When Disability Affects Your First Amendment Rights.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
I have been protesting for about 11 years, most of that in Colorado. In those years, protesting has changed.
The Occupy movement had a profound effect on protesting in Colorado. In order to squelch the ongoing protest, the City Council pushed through an urban camping ban. Residents may still protest on the sidewalk without a permit, but must keep walking in order to do so. They may not sit or stand still.
On the one month anniversary of Michael Brown’s death, I met with two women down at Colfax and Broadway and we simply held signs during rush hour to remind people that Darren Wilson has not been arrested and Michael Brown has been dead for a month. No one bothered us, but I was prepared and we discussed the need to keep moving while we protested.
After @COforJustice organized the #NMOS14 in Denver, and the following March for Justice, I became increasingly aware of how activism increasingly requires the activist to be physically fit. Because we are not allowed to sit or stand still, those with chronic fatigue, COPD or other conditions may not be able to protest. If a person is in a wheelchair that requires them to push the wheels, they must be creative if they wish to hold a sign AND keep moving.
When we held the March for Justice in Denver, we worked to keep the march at about 1 mile. We got a last minute permit to use the Capitol steps. People who could not march could meet us at the steps. This was a compromise and I know many were still unhappy at the need to divert to ramps or to be unable to participate in the full scope of the protest. This is something I will keep in mind when organizing in the future, and see what can be done to allow people who do not have the strength to march to be a part of the march, whether it be by finding wheelchairs or other means of transportation through the march.
The morning of the March for Justice, I sprained my ankle. As one of the organizers, I could not back out of marching. I was ahead of the march, ensuring people got safely across the street. By the end of the night, I was in so much pain I was biting my lip and holding back tears. That mild sprain took weeks to heal. I cannot imagine how someone with a permanent disability would have been able to do what I was doing.
Personally, I have Meniere’s disease. While I can and do lead a full life in spite of this condition, I know that if I am having a flare of the disease, which causes vertigo, that I cannot protest while ill. I would need to sit. I could not keep moving.
Forcing protesters who are disabled to keep moving during a protest restricts our First Amendment rights. If a person cannot keep walking, they face arrest or ticketing and fines on the grounds of violating the rule that people who are protesting must keep walking. I use the example of COPD because it is a disease which restricts physical activity. While a person may be able to get to the protest site, they may need to sit to protest, they may not be able to keep moving.
Now, I know how to have a protest without being forced to keep moving. In order to do this you have to get a permit from the city of Denver or the state of Colorado. But that in itself goes against the nature of spontaneous protests. It is wrong to expect protestors to give the city 30 days notice after something horrible has happened so that they may protest what is happening. The state of Colorado was very helpful in getting us a permit in the space of 48 hours to have our protest, as was the Parks and Rec department. But that does not solve the issue that in order to protest, we have to ask permission to be in that space. The nature of protest is that it is without asking permission. It is our right to speak, even if it is inconvenient to the city or state that we be there.
Here’s the rub: CONGRESS is not making rules against protest, but cities and states are. They are able to control the numbers of protestors through urban camping bans and rules to keep walking and permit processes. If you are disabled, there is a strong chance you cannot exercise your First Amendment rights.
This is what was so amazing about Occupy. While there were many inspiring marches, there was also an opportunity to protest while sitting, while laying down. The occupation was the speech. As long as you were present, you were protesting.
Denver shut it down. They brought in a new police chief, passed the urban camping ban and forced Occupy off of city property. Now, homeless individuals who have no place to go face jail time and fines for sleeping on a park bench or over a grate. Yes, there are shelters, but there are not enough.
If that wasn’t enough, they began to enforce a ban on temporarily parking next to Civic Center park, which meant people had to walk over a mile to deliver supplies to the protestors. During Occupy, I worked several overtime shifts in order to be able to donate blankets, clothing and food to the protest. Now I had to come to the protest, pull someone away, pay for parking and carry supplies for a mile to the protest. Again, extremely difficult to do if I was feeling ill (which is my usual state of being, I just push through it).
Denver also began to enforce a little known ban on honking on city streets. While many people supported the spirit of Occupy, many were unable or uncomfortable with joining the protest. Still, they would honk their support. When you are standing in the cold and rain, trying to keep moving and holding your sign, those supportive honks do a lot to hold you up. They began ticketing anyone who honked on Broadway in support of the protestors.
I remember being at work one snowy night during the Occupy movement. Protesters were playing in the snow, and had built a very small igloo. The Denver Police Department brought in heavy equipment to take down the igloo. A shovel would have sufficed, but the message was clear. We are here to crush this moment of playfulness, this spirit of joy. We have the means and the method, and we’re going to crush this protest.
The last time I saw any Occupy protest in Denver, there were 8 protesters corralled on a sidewalk and about 15 police cars surrounding them. Again, I was on my way to work, and unable to stop and be part of the protest. I cannot just not show up to my job as a registered nurse. My patients and co-workers would suffer. But I remember the sorrow I felt for those few determined sign holders.
We as activists have got to start pushing for inclusion of the disabled in our movements. Disability should not be an automatic disqualifier from activism. The disabled have a lot to protest, and they have the right to protest. It is up to community organizers to ensure that our activism creates the possibility for all to join in. It is our responsibility to point out that not everyone can keep moving on the street, and this should not be reason for fines or arrest. Every person in the United States should be free to exercise their right to free speech. Those of us who are physically able, who are loud and vocal, should lend our voice to those who cannot shout, and give access to protest to anyone who would have it.