50 Progressives Animal Rights Activism Anti-Death Penalty Movement Anti-Nuclear Activism Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Consumer Rights Dissent After 9-11 Environmental Activism Food Movement Housing Activism Media Activism Occupy Wall Street Peace Activism Ten Things
On August 1, 2000, Philadelphia police rounded up seventy-five activists inside a West Philadelphia warehouse. It was the second day of the Republican National Convention, and the activists had been making papier-mâché puppets, which they planned to use during street demonstrations. The Philadelphia district attorney ultimately charged the activists with a slew of misdemeanors, including conspiracy to obstruct the law and resisting arrest. These self-anointed puppetistas were kept in jail until after the Republicans had dropped the last of their balloons from the First Union Center rafters.
Ultimately, charges against all the puppet makers were dismissed. Last summer more than a third of them sued the city over alleged violations of their civil rights. They assumed their cases would be strong enough to net not only substantial cash payments but significant reform in the police department. Now it looks like they'll be getting neither.
The reason, they say, is the unusually aggressive tactics of the law firm representing the city in these cases. Hangley Aronchick Segal & Pudlin attempted to depose plaintiffs' lawyers, arguing that they encouraged protesters to engage in civil disobedience, get themselves arrested and clog the city's jails. The firm has subpoenaed activists' address books, personal tax records and entire computer hard drives. Its lawyers hired investigators to question former spouses and flew across the country to interrogate witnesses.
About twenty-seven civil suits stemming from puppet warehouse arrests are now being settled out of court. A transcript from a June 18 hearing spells out the details of the agreement for twenty-four of the cases, which have been consolidated under Traci Franks v. the City of Philadelphia. It says that plaintiffs agree to accept $72,000, which will be divvied up between two nonprofit groups: the Spiral Q Puppet Theater and Books Through Bars. The figure was derived by awarding $3,000 to each of the twenty-four plaintiffs. (Separate settlements are being negotiated for the suits filed by warehouse owner Michael Graves and two other activists.)
In July the Traci Franks file was sealed, and a gag order forbids any of the parties involved from discussing details. But whatever the final dollar amount ends up being, the settlement agreement won't drain city coffers of a dime because it's all covered by insurance.
The host committee for the RNC, a group of high-profile Philadelphians, paid $100,000 for an insurance policy seven months prior to the convention. The policy specifically covers up to $3 million for personal injury arising from claims of false arrest and wrongful imprisonment, malicious prosecution and violation of civil rights. The insurer, Lexington Insurance Company in Boston, hired Hangley Aronchick to handle the civil suits. During the June 18 hearing Hangley Aronchick attorney David Wolfsohn implied that the insurance carrier may even be able to claim a tax deduction for contributing the $72,000 settlement to charity.
Many activists agreed to settle because they fear that turning over more e-mails and meeting minutes to city attorneys could compromise future legal protests, should documents wind up in government hands. They also decided to throw in the towel when it became clear the city would not agree to a reform of police procedures. In this post-September 11 world, law enforcement agencies are expanding their scope, not narrowing it.
People embarked on these suits to get injunctive relief, says Kris Hermes, a member of for the R2K Legal Collective. Because that wasn't happening, there was less incentive to carry on.
Plus, plaintiffs are doubtful a jury would be sympathetic to political dissenters, given the current political climate. "There is a deep desire on the part of many Americans to see police officers as the bulwark protecting them, and they don't want to confront anything indicating officers have the power to abuse us," says Pennsylvania ACLU legal director Stefan Presser.
But the biggest obstacle is that the activists' attorneys want out as quickly as possible. They accepted the puppetista cases on contingency fees, and they simply can't keep pace with a major law firm eager to rack up billable hours.
Angus Love, director of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, was subpoenaed and deposed by Hangley Aronchick because he worked as a legal observer during the RNC. He says the city usually does a half-assed job of litigating these cases. "But now we have a private law firm that is used to a higher level of attack," Love says. Wolfsohn is going after political protesters as if they were right-wing terrorists.
Attorneys on both sides of the lawsuits, as well as Philadelphia officials, declined to comment for this story. At the time of the warehouse raid, however, Mayor John Street was vocal on the subject. As hundreds of criminal charges were being processed on August 2, 2000, Street told reporters that he fully expected the city to be sued. "But we expect that we will defend the city.... We will defend our police department to the Supreme Court if necessary," he said.
