CUIDO: Still Kicking Ass by Margaret Hall

A year ago, I had no idea there was such a thing as disability studies. In preparation for this I’ve done some reading in the field, and want to say, both as an activist and a person with a disability, how moved I’ve been by what I’ve read so far. Thanks for your work.

My disability is invisible and came late in my life. I spent a lot of time going about my business pretty ignorant about issues of disability.

I have two impairments, both likely resulting from my years in construction. Both, like me, are a bit quirky: I have chronic back pain, a fairly atypical kind, which makes long sitting and standing difficult. I also have respiratory hypersensitivity making it impossible for me to be in many buildings and social situations without getting sick. Unless you saw me lying on the floor wearing my mask, you couldn’t tell that I was disabled. The major prejudice I face is either disbelief or misdiagnosis. There are those who think my impairments, especially the environmental injury, are an expression of mental illness.

When I first became sick from environmental exposures two years ago, I was already feeling isolated and despondent about my shrinking world. I remember that I said to my friends: I might as well just write “WACKO” across my forehead. I’m not proud of that reaction. I’m still trying to unravel how much of it was a response to the prejudice against those of us with environmental injury, and how much is my own internalization of prejudice about mental illness.

After Arnieville, we carried on the fight under the banner of CUIDO. CUIDO stands for Communities United in Defense of Olmstead. Two documents inspire our work.

First, Olmstead: the 1999 Supreme Court Decision mandating integration of people with disabilities into our communities.

The second pillar of our work is the UN Declaration on Human Rights, especially Article 25. It was adopted in 1948. Here’s what it says: (read sign) United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Article 25.

(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of their selves and of their family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his/her control.

Our militancy derives from the understanding that we are fighting for our human and civil rights. Without economic justice, these rights are worthless. This is why we have engaged in the Californa State budget battle. Cuts threaten our right to live independently in our homes and communities. We also see ourselves as part of a larger movement for justice that includes protecting the rights of students, workers, other poor people, immigrants and old people.

The first big action after Arnieville was to go to Sac to occupy a large intersection in front of the state Capitol Building. We literally demonstrated in the street the effects of budget cuts on the disabled. We knew that cuts would increase homelessness, institutionalization in nursing homes, emergency room visits, suffering and death. Hundreds of us rolled gurneys and our wheel chairs into the intersection, put on hospital gowns and white coats, erected tents, and brought with us a huge statue of Gov Schwartzenegger wielding a bloody axe. After lots of police orders to leave, 22 of us were eventually arrested. Some cuts went through; the worst threats averted.

This year we have a new governor, Jerry Brown, but the fight is the same. Tax cuts go to corporations and the very wealthy, while budget cuts are imposed upon the rest of us. This is an alarming national trend, and given the great recession and political climate, it’s a trend we expect to continue for some time and at all levels of government.

During the past year, we have continued to fight through a range of tactics: we have occupied state buildings, conducted sit-ins, street theatre, a letter writing campaign, and went to Sacramento to testify. Some of us traveled to the state wide republican convention, and demonstrated with a die-in, right there in the lobby of the Sacramento Hyatt Hotel.

Why do we do these things? In our discussions of strategy, we realized we needed to counter the story that we are the dependent, weak, vulnerable ones. In the public debate over the budget, it’s not enough to just tell our stories of oppression and victimization, and then hope that somehow politicians will have a change of heart. We go further. First we frame the debate in terms of defending our rights. Then, we ask the question: where does wealth come from? We propose that it is the rich who are actually the dependent ones. Their wealth is based on a history of theft, slavery and genocide. They depend on the continued exploitation of workers, of immigrants, and the destruction of the planet. Take away exploitation, replace it with justice, and then see who’s vulnerable. If we don’t include this counter narrative, then we become the identified dependent ones, and in doing so, hide the fact that it is the wealthy who are dependent.

