I’ve seen Bruce Darling open presentations about direct action with the words “Who wants to get arrested?!?” many times. A number of those times, I watched the horrified but fascinated reactions of a group of autistic college students with an interest in organizing. I thought, watching this, that while my heart said “yes, let’s do this, I can do this” that I wouldn’t be in much of a place to actually get arrested at a protest and perform civil disobedience in my life. I felt that while I was working for ASAN it was ill-advised, and didn’t anticipate leaving at the time.
I was wrong on multiple accounts.On July 25th, 2017, I had a free afternoon after a march and rally for disability rights and to save Medicaid in Washington, DC. I had rolled up to Stephanie Woodward in my rental scooter, hanging out as the crowd dispersed. She started gathering people together, and we rolled from the lawn out front of the capitol building towards the Hart Senate office building.
“Hey wanna come to a party?” she asked people as we rolled past people heading to hill visits or biding time until their visits. Everyone who knew Stephanie chuckled and either followed or said no thank you. Everyone knew that when Stephanie says “party” she means at minimum a protest, but more likely some civil disobedience and time in police custody.
At the Hart building atrium, after sending my sister (acting as my PCA) on break, a crowd slowly assembled. Experienced members of ADAPT went around the crowd, explaining what was going to happen and some basic rules.
- When Bruce gave the signal, the crowd would start chanting.
- The police will eventually show up with a megaphone and issue three warnings.
- If you don’t want to get arrested, before or during the second warning you should get out and be quiet- either go to the sides of the room and watch silently, or go up to the many balconies around it and silently observe. (Or cheer, but I’ll get to that.)
- If you want to get arrested, have your photo ID easily accessible. When the cops come to you, hand it over. When they wave you to follow them into custody, go peacefully- this particular action called for no resisting arrest charges.
I managed to roll up to the center of the knot of ring leaders right in time to get started. There were many awesome people there- including Becky Ogle, Colleen Flanagan, Cheryl Gottlieb, April Murdock, Amber Smock, German Parodi, and many more- including Judy Heumann, who has been an activist and advocate for a lot time and is an important figure in disability rights, and Spitfire, who is another honored elder in the community for whom this was, I believe, arrest number 84. (You can see a few photos that Amber took on facebook of this protest if you start here. National ADAPT also posted pictures of the protest on Facebook.)
So we chanted. As time went on, staffers from the Senate offices came out to watch from their windows and the atrium balconies. There was a good 200 or more people at this point, all chanting to save Medicaid.
Eventually the cops showed up and issued a warning. You could barely hear the megaphone where I was over the chanting, but those who were experienced made sure to pass the message along. People at this point began to trickle away, and I think this was around when we got the banner out. (I’m not sure though- some things blur together, and adrenaline was escalating. But the exact timing of when the banner went up was unimportant- what was important was that it went up at all.)
My fist was pumping in the air when the second warning went out. I was looking around, chanting with all of these other people deciding if they were going to get arrested today. At this point the crowd was thinning out, and when I looked my best friend, who had been standing next to my scooter, had cleared out. It made sense- he tends to work things from an establishment angle. We need all of these angles dealt with to be effective as a movement.
At this point I needed to make a choice: was I willing to be arrested for my rights as a disabled person?
And at that moment, full of adrenaline and fist pumping in the air, I realized I was. I had never had a protest related arrest before, and was a little worried. Many what ifs came to mind, despite being reassured earlier that they would likely pull as aside and give us citations before letting us go.
Stephanie had moved closer to the center and elevated her chair at some point. Beneath the banner, she was tweeting and getting updates. This whole time the Senate had been voting on the motion to proceed. This vote basically says that the Senate is willing to continue on to the voting process, with amendments being thrown into the ring and voting happening fast and furious. Around the time of the third warning, I want to say, we got word that the motion to proceed had succeeded. Stephanie yelled, “The Senate has voted to kill us!” And for a decent chunk of us if the plan had passed, it could have.