Presser was among the attorneys Hangley Aronchick had hoped to depose. He characterizes the request as extremely unusual, noting only one similar situation during his twenty years of practicing law. Hangley Aronchick has also subpoenaed people ranging from well-known activists to plaintiffs' relatives.
Matthew Hart, the director of the Spiral Q Puppet Theater, was ordered to turn over all his e-mails, date books and phone records. He characterizes his oral deposition as bizarre and perfunctory.
"Attorneys for the city inferred this massive conspiracy that I don't even think the people involved had the capacity to pull off," Hart says. "I think their biggest intention was to move as slowly as possible and bill more hours."
Traci Schlesinger, the lead plaintiff in the consolidated suit, says her deposition brought to mind the McCarthy era.
"It seemed as though he hoped to prove I was an anarchist, and then it would be legitimate for police to arrest me," Schlesinger says.
The political establishment is not united behind the Bush
Administration's policy of forced "regime change" in Iraq. The rest of
the world, and a good part of the American public, are also unconvinced.
Make your voice heard. Write your elected officials in Washington urging
them to show restraint and respect for international opinion (contact
information at www.congress.com). Help make the war against Iraq a key
issue in this fall's Congressional elections--see how in ten steps at
the website of the National Network to End the War Against Iraq, an
umbrella group of more than seventy peace and justice, student and
faith-based organizations (www.endthewar.org).
Sign an online petition opposing US adventurism in Iraq. One such
petition is sponsored by moveon.org, the citizen action group that in
1998 collected the signatures of more than a million people opposed to
the impeachment of President Clinton. Add your name to the Campaign of
Conscience Peace Pledge to Stop the Spread of War to Iraq, organized by
the American Friends Service Committee and the Fellowship of
Reconciliation, among others (www.peacepledge.org). Participate in one
of the antiwar marches and protests scheduled coast to coast. You can
find information on upcoming events at www.unitedforpeace.org, a new
site launched by Global Exchange. If you're planning an event or
teach-in, check out the Iraq Speakers Bureau (www.iraqspeakers.org), a
project of the Education for Peace in Iraq Center, which provides access
to policy experts, diplomats, former UN officials, human rights
activists and public health researchers.
See The Nation's special antiwar web page (www.thenation.comdirectory/view.mhtml?t=040307), where you can find a complete collection of relevant
Nation material. Also included are a list of nine critical
questions that can be clipped or copied for inclusion in letters to your
representatives, friends, newspaper editors and others, and a series of
activist and educational links.
Mike Dolan, one of the principal organizers of the "Battle of Seattle" three years ago, returned in late August--with Jim Hightower's Rolling Thunder DownHome Democracy Tour--to a changed city. As he juggled cell phones from the stage in Seattle's Petrovisky Park, near the burial site of Jimi Hendrix, Dolan noticed there was no tear gas this time, only sunshine.
There were still dirty tricksters hanging up posters on Broadway, the heart of radical Seattle, warning people to stay home because there was no parking at the event, but 5,000 people turned out, to reflect on the movement they launched at the World Trade Organization conclave in 1999.
The world of BS--"before Seattle"--was a dizzying can-do era of overnight millionaires with fantasies of wiring the planet in a grid of greed. Then came the protests, the greatest civil disobedience of the era, with thousands of people teaching the masters of the universe that they could no longer conduct business as usual, and the fantasy world began to shudder.
With dot.coms bombing and Boeing going, Seattle has lost its artificial luster, returning to the status of a lovely, cultured city instead of the mecca of a global kingdom. Corporate sway over the economy lost its sex appeal when the Nasdaq fell 355 points on a single March day in 2000, Bill Gates lost $10 billion in a week and 25,000 workers were laid off in the software sector. There was the campaign that coerced the public into voting to subsidize the local baseball stadium, and the team's star, Ken Griffey Jr., left anyway. In the same period, Boeing chose the global economy over loyalty to its hometown and announced it was headquartering in Chicago, downsizing production and relocating plants to places like Mexico, China and Malaysia. Even the pump-priming boondoggle of the war on terrorism couldn't save them from the grim morning-after logic of globalization.
