Ar­rests are al­most like merit badges

Meet the dis­abled ac­tivists from Den­ver who changed a na­tion

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Danika Wor­thing­ton

The pro­test­ers held con­trol of Sen. Cory Gard­ner’s Den­ver wait­ing room for 57 hours. The roughly 8- by 12-foot room felt cramped. The build­ing de­sign­ers prob­a­bly didn’t take into ac­count a nine per­son sit-in that in­cluded five wheel­chairs — or the sup­port­ers who sneaked onto the closed-off floor to bring food and med­i­ca­tions.

The protest was or­ga­nized by ADAPT, a na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tion born in Colorado that has fought for the rights of peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties since the 1970s. The group’s de­mand was sim­ple: They would leave once Gard­ner vowed to vote no on the Se­nate health care bill.

At 6:30 p.m. Thurs­day, 11 pro­test­ers were on the floor. The wait­ing room was giddy as the group up­dated those watch­ing their livestream. The pro­test­ers were un­aware that po­lice were al­ready en route, un­aware that their cheer­ful ban­ter would soon turn to fer­vid chants and that they wouldn’t reach hour 58.

Nine pro­test­ers were ar­rested in Gard­ner’s of­fice that night. An­other was taken into cus­tody down­stairs. All were charged with tres­pass­ing, while a cou­ple also were tagged with ad­di­tional charges of re­sist­ing ar­rest.

Carrie Ann Lu­cas was the last to be taken away. Her ven­ti­la­tor gave po­lice pause, so they de­cided to send her to a hos­pi­tal to be checked and re­leased.

Po­lice called a Re­gional Trans­porta­tion Dis­trict bus to move Lu­cas, who uses a wheel­chair. As the bus pulled up, a lift dropped down so Lu­cas could be rolled on. The irony wasn’t missed. The wheel­chair-ac­ces­si­ble bus that car­ried Lu­cas away last week ex­ists be­cause of a sim­i­larly dra­matic civil dis­obe­di­ence ac­tion held by the same group nearly 40 years ago.

In the early morn­ing of Wed­nes­day, July 5, 1978, pro­test­ers waited for an RTD bus. It rolled to a stop at Broad­way and Col­fax Av­enue, one of the busiest in­ter­sec­tions in the state. Within sec­onds, it was swarmed as peo­ple in wheel­chairs blocked both front and back.

The group, then called At­lantis, had been talk­ing to RTD for more than a year try­ing to get wheel­chair lifts added to all buses. A new fleet had just been re­leased, but none was ac­ces­si­ble. Peo­ple were an­gry.

An­other bus pulled be­hind the first. Pro­test­ers sur­rounded it, too, lock­ing both in place. Traf­fic stalled for miles. Po­lice of in­creas­ing rank would come, de­mand­ing that the group dis­perse. But the pro­test­ers — known as the Gang of Nine­teen — didn’t budge for two days. Not un­til RTD agreed to add lifts. It was the first pub­lic tran­sit agency in the na­tion to do so.

“(Po­lice) were be­side them­selves,” said Barry Rosen­berg, one of the founders of ADAPT, who talked about the ex­pe­ri­ence with a smile. He was a run­ner that day, watch­ing from the sidewalk and bring­ing peo­ple sup­plies. “They didn’t know what to do. That was the start of some­thing big for peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties.”

The group had held ac­tions be­fore, but this was the first to gar­ner na­tional at­ten­tion. It served as a turn­ing point, with some call­ing it the shot heard around the world, Rosen­berg said. Peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties were will­ing to get ar­rested for their rights.

Ar­rests are laugh­able

At 6:37 p.m. Thurs­day, a pro­tester re­ceived a text. Po­lice had ar­rived down­stairs. The group be­gan to talk hur­riedly, plan­ning strat­egy for the next move.

Al­though ten­sion was high, no one ap­peared afraid. Just an hour ear­lier, ev­ery­one had laughed when asked if they had been ar­rested.

“No one’s a rookie here,” one re­sponded.

One ADAPT mem­ber joined in Jan­uary and had al­ready been ar­rested three times — now four. Ar­rests are al­most like merit badges.

Bruce Dar­ling, one of ADAPT’s na­tional or­ga­niz­ers, de­scribed the or­ga­ni­za­tion as akin to a vol­un­teer army for the dis­abled com­mu­nity. The health care de­bate is stag­nant be­cause of the po­lite­ness of the dis­course, he said. Hold­ing loud demon­stra­tions turns the nee­dle.