Non-violent direct action not only seeks a change in policy, it challenges how power is constructed. By our actions, we withdraw consent. Through civil disobedience, we undermine the legitimacy of a government that protects the rich, at the same time we challenge the story that we are passive victims. We hope to inspire others to non-cooperate. We lead and advocate resistance. We look for those sparks to ignite revolution.

I want to tell a couple of CUIDO action stories and in the process, share some reflections on Margaret’s work.

I’ve been thinking about your idea that because of mental disabilities, some people learn or participate better or worse, depending on the different situations. I’m wondering if this notion is applicable to groups.

Sometimes at our meetings, I feel frustrated at what I see of as lack of efficiency or “productivity”. I’ve been trying to sort out how much of this is due to lack of experience in a group, how much could be the effects of mental disability, or what’s simply my own narrow minded or ableist perceptions. I think that mental illness, cognitive impairment, dementia, and the effects of emotional trauma all have an impact on our group process. Maybe for CUIDO, meetings are our kairotic spaces.

But there is another kind of space where we do really well and that’s when the intention is to disrupt business as usual.

Last week we participated in a sit-in at the office of the Senate Republican leader, Senator Dutton. I watched as about 20 of us, with our glorious variety of impairments, assistive devices, signs, props, attendants and interpreters, crowded into Senator Dutton’s office, hallway and waiting room. We were actually told by one staff member that they felt intimidated by us. Bob, who’s deaf, completely ignored the cops barking orders, and went merrily on his way. Most of us have been so marginalized, that we are completely unimpressed by authority. To my great amusement, I realized that what makes meetings so challenging, works in our favor during an occupation Not so great at planning, we’re pretty good at improv. The officials tried to shut the door to divide us up, so two women immediately sat down on the floor to stop them. We have no leadership structure; police then must deal with our cumbersome democratic process. Their attempts to negotiate compliance were met with cognitive disconnect, distracting tangential responses, emotional volatility, and complicated negotiations about essential accommodations, such as “you absolutely cannot arrest our ASL interpreters”.

Meetings, sometimes not so good; obstructing governmental administration is where we shine. It’s a marvelous thing to behold, this “cripping” revolution in action

Margaret writes about the shift from care to control in the rhetoric around mental illness. Last summer, my arresting officer at the Sacramento protest told me the story of a woman who had been arrested and detained for months because she was mentally ill and without treatment. She was bi-polar, and her treatment safety net lost to budget cuts, so she called the police when she became suicidal. The police arrived to find her coming out of her house with a large knife. They then tasered her, and charged her with assault on a police officer. She spent months in jail, begging either to die or get treatment. This is what the shift from care to control looks like.

And here’s a story about being allies:
In Richmond Ca, a small Bay area city, a progressive Mayoral Candidate was running for re-election last fall. Police and fire organizations initiated a campaign against her, citing her personal history of depression, a mental disability, and poverty. They hoped to embarrass and discredit her by revealing these facts. It was a naked attempt to employ stigma as a tool. As part of this campaign they hung large expensive posters (4’x6’) throughout the city. Some of us in CUIDO reacted with direct action. So we went out at night, removed and recycled many of the posters, transformed others, and created alternative posters. By the way, she won her re-election

Now I’d like to tell you about our secret weapon. What makes us strong, is that we love each other. We look out for each other. We intentionally nurture and build a community of activists. All of us in this room, know about the damage done by the lie that our lives are worth “less”. Part of our work involves undoing the damage of that poisonous lie in ourselves and those around us. We fight for what we love. It’s the fuel of revolution. This is not an idea original to me or to CUIDO. Che Gueverra wrote about this. He said revolutionaries are motivated by love-yes he put love and revolution in the same sentence!

Sometimes in CUIDO we feel overwhelmed, despondent, afraid; but we are also angry, fierce and brave. We stand up, roll forward, lie down and sit in. We go into the streets, around the barricades, across thresholds and into those places where the rich and powerful gather, and we say to them this simple truth: “our lives are precious and your greed is disgusting.” So this is CUIDO. Love and revolution crip style!