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QUIET ACTIVISM by Ben Mattlin

August 21, 2017

Earlier this summer, social media (and a smattering of conventional media, too) were filled with images of disability-rights activists’ protests against certain proposed health-care reforms.  Witnessing these events from the safety of my home, I felt profoundly proud of my brothers and sisters in disability rights.  I was also a bit sad and guilty that I couldn’t join them.

What I saw next, however, caused my feelings to shift in a disturbing way.  Somewhere deep within me, I began to question what I was witnessing.  And this, in turn, made me question myself and my loyalties.

In the biggest demonstration, some 60 activists—mostly people with disabilities—had gathered at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s DC office.  Between chants I couldn’t quite make out, they laid their bodies on the floor like corpses, disrupting the space in what they called a “die-in.”

As ADAPT’s Stephanie Woodward later explained, the idea was to represent “the harm that the bill would do to so many disabled people.”  A good and righteous cause, to be sure.  Fear of being bumped off the life-sustaining Medicaid rosters runs far and deep.  Swift and dramatic action was needed. 

What I saw, though, were the faces of the overworked guards.  To me, they appeared overwhelmed.  They didn’t like what they knew they had to do.  They might’ve even agreed with the protesters, but their job was to clear the passageways and keep the peace.  I felt for the peacekeepers.  I wasn’t supposed to, perhaps, but I did.

For me, the problem was that the protesters had effectively made these cops the accidental targets of their wrath, instead of the politicos they’d intended to confront or persuade.  I couldn’t view the guards as part of the enemy, because all I could see were honest hard-working men and women who were caught in a bad spot.

My next reaction was remorse.  Whose side was I on anyway?  The proposals under debate would cut millions from the roster of Medicaid recipients, many of whom are people like me, people I consider friends and allies!

Having considered myself a disability rights activist, I support the message, the goal.  I also support the means to that end.  It’s just that noisy activism isn’t my style.

Make no mistake: I have participated in protest demonstrations.  Years ago, I joined the throngs outside the Hollywood studio that was broadcasting the late Jerry Lewis’ MDA Labor Day telethon.  I festooned my wheelchair with signs decrying the annual charity fundraiser. “Piss on pity!” we chanted.

For the most part, however, I prefer to express my political righteousness in writing.  My first published op-ed was an open letter to Jerry Lewis, about that charity’s message.  As I began to get more essays published in newspapers around the country, on various disability issues, I realized I’d found my métier.  I could do a better job of getting the disability-inclusion message across through my writing than I ever could through waving banners and joining in protest actions.

Okay, that’s just me.  I’m a man of thoughts, of words, not banners and chants.  I believe in dialogue and discourse.

So sometimes I still feel guilty about that.  But who’s to say which method is most effective?  Perhaps it takes all kinds.  Perhaps to someone in political power, one protest march looks a lot like another.  Or maybe essays, even those published in the Washington Post and New York Times, are all too easily tossed in the trash bin.  I don’t know.

The hope, though, is that someone’s mind will be enlightened or even turned.  Someone who just may cast a vote next time and so, in turn, affect outcomes.

Don’t get me wrong.  I still support activists.  People are legitimately frightened by the course of political events.  They need to protest, to shout in righteous rage.  I bear them no ill will.  Yet like the old song says, it ain’t me.

I may be wrong.  It may be that my methods are too calm, too non-confrontational, even too cowardly.  Written words only go so far.  Sometimes you have to put muscle behind them.  But deep down I’m not an in-your-face kind of guy.  I’m a spinner of words.

I may not always join the crowds of protesters, but you won’t shut me up either.

 

 

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