“This is about life and lib­erty,” Dar­ling said, ref­er­enc­ing how many in the dis­abled com­mu­nity fear a cut to Med­i­caid will take away money that al­lows them to live in­de­pen­dently. “This coun­try wasn’t founded by a group of peo­ple who held a press con­fer­ence and said the king was un­just.”

Some have crit­i­cized the group for their ac­tions, say­ing they should protest legally. But ADAPT has a long track record of at­ten­tion-get­ting, non­vi­o­lent civil dis­obe­di­ence that ex­tends back to when the group was founded in Den­ver by the Rev. Wade Blank, a man who loved the drama of guer­rilla the­ater.

Peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties used sledge­ham­mers to break curbs in 1980, forc­ing Colorado to be the first state to in­stall ramps on side­walks. Peo­ple in wheel­chairs cir­cled the an­nual Amer­i­can Pub­lic Trans­porta­tion As­so­ci­a­tion con­ven­tion, forc­ing at­ten­dees to climb over them, which even­tu­ally led to a na­tional stan­dard for ac­ces­si­ble buses. Pro­test­ers left their wheel­chairs to crawl up the Capi­tol steps in Wash­ing­ton, in­flu­enc­ing leg­is­la­tors to fi­nally pass the Amer­i­cans with Dis­abil­i­ties Act.

And as Den­ver saw last week, ADAPT has been hold­ing sit-ins and die-ins in leg­is­la­tors’ of­fices across the na­tion, in­clud­ing Ma­jor­ity Leader Sen. Mitch McCon­nell’s of­fice, hop­ing to per­suade se­na­tors to vote no on the pro­posed health care bill.

It’s not that ADAPT doesn’t use other av­enues. The or­ga­ni­za­tion lob­bies, works with law­mak­ers and helps with pol­icy. But of­ten ad­vo­cates won’t be able to go any­where do­ing just that, Colorado Cross-Dis­abil­ity Coali­tion Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor Julie Reiskin said.

“I see ADAPT’s role kind of where it’s al­ways been as the peo­ple who are will­ing to go to the mat when needed and en­gage in non­vi­o­lent civil dis­obe­di­ence when needed,” she said. “They’re re­ally rep­re­sent­ing all of (the dis­abled com­mu­nity).”

Look at the health care bill, for ex­am­ple, she said. De­spite the na­tional at­ten­tion it was get­ting, no one was talk­ing about how peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties would be af­fected. In Colorado, peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties make up 7 per­cent of Med­i­caid par­tic­i­pants but 27 per­cent of the pro­gram’s fund­ing.

Now it’s on the front page.

By fed­eral law, Med­i­caid is re­quired to fund nurs­ing homes. Many in the dis­abled com­mu­nity have a tu­mul­tuous re­la­tion­ship with nurs­ing homes, say­ing they take away in­di­vid­ual free­doms. Many feel home- and com­mu­nity-based ser­vices that al­low peo­ple to live in­de­pen­dently will bear the brunt of the cuts. Dar­ling said peo­ple are afraid they will be dragged into homes.

Reiskin said many mem­bers of her or­ga­ni­za­tion can’t par­tic­i­pate in dras­tic protests. But many, rang­ing from lib­er­als to con­ser­va­tives, have writ­ten her to say they’re glad ADAPT is tak­ing a stand for them.

“It’s times like this that make peo­ple re­al­ize there are things that have to be done that aren’t very com­fort­able,” she said. “Peo­ple are so grate­ful that peo­ple are will­ing to do this.”

The min­is­ter

Mol­lie Brainard pointed to a photo of the Rev. Wade Blank in a news­pa­per clip­ping dur­ing a tour of the At­lantis Com­mu­nity Cen­ter.

“I think he kind of looks like John Len­non,” she said.

The walls of the cen­ter are cov­ered with news­pa­per ar­ti­cles, sep­a­rated by years, cities and sig­nif­i­cant na­tional events. Brainard, an ad­min­is­tra­tive as­sis­tant there, said she has been at the cen­ter for 14 years and still hasn’t read them all.

In the early 1970s, Blank be­gan work­ing as the recre­ation di­rec­tor for the youth wing at the Her­itage House, a nurs­ing home in Den­ver. He had a rep­u­ta­tion of stir­ring up trou­ble, Brainard ex­plained.

It started small. He let pa­tients choose which color of shirt they wore. Then res­i­dents asked to have piz- za de­liv­ered. Young peo­ple wanted portable cas­sette play­ers so they didn’t have to lis­ten to the same mu­sic as their 70-year-old room­mates. And as peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties gained more and more free­dom, they be­gan to push back against nurses, not want­ing to take be­hav­ioral medicine.