Seattle might have salvaged a new identity by taking pride in the rough birth of the movement against corporate globalization on its streets in 1999, rooted in the militant Northwest populist and labor traditions that Hightower's tour echoes today, but the local legacy of that "people's history" remains contested and unclear. Shortly after the confrontations, the police chief resigned. An anti-WTO member of the King County Board of Supervisors was defeated. Mayor Paul Schell never fully recovered from that week, and was defeated for re-election last year under the growing cloud of civic malaise. On the other hand, state representative Velma Veloria who hosted progressive legislators during the WTO protests, is running for re-election this fall, and Nick Licata, who helped house and protect the protestors, remains an energetic force on the City Council. Both Veloria and Licata attended the rally in Petrovisky Park in high spirits. Veloria, in response to Seattle 1999, has formed a legislative oversight committee on the adverse impact of trade agreements on Washington State. (Nation readers who wish to support Velma Veloria should contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
One of those returning to interpret the continuing "Battle of Seattle" was Lori Wallach, the indefatigable, street-talking Harvard trade lawyer who coordinates fair-trade lobbying and activism at cyclone speed from her offices at Global Trade Watch in Washington, DC. Wallach has molded herself into one of the more dangerous enemies of the WTO on the planet, able to wipe out corporate lobbyists in television debates, maintain a laser-accurate understanding of thousands of pages of trade regulations, knit together international alliances, forge and hold together aliances on the left and right, and inspire hope for political reform, while scheming, if necessary, to "ratfuck" her enemies, a term she learned somewhere in the underworld of the planet's largest corporations.
Wallach is not entirely heartened by developments since Seattle 1999, citing the rise of internal disputes over "sectarianism" and "egoism" since the movement reached prime time. The emphasis on localism, and its philosophical corollary of anarchism, limits her role as a prime mover and shaker, while critiques of the whiteness of the movement makes alliance-building both essential and difficult. The alienation of many activists from electoral politics robs political victories, like the recent campaign finance reforms, of their potential energizing potency. The fallout from Ralph Nader's presidential campaign, combined with the failure of most Democrats to break cleanly from the corporate agenda, suggests a treacherous electoral future.
Nevertheless, Wallach is in fine form on this fine day, telling the audience that "Seattle" has become an international code word for the progressive spirit of the American people. When American diplomats and apologists argue with overseas audiences that globalization is good, she says, they are often rebuffed by foreign nationals who simply reply, "Seattle," as evidence that Americans themselves do not agree with the policies their government is trying to impose on other countries.
But, she notes, "the empire has struck back," through strenuous US attempts to cast the Seattle protests as "a fluke." The corporatists will try to make globalization seem as "inevitable as the moon's pull on the tides," but Wallach claims that it is "totally doable to take back what's ours" and that the corporate lobbyists "know what we need to know, that it's all a house of cards."
As evidence, she tells the story, hardly described in the mainstream media, of the Bush Administration's extraordinary efforts to squeeze out a three-vote-margin victory for its "fast track" trade authority in the House of Representatives on July 17. Trumpeted by Bush and the corporate media as an empowering victory for the free trade agenda, Wallach says that "what it took to get 'fast track' through was such an amazing flouting of Congressional rules that it showed our power." The fair trade movement had succeeded, by normal Washington standards, in stifling the Administration's "fast track" campaign until the President himself came to Capitol Hill trolling for votes, knocking on doors and making political horse-trades.
That wasn't enough, however. The House leadership held a closed nocturnal hearing to approve a "conceptual" 300-page bill, employing a rule reserved for occasions of martial law. There were no public hearings and no printing of the bill. Instead, it was e-mailed to House members with a link and set for a vote within twenty-four hours, effectively demobilizing the opposition and flaunting any pretense of an open, democratic process. When the House vote took place, and the Administration's forces still fell short, the leadership declared the clock irrelevent and continued making secret deals with holdout representatives until the three-vote margin was achieved. "It just shows how fragile they are," said Wallach, reminding the crowd to "spank" Washington State Democrats like Adam Smith and Rick Larsen, and "thank" representatives who kept their word to oppose fast track.
Undaunted, Wallach told the crowd to gear up for "Nafta on steroids," the Administration's plan to create a thirty-one-country "free trade" zone in the Americas and expand the WTO, culminating in the September 2003 WTO trade round in Cancun, Mexico. The corporate agenda there will aim to eliminate labor, environmental and public interest regulations across Central and Latin America as well as to privatize services like education, healthcare and water access. These so-called nontariff trade barriers represent protections of the public interest that have been created through years of struggle, thus widening the potential anti-WTO coalition to include, for example, schoolteachers, city officials, municipal water systems and other utilities, and construction workers worried about prevailing wage laws.
