The growing nationwide protests against corporate greed is beginning to remind me of the protests of the '60s and '70s. I remember the news coverage but wasn't really sure what to think. I was too young and immature to really come to any kind of conclusions about them.
In 1976, though, I was 21 and participated in a demonstration and sit-in at the then HEW (Health, Education & Welfare) building in Washington, D.C. The protest was because the regulations for the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973 were still unsigned. This was a law that was supposed to stop discrimination against the disabled in the educational and workplace settings. It was a good law but couldn't be enforced because the HEW Secretary hadn't signed the regulations. After all these years, I don't remember why he hadn't and I don't remember why he wouldn't when the "oversight" was pointed out to him. The disabled community got fed up--pretty much the way the dwindling middle class has become fed up.
I was working at the National Center for Law and the Deaf. My boss was the executive director. We had lawyers working there that took on all kinds of cases, mostly having to do with discrimination. My boss was more on the advocacy end. Anyway, he called a meeting with all of us and explained the upcoming protest. If we decided to go along, we'd be picketing outside the building--with the possibility of going in and sitting in overnight or for days--as long as it would take to get Secretary Califano to sign the regs. My boss said it was all intended to be peaceful but that there was a good chance we'd be arrested for trespass if we sat in.
I decided to go. I'd seen my parents suffer discrimination almost everywhere and some of the experiences were pretty humiliating. I knew other Deaf people also were oppressed and had been discriminated against. I was young and the thought of jail didn't scare me.
There were hundreds and hundreds of people at the protest. Hundreds were blind; hundreds were in wheelchairs; hundreds had all sorts of disabilities. We carried signs and marched. At some point, I saw my boss meeting with the leaders of other groups. He came over to us and said a group was going to go into the building. Two Deaf employees and I volunteered to go in with my boss and the others. The leaders of the other groups were asking for their own volunteers. There was at least 20 of us going in.
When we got to Secretary Califano's office, my boss asked to meet with him. Mr. Califano's secretary looked at us with an expression of amusement and confusion. She informed us that Mr. Califano was out. Of course. So we all sat down on the floor.
It was later in the afternoon. I'd only brought my purse and a jacket with me. I was wondering if I should have brought more stuff...like food. The two Deaf employees, Susan and Fred, were friends of mine and sat down next to me. We spent the next few hours just chatting. I saw my boss conferring with Deaf leaders Fred Schreiber and T.J. O'Rourke. Around 4:30, the secretaries packed up and left for the day. We were on our own--or so we thought.
Within the hour, the police had shown up. Until then, we'd freely gone to get a drink of water from the fountain or go to the bathroom. The police wouldn't let us anymore, except for once an hour. For some reason, they wanted us to take our shoes off.
My boss used the phone--this was before cell phones!--to call a pay phone outside. He and the other lawyers had previously arranged this system to be used in case we went into the building. He could get news from the street this way. Around 7, he asked one of the lawyers to order pizza for everyone in the building.
About an hour later, the lawyer called from the pay phone and told my boss the pizza delivery guy had been stopped at the door. No one would be allowed in. Well, of course we should have anticipated that.
Fred Schreiber and T.J. O'Rourke were both excellent storytellers and that was our entertainment for the evening. Trying to tell a Deaf story in writing just loses too much in translation. There's a lot of facial expression and feeling that goes into the stories. You have to see it to appreciate it.
I remember one tense incident though. Schreiber's wife showed up with his prescriptions and the police wouldn't let her come in. They didn't want to bring the medication themselves either. We found out, of course, by a call from the pay phone. I remember my boss got on the phone with the policeman in charge and arguing with him. Politics and position mean everything, though, because Schreiber got his medication when my boss said, "Do you really want the president of the National Association of the Deaf to possibly die because you wouldn't let him have his heart medication? There's press outside all over the place!"
It was hard to get comfortable because we had to sit or lie down on the floor. The lights stayed on. The air conditioning was turned up full blast. We knew all of this was designed to make us uncomfortable and leave. The thing is, we felt totally committed to our cause. We'd tried to get the regs signed the proper way and had been confounded time after time. All around the country, the disabled and advocates had gotten fed up. There were sit-ins in other HEW buildings as well.
Around 2 in the morning, I rolled my coat up in a ball and went to sleep. My two friends curled up on either side of me. We didn't sleep soundly but we got some rest.
I woke up around six the next morning and sat up sleepily. The elevator doors opened and an elderly man stepped out. I recognized him as an employee of HEW. He approached us with a bag in his arms. The police standing guard didn't really notice him right away. When they did, they moved on him and that's when he threw the bag into the room with us.
Apples began bouncing everywhere as a couple of cops grabbed that elderly man and threw him against the wall. Other cops ran into the room, grabbing for the apples and snatching them out of the hands of the protestors. It was the craziest thing I'd ever seen. I think the cops got all the apples back. They pushed the elderly man into the elevator and I had no idea what was going to happen to him. After the whole thing was over, I found out he'd been ejected from the building. He'd heard we had no food and had bought the apples from a produce stand.
We didn't stay inside the building very long after that. Too many protestors had health issues and so we ended up leaving.
As a result of the protests, though, Secretary Califano signed the regulations. I felt like I'd been a part of something important.
I've been thinking about going down to Philadelphia just for the day. My sitting in days are over but I can do other things.
One thing that made me mad this morning was a sign I saw about how teachers making $50,000 (which ain't a lot) are being asked to take a salary cut of 20% but God forbid we should ask millionaires to pay 3% more in taxes. That totally gets me. It's not just teachers--it's a lot of workers from what used to be the middle class. They have to take cuts in salary either directly or by paying more health insurance costs. Yet Congress has all their benefits paid for 100%, enjoys a healthy salary and retirement. Don't even get me started on the benefits and perks corporate millionaires enjoy! I can think of a couple of signs I'd make!