For those of us still in the circle, emotions were high. A woman across from me stopped and silently cried, while all around her people screamed, some crying, some sobbing, “I’d rather go to jail than die without Medicaid!” I closed my eyes and threw my head back as I screamed along, my voice breaking and cracking. I noticed in the periphery the cops surrounding us, and a police line going up. Slowly people on the edges were getting tapped on the shoulder by the cops, turning over their IDs, and being let away into custody.
Being in the middle of the circle, it was a while before they tapped me. I had already pulled out my ID and kept chanting until they came back to lead me into custody. First they lead us in batches of 10 into a hall area. As they escorted us one by one into our batch, spectators cheered us. From the balconies people celebrated each of us being willing to go into custody for our beliefs.
(In this video, you can hear Sam Crane’s commentary, chanting, and cheering as people are wheeled out. You can see me being taken into custody around 10:45-11:25)
In that short hall it was cooler somehow. Maybe it was that we were out of the pool of light cast by the skylights, or just a smaller number of bodies crowded together. A person arrested next to me also said this was their first protest arrest. (If this was you feel free to comment with a name and your pronouns!) For Stephanie, her arrest count was in the mid teens. As each group of 10 was collected, we were taken into the entrance way.
The entrance had been closed to the public and sectioned off. On one end was a table of cops with boxes of paperwork. On the other the holding area was roped off. By the time all 50 or so of us were all in holding, including many folks’ wheelchairs and mobility devices, it was densely packed. But it was also chillingly quiet compared to the atrium. While later more conversation would happen, as we waited for processing to start people had quiet murmurs with their neighbors. Near me, German quietly cried. “They voted to kill us. They voted to let us die.” I could hear the blood pounding in my own ears as I waited.
Sam Crane stood outside the building peering in while we were in custody to take this video. The glass was pretty sound resistant so there was a bit of pantomiming going on. (My tank top, by the way, says “Noncompliance is a Social Skill” and is from Real Social Skills, though she only offers them periodically. I got a TON of compliments on this tank top, by the way.)
They started processing us out in groups of 10 eventually. While it was roughly in order of arrest, it wasn’t precisely. Some groups got processed out of order, but they did try to keep it close to the order of arrest. I was so close to the center, so my group was closer to the end. Because we were technically under arrest, we weren’t permitted to use our phones. Some did sneak their phone use, hiding behind each other’s wheelchairs in the packed make-shift holding area. I didn’t risk it.
Eventually I requested to use the restroom and a woman cop escorted me to the lady’s room. Once my scooter and I were in the accessible stall, while I was utilizing the facilities, I covertly texted my sister.
I only had enough time to text “arrested meet me back at the hart building shortly.” I couldn’t wait for a response- I sent it, put my phone away and rolled out to wash my hands.
On the way back to holding at about, Tammy Duckworth was coming to check on us. I rolled into holding right before she gave us all a rousing speech of encouragement and support. (Also as someone who was literal feet from her, her shoes were FABULOUS. Great sense of style.)
(This second video was re-shared by Kerith Strano Taylor, who has run multiple times as a Democrat against my Representative, Glenn Thompson. I was STOKED.)
Eventually they called my group up for processing. The cop had a little paper with a carbon copy set up on it. He verified my address and name, got my height/weight/etc, handed me the yellow sheet and my ID, and sent me to wait for a speech before release.
These were the Capitol Police. They had been trained extensively on dealing with protesters, and they were very used to arresting and detaining protestors. Several of them knew the ADAPT regulars by name, and asked after those who weren’t at this action. (Some ADAPT people had to deal with other life things; another group went to the Senate balcony.) A few of the cops thanked us- both for speaking up generally, and for this particular issue. Some had disabled relatives at home whose lives they were worried about too.
Finally my group got the speech. You have 15 days to pay your fine, you can pay it starting tomorrow, if you don’t pay then you’ll need to go to court, where you can contest the charges. (ADAPT organizers advised us newbies to just pay the fine.) then they released us outside.