Recent events in Latin America along with corporate scandals in this country, Wallach thinks, "show that our analysis has been right." For example, Argentina was "the poster child, the model" of the corporate globalizers, but it now lies in ruins, the victim of International Monetary Fund policies which included demands that Argentina repeal its curbs on bankers who funnel money out of the country on the grounds "that the law chilled the investment climate there." The crisis is spawning new resistance movements as well, like the successful Bolivian "water war," which has blocked a government plan to sell its water rights to the Bechtel corporation. The spread of sweatshops and maquiladoras has peasant organizers conspiring and resistance mounting from southern Mexico to Central America.
"This trade stuff didn't get handed down by God like they think. If it doesn't work, it's time to throw it out and take back what is ours. The only way they can win is by our remaining calm," Wallach finishes. The crowd in Petrovisky Park gets the message, deeply and clearly. The spirit of Seattle is alive, carried in Wallach's words and, more important, in the confidence and memory of the crowd, in their commitment to vote, march, organize, campaign. As she spoke and they responded, it seemed to me that Seattle deserves a monument to the 1999 protests to reflect its progressive heart alongside the empty glory of the Space Needle, the Boeing hangars and the stadium that Junior left behind.
After all, I recalled, King County was persuaded to change its name to Martin Luther King Jr. County. Why not a monument to the Battle of Seattle in this city of the failed dotcom and defense contractor dreams? Someday perhaps, but for now the living monument of its creative, committed activist community will have to do.
Concerned that a much-needed international perspective is missing
from the debate in this country over the course of American foreign
policy and US relations with the world, The Nation asked a number
of distinguished foreign writers and thinkers to share their reflections
with us. It is our hope that, as in the early 1980s, when a "letter" in
these pages from the late E.P. Thompson expressing rising European
concern about the Reagan Administration's nuclear weapons buildup was
instrumental in building common bonds beween antinuclear movements
across the Atlantic, this series will forge bonds between Americans
concerned about how Washington is exercising power today and the rest of
the world. We begin with a letter to an American friend written by the
South African writer Breyten Breytenbach, whose opposition to apartheid
resulted in his spending seven years in prison.
This is an extraordinarily difficult letter to write, and it may even be
a perilous exercise. Dangerous because your present Administration and
its specialized agencies by all accounts know no restraint in hitting
out at any perceived enemy of America, and nobody or nothing can protect
one from their vindictiveness. Not even American courts are any longer a
bulwark against arbitrary exactions. Take the people being kept in that
concentration camp in Guantánamo: They are literally
extraterritorial, by force made anonymous and stateless so that no law,
domestic or international, is habilitated to protect them. It may be an
extreme example brought about by abnormal circumstances--but the
criteria of human rights kick in, surely, precisely when the conditions
are extreme and the situation is abnormal. The predominant yardstick of
your government is not human rights but national interests. (Your
President keeps repeating the mantra.) In what way is this order of
priorities any different from those of the defunct Soviet Union or other
The war against terror is an all-purpose fig leaf for violating or
ignoring local laws and international agreements and treaties. So,
talking to America is like dealing with a very aggressive beast: One
must do so softly, not make any brusque moves or run off at the mouth if
you wish to survive. In dancing with the enemy one follows his steps
even if counting under one's breath. But do be careful not to dance too
close to containers intended for transporting war prisoners in
Afghanistan: One risks finding one's face blackened by a premature
Why is it difficult? Because the United States is a complex entity
despite the gung-ho slogans and simplistic posturing in moments of
national hysteria. Your political system is resilient and well tested;
it has always harbored counterforces; it allows quite effectively for
alternation: for a swing-back of the pendulum whenever policies have
strayed too far from middle-class interests--with the result that you
have a large middle ground of acceptable political practices. Why,
through the role of elected representatives, the people who vote even
have a rudimentary democratic control over public affairs! Except maybe
in Florida. Better still--your history has shown how powerful a moral
catharsis expressed through popular resistance to injustice can
sometimes be; I have in mind the grassroots opposition to the Vietnam
War. And all along there was no dearth of strong voices speaking firm
convictions and enunciating sure ethical standards.
