Police in New York City arrested several wheelchair users at a demonstration sponsored by Occupy’s Disability Caucus on August 8. Demonstrators gathered in front of Gracie Mansion to protest the annual Mayor Bloomberg-sponsored event “celebrating” the Americans with Disabilities Act. The protest was focused on the mayor’s ferocious opposition to making the New York City taxi fleet accessible, as has been done in London and elsewhere. Bloomberg has stated publicly that he does not think that wheelchair users should be out on the street hailing cabs, and has publicly voiced sympathy for taxi drivers who, despite the law, choose not to stop for people with wheelchairs.
As demonstrators gathered in the street in front of Gracie Mansion chanting, “Taxis for all!” and singing solidarity songs led by the Raging Grannies, the arrests began unexpectedly. Suddenly, police began arresting non-disabled supporters of the Disability Caucus action from the rear, leaving behind all the wheelchair users. The officers handcuffed the non-disabled demonstrators as a paddy wagon roared up and screeched to a halt adjacent to the arrests. They then dragged their arrestees to the paddy wagon and threw them in. The supporters arrested included a surprised 67-year-old member of the Raging Grannies who was in mid-song on her ukulele.
Then, the row of wheelchair users at the front (of which I was a part) shut down our machines and refused to move. We further told them that the people with disabilities were the principals and instigators of this demonstration, and that they had arrested our supporters and left the principals behind. They sent up a “negotiator” who told us that we were free to leave, and eventually implored us to leave. We demanded that they release our supporters, and we told them that we would not move until they either arrested everyone or no one.
What ensued was an hour’s standoff, as they tried to figure out what to do with us. While they had a small army’s worth of hardware, vehicles and personnel on the scene, as we waited it became apparent that the NYPD did not have a wheelchair-accessible paddy wagon! After a long standoff and more arrivals of higher-ups from the mayor’s staff and the police department — and lots of phone calls to parties unseen — a decision was made to commandeer Access-a-Ride vehicles to take us to jail. (Access-a-Ride is the problematic New York City paratransit service for people with disabilities, often referred to by users as “Acc-stress a Ride.”) To their credit, the regular drivers of the hijacked vehicles told the higher-ups that they “wanted no part of this,” and so supervisors on site for the mayor’s party were forced to step in and operate the lifts and drive us to the police precinct.
At the precinct, we were made to line up along the front counter, where our wheelchairs and scooters were fastened to the rail with plastic handcuffs as dozens of officers “guarded” us. The final act of this farce was when the police told us that they would get Access-a-Ride to take us home. We told the officers they’d never do it, but they assured us that police authority would prevail. Of course, Access-a-Ride refused, saying that we would have had to make a reservation at least one day in advance, so they would not come no matter what.
The city could commandeer their vehicles to take us to jail at a moment’s notice, but no ordinary citizen using a wheelchair can arrange for transportation within the city on such short notice. Most New Yorkers do not have cars, so we must rely on publicly available transport. This is especially challenging for wheelchair users because the subway is almost entirely inaccessible and we cannot get a taxi, whether we are trying to take a child to school in the rain, or need to go to the hospital or simply wish to be part of the restless spontaneity that is New York. Mayor Bloomberg apparently does not think we have a right to this mobility, and does not recognize our right and our desire to live as ordinary New Yorkers.
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