After my release I went to another rally and then rolled to the hotel. At one point I encountered unexpected stairs on a path (thanks for nothing google maps) and off roaded the scooter down a steep little hill. (Bruce was going by, and THAT got me a bad ass designation from him.) Because I had gone straight to another rally I missed out on a group post-arrest photo with Judy Heumann and Gregg Beratan. Instead a stranger took my picture at the rally because they thought it would look awesome.
Being me, I called my mother. It went something like this.
Mother: You got arrested?!?
Me: yeah it was just a citation and fine though.
Mother: … how much is the fine?
Me: oh, it’s only $50 I’ll pay it before I leave.
Mother: Oh well that’s not bad. It is for a good cause. [Short conversation about my sister.] Okay have fun and don’t get into TOO much trouble okay?
I thought that went pretty well. By the time I met up with my sister back at the hotel Christy had calmed down enough to be proud of me. Later in the evening, a friend of mine who is abled contacted me- she and her daughter can’t get arrested because of work stuff, but they wanted to anonymously cover my fines. They also covered some other people’s fines once I connected them to Stephanie.
They next day we went on a poorly fated adventure to take the ADAPTers who had camped outside of the Russel office building an ADA anniversary cake. They had broken camp an hour before we got there, so after stumbling into the Planned Parenthood rally, we went to pay my fines.
I hobbled over there just barely in time to get in before the office closed. A friendly young guy did a security screening and chatted. He informed me that the people who had gone to protest in the Senate balcony got more than a fine. Turns out interrupting the Senate is a Big Deal, and those who didn’t know were a bit shocked to learn that that isn’t a charge you can just pay a fine for. Those folks had to go back for a court date.
A surly cop then escorted me over to where they would process my fine. After he left even the other cops joked that he tends to be in a crappy mood, which helped my nerves. Several other ADAPTers were there paying their fines as well. It was actually fairly relaxed considering the setting- everyone was in an okay mood. When it came my turn, they finger printed my thumb, took my money, photocopied the paperwork and my ID, and gave me a receipt. Then I was free to go about my evening.
Oh and the cake? Yeah, we tracked down some ADAPTers to deliver that to eventually, too.
Over all, my first protest related arrest went well. I was surprised, as I’m terrified of cops. I think it went well because:
- I was with experienced activists with lots of civil disobedience background.
- The group was large enough they were doing catch-and-release instead of taking people to the station.
- It was the Capitol police, who are experienced with this kind of arrest.
- We knew the charges and fines ahead of time and were able to make an informed decision.
- It was a very public set up somewhere where people could easily observe.
- We didn’t resist arrest.
I can factor in my white-ish-ness and gender presentation as well as a consideration. I didn’t see any of the people who differed from me on those respects gone after differently at this particular action, but it’s something to be aware of. I will say that if you are making a risk assessment for if you want to try this tactic, please do factor in your gender presentation and if your appearance is racialized, as well as any disabilities, before making your decision. These are things that can and do impact how police will treat you.
I want to emphasize that these circumstances were different in part because of where we were. That same week, ADAPTers in Ohio were injured by police at protests, and despite non-disabled activists in Colorado having their charges dropped, the ADAPTers who occupied offices there have not. I would never do this in some places precisely because of the history that some of the police departments have for assaulting protesters.
If you’d like to support the work of ADAPT you have a few options. You can contribute to the National ADAPT expenses, including paying fines, here. The folks who camped outside of the Russel building still need their expenses covered as well- contribute to July’s Camp ADAPT here. Stephanie and Bruce are both from ADAPT Rochester, and you can support them via this donation page– if you donate a certain amount you get a shirt! (The page is run through their local CIL, but will help cover Rochester ADAPTer’s expenses for actions this summer.) Or if you are a history fan and want to make sure the story of ADAPT gets out there, you can support the documentary about ADAPT’s history and work, Piss on Pity.