Where are they now? What happened to the influential intellectuals and
the trustworthy journalists explaining the ineluctable consequences of
your present policies? Where are the clergy calling for humility and
some compassion for the rest of the world? Are there no ordinary folk
pointing out that the President and his cronies are naked, cynical,
morally reprehensible and very, very dangerous not only for the world
but also for American interests--and by now probably out of control? Are
these voices stifled? Has the public arena of freely debated expressions
of concern been sapped of all influence? Are people indifferent to the
havoc wreaked all over the world by America's diktat policies,
destroying the underpinnings of decent international coexistence? Or are
they perhaps secretly and shamefully gleeful, as closet supporters of
this Showdown at OK Corral approach? They (and you and I) are most
likely hunkered down, waiting for the storm of imbecility to pass. How
deadened we have become!
In reality the workings of your governing system are opaque and covert,
while hiding in the chattering spotlight of an ostensible transparency,
even though the ultimate objective is clear. Who really makes the policy
decisions? Sure, the respective functions are well identified: The
elected representatives bluster and raise money, the lobbyists buy and
sell favors, the media spin and purr patriotically, the intellectuals
wring their soft hands, the minorities duck and dive and hang out
flags... But who and what are the forces shaping America's role in the
The goal, I submit, is obvious: subjugating the world (which is
barbarian, dangerous, envious and ungrateful) to US power for the sake
of America's interests. That is, to the benefit of America's rich. It's
as simple as that. Oh, there was a moment of high camp when it was
suggested that the aim was to make the world safe for democracy! That
particular fig leaf went up in cigar smoke and now all the other excuses
are just so much bullshit, even the charlatan pretense of being a nation
under siege. This last one, I further submit, was a sustained Orson
Wellesian campaign to stampede the nation in order to better facilitate
what was in effect a right-wing coup carried out by cracker
fundamentalists, desk warriors proposing to "terminate" the states that
they don't like, warmed up Dr. Strangeloves and oil-greedy conservative
I do not want to equate your glorious nation with the deplorable image
of a President who, at best, appears to be a bar-room braggart smirking
and winking to his mates as he holds forth his hand-me-down platitudes
and insights and naïve solutions. Because I know you have many
faces and I realize how rich you are in diversity. Would I be writing
this way if I had in mind a black or Hispanic or Asian-American, members
of those vastly silent components of your society? It would be a tragic
mistake for us out here to imagine that Bush represents the hearts and
the minds of the majority of your countrymen. Many of your black and
other compatriots must be just as anguished as we are.
Still, Jack, certain things need to be said and repeated. I realize it
is difficult for you to know what's happening in the world, since your
entertainment media have by now totally blurred the distinctions between
information and propaganda, and banal psychological and commercial
manipulation must be the least effective way of disseminating
understanding. You need to know that your country has made the world a
much more dangerous place for the rest of us. International treaties to
limit the destruction of our shared natural environment, to stop the
manufacture of maiming personnel mines, to outlaw torture, to bring war
criminals to international justice, to do something about the murderous
and growing gulf between rich and poor, to guarantee natural food for
the humble of the earth, to allow for local economic solutions to
specific conditions of injustice, for that matter to permit local
products to have access to American markets, to mobilize the world
against hunger, have all been gutted by the USA.Your government is
blackmailing every single miserable and corrupt mother's son in power in
the world to do things your way. It has forced itself on the rest of us
in its support and abetment of corrupt and tyrannical regimes. It has
lost all ethical credibility in its one-sided and unequivocal support of
the Israeli government campaign that must ultimately lead to the
ethnocide of the Palestinians. And in this it has
promoted--sponsored?--the bringing about of a deleterious international
climate, since state terrorism can now be carried out with arrogance,
disdain and impunity. As far as the Arab nations are concerned, America,
giving unquestioned legitimacy to despotic regimes, refusing any
recognition of home-grown alternative democratic forces, favored the
emergence of a bearded opposition who in time must become radicalized
and fanaticized to the point where they can be exterminated as vermin.
And the oilfields will be safe.
I'm too harsh. I'm cutting corners. I'm pontificating. But my friend, if
you were to look around the world you would see that America is largely
perceived as a rogue state.