When the Grate­ful Dead came into town, Blank took the youth to the con­cert. When he re­turned to Her­itage House, his desk had been packed.

While still work­ing at the home, Blank be­came close with the young res­i­dents, in­clud­ing Michael Smith, a teen with mus­cu­lar dys­tro­phy who couldn’t leave his bed.

Smith had been put in a nurs­ing home when he was 11. He didn’t have a long life ex­pectancy. Smith made Blank prom­ise that he wouldn’t die there.

Blank re­turned to Her­itage House soon af­ter he was fired. The mo­ment he stepped in­side, he was told to leave. He just needed to talk quickly with Smith, he said. When Blank left the nurs­ing home, he wheeled Smith out the door with him, tak­ing the hos­pi­tal bed and ven­ti­la­tor, too.

Blank found Smith a gar­den-level apart­ment. He hired a friend who was a cer­ti­fied nurs­ing as­sis­tant to be Smith’s at­ten­dant for $20 a week. It was the first time some­one had made a nurs­ing home tran­si­tion. In fact, it was the first time the idea of home-based ser­vices was even con­ceived, Brainard said.

Blank even­tu­ally moved more peo­ple from the youth wing into their own apart­ments. Dur­ing that time, he cre­ated the At­lantis Com­mu­nity Cen­ter, and ADAPT grew from that.

Brainard fin­ished the story. She pointed to a pic­ture of Smith in his own apart­ment. He looked happy.

Life and lib­erty

With his feet still planted in the hall­way, Gard­ner’s state di­rec­tor leaned into the room to read off a piece of pa­per. Build­ing man­age­ment had in­formed Gard­ner’s of­fice that it was in vi­o­la­tion of the lease by al­low­ing the pro­test­ers to stay. Ev­ery­one needed to leave, and Den­ver po­lice had been called to as­sist.

Pro­test­ers had been wait­ing 57 hours for this mo­ment. They lay on the ground to make re­moval more com­pli­cated while chant­ing “Rather go to jail than to die with­out Med­i­caid.” The sound con­sumed the room. A po­lice of­fi­cer used a bull­horn to warn pro­test­ers that they needed to leave or face ar­rest.

They con­tin­ued chant­ing. One by one, po­lice of­fered a pro­tester the chance to leave be­fore ar­rest­ing them. Some held onto wheel­chairs with death grips. Oth­ers sim­ply re­fused to tell of­fi­cers how to op­er­ate their chairs.

Robin Stephens, Dawn Rus­sell, Karyn Hef­fer­nan, Dawn Howard, Lon­nie Smith, Lu­cas, Caryn So­daro, Jac­que­line Mitchell and Hope Moseley were ar­rested on charges of tres­pass­ing. Jor­dan Sibayan was ar­rested while protest­ing down­stairs.

“Peo­ple are a lit­tle sur­prised. They’re sur­prised by the re­ac­tion of dis­abled pro­test­ers. Part of the is­sue is the level of threat,” Bruce Dar­ling said. “When Amer­i­cans’ life and lib­erty are threat­ened, they take it re­ally per­son­ally.”

Kenn Bi­sio, Den­ver Post file

JULY 5, 1978. Two dis­abled demon­stra­tors sit near RTD buses near the in­ter­sec­tion of Col­fax Av­enue and Broad­way in Den­ver. They were among more than 30 peo­ple who bar­ri­caded two buses de­mand­ing ac­ces­si­bil­ity to trans­porta­tion. Us­ing forms of civil dis­obe­di­ence to protest is noth­ing new for mem­bers of ADAPT.

He­len H. Richard­son, The Den­ver Post

JUNE 29, 2017. A pro­tester is ar­rested by Den­ver po­lice af­ter re­fus­ing to va­cate the of­fices of Sen­a­tor Cory Gard­ner. ADAPT held a sit-in for 57 hours in the tiny front lobby space in the sen­a­tor’s of­fice.

JULY 1, 1980. Ge­orge Roberts, left, and Les Hub­bard blud­geon a curb in protest. Other mem­bers of the At­lantis Com­mu­nity sur­round them in a demon­stra­tion against an ob­sta­cle to their mo­bil­ity. The protest even­tu­ally led to the city im­ple­ment­ing dis­abled-ac­ces­si­ble side­walks.

John Pri­eto, Den­ver Post file

JULY 5, 1978. Colorado Coali­tion of Dis­abled Ci­ti­zens said it was protest­ing RTD’s “dis­crim­i­na­tion” in not pro­vid­ing trans­porta­tion for the dis­abled.

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