Disabled and Disobedient: How ADAPT Activists Blocked the GOP Healthcare Bill

This wasn’t their first day at the rodeo.

s.e. smith

Dawn Russell gets arrested by Denver police officers after refusing to vacate the offices of Sen. Cory Gardner on June 29 in Denver. (Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

DEN­VER — At 7 p.m. on June 29, Repub­li­can Sen. Cory Gardner’s office resem­bles a mid­dle-school sleep­over, blan­kets and snacks scat­tered across the floor. Only the jaun­ty flag dan­gling from the wall expos­es the scene for what it real­ly is. Our Homes, Not Nurs­ing Homes,” it reads. Dis­abil­i­ty-rights activists with ADAPT are wor­ried the GOP’s pro­posed cuts to Med­ic­aid could force them into insti­tu­tions by slash­ing sup­port for home- and com­mu­ni­ty-based ser­vices. This is a sit-in.

For ADAPT activist Carrien Ann Lucas, this form of protest taps into a long and deep tradition. “We are persistent, and we were going to persist,” she says.

After near­ly 60 hours, a pha­lanx of police offi­cers appears in the door­way, zip ties in hand. The dis­abil­i­ty rights activists on the floor begin to chant: Rather go to jail than die with­out Medicaid.”

Moments lat­er, a slow pro­ces­sion out of the office begins, police awk­ward­ly maneu­ver­ing wheel­chairs. Cam­eras crowd around, broad­cast­ing images around the world. 

The nation­al media start­ed pay­ing atten­tion to the dis­abil­i­ty rights group ADAPT in June, when chap­ters orga­nized protests at offices of GOP sen­a­tors across the coun­try, from Alas­ka to Ohio to Flori­da. But this is not ADAPT’s first rodeo. It is more like anoth­er day at the office. 

When ADAPT activist Car­rie Ann Lucas declined to assist Den­ver offi­cers with the oper­a­tion of her wheel­chair, she was arrest­ed and charged with inter­fer­ence with police. She was quick­ly released, how­ev­er, because sheriff’s depart­ment per­son­nel were wor­ried about han­dling her ven­ti­la­tor. I feel a lit­tle bit dis­crim­i­nat­ed against,” she tells In These Times, that I didn’t get to enjoy the fine accom­mo­da­tions of the sheriff’s depart­ment with every­one else.” For Lucas, this form of protest taps into a long and deep tra­di­tion. We are per­sis­tent, and we were going to per­sist,” she says. 

Fit­ting­ly, ADAPT’s work start­ed in Den­ver, in 1978, when the group, then called Atlantis, blocked city bus­es to demand acces­si­ble tran­sit. Nine years after Atlantis roared onto the scene, anoth­er group of loud, row­dy activists arose: the AIDS Coali­tion to Unleash Pow­er, aka ACT UP. Both groups laid their bod­ies on the line to stress the life-and-death stakes of health­care pol­i­cy. ADAPT made glob­al head­lines in 1990 when dis­abled peo­ple crawled up the steps of the Capi­tol Build­ing to fight for the Amer­i­cans with Dis­abil­i­ties Act; in 1992, ACT UP mem­bers swarmed the White House lawn to dump ash­es of deceased loved ones, say­ing, If you won’t come to the funer­al, we’ll bring the funer­al to you.”

Mem­bers of both orga­ni­za­tions are well aware of the pow­er of shock val­ue, know­ing that a pic­ture of a wheel­chair user rais­ing her fists in the air as she’s lift­ed into a police van, or an HIV activist chained to a fence, makes for a com­pelling call to action. Over the decades, the groups have shut down the White House, closed gov­ern­ment build­ings and infu­ri­at­ed a lot of peo­ple in power.

After ACT UP activists dis­rupt­ed the New York Stock Exchange in 1989, drug­mak­er Bur­roughs-Well­come slashed the price of AZT, an ear­ly HIV/AIDS med­ica­tion. This July, just weeks after ADAPT activists stormed con­gres­sion­al offices across the coun­try, Sen­ate Major­i­ty Leader Mitch McConnell announced that he was pulling the Senate’s attempt at a bill because of a grow­ing list of Repub­li­can defec­tors. One of the tip­ping points? Sen. Jer­ry Moran, whom Kansas ADAPT targeted. 

Though Repub­li­cans suf­fered anoth­er defeat in a small-hours vote on July 28, ADAPT activists aren’t rest­ing. They’re already gear­ing up for the next health­care fight, just like the Repub­li­cans who are bound and deter­mined to repeal the ACA and slash Med­ic­aid. Accord­ing to dis­abled attor­ney and advo­cate Robyn Pow­ell, Med­ic­aid cuts could also cur­tail access to med­ica­tions, ther­a­pies, spe­cial­ists and reg­u­lar care. For some, such cuts would be fatal. To call back ACT UP’s famous slo­gan: Silence equals death. 

s.e. smith is an essay­ist, jour­nal­ist and activist is on social issues who has writ­ten for The Guardian, Bitch Mag­a­zine, Alter­Net, Jezebel, Salon, the Sun­dance Chan­nel blog, Long­shot Mag­a­zine, Glob­al Com­ment, Think Progress, xoJane, Truthout, Time, Nerve, VICE, The Week, and Repro­duc­tive Health Real­i­ty Check. Fol­low @sesmithwrites.
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