their employees and other disability rights advocates.
Advocacy and policy training are great and necessary but there is a tool in the toolbox glaring all in the face, yet the advocacy and policy types don't want to discuss or utilize it—it’s called direct action.
What is direct action?
It’s what activists call “taking it to the streets” and can include marches, vigils, protests and civil disobedience.
All the civil rights that we enjoy today were gained by direct action, then, the policy stuff came into play.
Hundreds, even thousands of people, including children, marched, protested and were jailed fighting for civil rights for African Americans. Some people even gave their lives. Many, many suffragettes were beaten and dragged to jail for fighting for the right to vote.
In the arena of disability rights, every major piece of disability legislation or rules were gained by direct action by grassroots groups and movements.
There are veteran disability rights activists who participated in the 504 actions and sit-ins demanding that children with disabilities have the right to an education. I was a small child back then, but it had a direct effect on my life - I was not only able to attend school, I was mainstreamed, meaning I was able to be in regular classes in an ordinary elementary school, rather than a segregated "special school." ADAPT, the national, grassroots, disability rights group that I have been a member of for 27 years of its 30-year existence, is well known for nonviolent civil disobedience that often results in arrests.
Being nice has its place. Meetings have their place. Policy discussions are definitely important and there are times for those, as well.
There comes a time, however, when advocates must realize that they're being strung along, bamboozled, screwed or when an opponent simply says no. That's where direct action comes in.
When, during a meeting at the White House, President Obama told ADAPT members "no" to including provisions for long term care in the Affordable Care Act, we didn't shrug our shoulders, hang our heads and go home to pray. We walked out of that meeting and 99 of us chained ourselves to the White House gate and were arrested. That eventually led to the inclusion of the Community First Choice Option in Obamacare.
Direct action isn't for everyone or for every group. Some groups, due to their funding sources, particularly if they receive federal funding, cannot engage in such activities.
I also understand that direct action isn't always warranted; it, too, has its place and time, and doesn't always have to include civil disobedience or arrests.
Avoiding direct action simply because “it’s not nice”, “our reputation will be ruined” or “that is so passé” only serves to perpetuate the status quo.
Even though fear of retaliation is a very valid concern, that fear cannot stop a group; that is what the opponent wants. Direct action, when used correctly, can be a powerful and effective tool in the advocacy and activist toolbox, particularly when all of the “nice” measures have been tried, to no avail. Even if it isn't used eventually, it should be part of advocacy training as a viable option.
My point is this: One cannot talk about the sacrifices of advocates in our movement and community without acknowledging the work of those of us who went all the way and went to jail for our resolve, for fighting for the rights of people with disabilities. Unfortunately, that is exactly what the policy folks in our community DON’T want to do. They forget that our civil rights were not gained by policy, alone, but by a combination of advocacy tools, most notably (and dramatically), direct action. Besides, at least in ADAPT the strongest, fire-in-the-belly activists can make excellent policy folks. I know – I’m one.
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