Can there be a turn-back? Have things gone too far, beyond a point of
possible return? Can it be that some of the core and founding
assumptions (it is said) of your culture are ultimately dangerous to the
survival of the world? I'm referring to your propensity for patriotism
(to me it's an attitude, not a value), to the fervent belief in a
capitalist free-market system with the concomitant conviction that
progress is infinite, that one can eternally remake and invent the self,
that it is more important to be self-made than to collectively husband
the planet's diminishing resources, that the instant gratification of
the desire for goods is the substance of the right to happiness, that
the world and life and all its manifestations can be apprehended and
described in terms of good and evil, finally that you can flare for a
while in samsara, the world of illusions (and desperately make it last
with artificial means and California hocus-pocus before taking all your
prostheses to heaven).
If this is so, what then? With whom? You see, the most detestable effect
is that so many of us have to drink this poison, to look at you as a
threat, to live with the knowledge of cultural and economic and military
danger in our veins, and to be obliged to either submit or resist.
I don't want to pass the buck. Don't imagine it is necessarily any
better elsewhere. We, in this elsewhere, have to look for our own
solutions. Europe is pusillanimous, carefully though hypocritically
hostile and closed to foreigners, particularly those from the South; the
EU is by now little more than a convenience for its citizens and
politically and culturally much less than the contents of any of its
And Africa? As a part-time South African (the other parts are French and
Spanish and Senegalese and New Yorker), I've always wondered whether
Thabo Mbeki would be America's thin globalizing wedge (at the time of
Clinton and Gore it certainly seemed so) or whether he was ultimately
going to be the leader who can strategically lead Africa against
America. But the question is hypothetical. Thabo Mbeki is no alternative
to the world economic system squeezing the poor for the sustainable
enrichment of the rich; as in countries like Indonesia and your own (see
the role of the oil companies), he too has opted for crony capitalism.
Africa's leading establishments are rotten to the core. Mbeki is no
different. His elocution is more suave and his prancing more Western,
What do we do, then? As we move into the chronicle of a war foretold
(against Iraq), it is going to be difficult to stay cool. Certainly, we
must continue fighting globalization as it exists now, reject the
article of faith that postulates a limitless and lawless progress and
expansion of greed, subvert the acceptance of might is right, spike the
murderous folly of One God. And do so cautiously and patiently, counting
our steps. It is going to be a long dance.
Let us find and respect one another.
Bush's counterterrorism efforts neglect women.
Every year Greensboro, North Carolina, holds a Fourth of July parade in
which local organizations form the units. This year members of the
Greensboro Peace Coalition decided--"after some hesitation," admits
chairman Ed Whitfield--to join the line of march. They bought an ad in
the local paper, printed leaflets and developed their own variation on
this year's theme of "American Heroes": large posters of Americans,
including Mark Twain, Albert Einstein and the Rev. Martin Luther King
Jr., who have spoken out against the folly of war.
Though members had been participating in vigils since last October, when
the bombing of Afghanistan began, many expressed qualms about marching
into the thick of their hometown's annual patriotic celebration. But
fifty activists showed up on the Fourth and got the surprise of their
political lives. Along the mile-and-a-half parade route through downtown
Greensboro, they were greeted mostly with applause, and, at the end of
their march, they were honored by parade organizers for "Best
Interpretation of the Theme."
Says Whitfield, "There is a real lesson in this. If you scratch the
surface of the poll numbers about Bush and Ashcroft's overwhelming
support, you get down to a lot of people with a lot of questions. Some
of them are afraid that they are alone in what they are thinking. What
it takes to get them excited and to get them involved is for them to see
someone standing up so that they will know they are not alone."
The post-September 11 experiences of the Greensboro Peace Coalition,
Berea College's Patriots for Peace, the Arkansas Coalition for Peace and
Justice, and dozens of other grassroots groups serve as a reminder that
while dissenters have not always spoken in a single voice, they have had
in common not just their unease with the bipartisan Washington consensus
but the often inspiring experience that there are many Americans who
share their discomfort. Take Jennifer Ellis of Peace Action Maine, who
recalls how overwhelmed Down East activists felt after September 11.
"But then we started to get calls from people saying, 'I don't know what
your organization is, but it has the word "peace" in the title. What can
I do?'" Some callers were already holding vigils, and her group started
sending out weekly e-mails listing them. "We linked people up with local
efforts to fight discrimination against Muslims, and we told people how
to write members of Congress about civil liberties issues," she says.
