Sunday, July 1, 2007

Savoring our Victories:

The following was written in August of 2006 for the newsletter of the Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities in Illinois (CCDI). It concerned actions organized by the Campaign for Real Choice, led by Lester and Barbara Pritchart at the Illinois State Fair during Republican and Democratic day festivities. The Campaign for Real Choice advocates for the shutting down of State Institutions housing People with Disabilities.

Savoring Our Victories: A personal testimony from an advocate who took part in the Freedom Days rallies.

By Michael Meiselman, CCDI Lifetime Member

It was hot and uncomfortable. Nearly a hundred disability rights activists were surrounded by thousands of Democrats - it was Democrat day at the Illinois State Fair. We were wearing bright yellow t-shirts. The Democrats wore blue. We arrived two hours before the program was to start to ensure front row seats. We went to provide witness of our commitment to see our brothers and sisters freed from the yoke of state operated institutions. The Democrats were there for a photo opportunity for the upcoming campaign. As the buses carrying the party faithful arrived, more blue shirts surrounded us. Individuals carrying signs snaked into our midst. We moved our chairs, blankets and support dogs closer.

One hundred or so young African American people were led to fill the gap between the stage and us. If we were going to be able to keep our ground and make our statement, we were going to have to fight. Union leaders and party functionaries gave their marching orders to their troops: Occupy the area in front of the stage so the photographs would show a wall of support for the leaders of the Democratic Party. Slowly, our resistance began. Shoulders moved together, powerchairs inched forward. The stronger we became the weaker and more uncertain they became. Their leaders caucused while the yellow shirts became bolder in defending our rights and turf. We cheered as one of our own loudly lectured the blue shirts saying we weren't going to allow our issues to disappear.

The blue shirts started leaving. We could hardly believe it. Save for a few they were leaving the areas they had once infiltrated! One of the blue shirted leaders even asked if he could wear our yellow shirt. It was a rout! We looked at each other with pride. Those with arms high-fived each other!

Most of us rarely enjoy the power and purpose that we felt. We won. Our leaders, as good as they are didn't negotiate this victory. We didn't win in court. We won as a result of a ragtag action army.

The next day was Republican Day. We still had our yellow shirts - they had sport shirts and golf pants. Again, we showed up two hours early to take our position at the front of the stage. However, they would not let us in. Admission was by ticket only. We lined up in front of the entrance. They learned their lesson from the day before and soon we were welcomed guests enjoying front row access. In addition the Republican leadership agreed to meet with our leaders to discuss the issues.

It's a couple of days later, and I know a lot of us are still smiling. We are thinking of the young and powerful blue shirts complaining about being grabbed, yelled at (often in a language they couldn't understand) and being nudged by wheelchairs. We are thinking how our yellow shirt's held onto our turf! We are thinking of how fast the politicians caved to our moral authority.

This is the glory of building movements. To savor the victories together, however small, that comes from the passion, action and the unity of individuals.