"Before long, all these people, in all these towns across Maine, were
As with anti-World War I activists who looked to Wisconsin Senator Bob
La Follette, critics of McCarthyism who celebrated Maine's Margaret
Chase Smith's statement of conscience or foes of the Vietnam War who
were inspired by the anti-Gulf of Tonkin resolution votes of Oregon's
Wayne Morse and Alaska's Ernest Gruening, post-September 11 dissenters
found solace in the fact that at least a few members of Congress shared
their qualms. Three days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and
the Pentagon, Representative Barbara Lee, a California Democrat, cast
the only vote against the resolution authorizing the use of force to
respond. Lee's vote earned her death threats and pundit predictions that
she was finished politically, but she won her March Democratic primary
race with 85 percent of the vote. And the "Barbara Lee Speaks for Me"
movement that started in her Oakland-based district has spread; in July
several thousand people packed a Santa Cruz, California, movie theater
to celebrate "Barbara Lee Day." Said Santa Cruz Mayor Christopher Krohn:
"She's become a national moral leader in awakening the movement for
justice, peace and a thorough re-examination of US foreign policy."
Responded Lee: "It must not be unpatriotic to question a course of
action. It must not be unpatriotic to raise doubts. I suggest to you it
is just the opposite."
Senator Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat who cast the only Senate
vote against the USA Patriot Act's assault on civil liberties, still
marvels at the standing ovations he receives when his vote is mentioned.
"I thought this would be a difficult vote," says Feingold, who recently
earned the best home-state approval ratings of his career. "What I
didn't realize was that a lot of people are concerned about free speech
and repression of liberties, even in a time of war. I didn't realize
until I cast my vote that there was so much concern about whether it was
appropriate, whether it was allowed, to dissent after September 11. I
think that for a lot of people, my vote told them it was still
appropriate to dissent."
Some members who have challenged the Bush Administration have suffered
politically--notably Georgia Representative Cynthia McKinney, who lost
an August Democratic primary. But most are secure in their seats, and
one is even being boomed as a potential Democratic presidential
contender. Representative Dennis Kucinich's February speech condemning
the bombing of Afghan civilians and the repression of American civil
liberties drew an overwhelmingly positive response that Kucinich, an
Ohio Democrat, says is evidence of broad uncertainty about militarism
abroad and economic and constitutional costs at home.
Democratic Representative Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin led several House
members in writing a letter in December questioning White House policies
that emphasize bullets and badgering as opposed to diplomacy and
development; and John Conyers of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the
House Judiciary Committee, has kept the heat on the Justice Department
regarding civil liberties--often with the support of Judiciary Committee
chair James Sensenbrenner, a conservative Republican. Still, says
Kucinich, "our constituents are perhaps more prepared than Congress for
the debate that should be going on."
Bill Keys, a school board member in Madison, Wisconsin, shares that
view. Keys's October 2001 refusal to require the recitation of the
Pledge of Allegiance in city schools earned three days of broadcast
rebukes from radio personality Rush Limbaugh, physical threats and a
movement to recall him from office. The recall drive fizzled before
winter and, this spring, Keys was elected president of the board. "The
strange thing is that once I became identified as this awful radical,
people started coming up to me and saying, 'Don't you let them shut you
up,'" recalls Keys. "If the last year taught us anything, it's this:
Yes, of course, if you step out of the mainstream you will get called
names and threatened. But you will also discover that a lot of Americans
still recognize that dissenters are the real defenders of freedom."
Sparks fly in the debate over the war on terror.
Workers in the country's most dangerous industry are struggling for
In 1998 the World Bank notified the Bolivian government that it would
refuse to guarantee a $25 million loan to refinance water services in
the Bolivian city of Cochabamba unless the local government sold its
public water utility to the private sector and passed on the costs to
consumers. Bolivian authorities gave the contract to a holding company
for US construction giant Bechtel, which immediately doubled the price
of water. For most Bolivians, this meant that water would now cost more
than food. Led by Oscar Olivera, a former machinist turned union
activist, a broad-based movement of workers, peasants, farmers and
others created La Coordinadora de Defensa del Agua y de la Vida (the
Coalition in Defense of Water and Life) to deprivatize the local water
In early 2000 thousands of Bolivians marched to Cochabamba in a showdown
with the government, and a general strike and transportation stoppage
brought the city to a standstill. In spite of mass arrests, violence and
several deaths, the people held firm; in the spring of that year, the
company abandoned Bolivia and the government revoked its hated
privatization legislation. With no one to run the local water company,
leaders of the uprising set up a new public company, whose first act was
to deliver water to the poorest communities in the city. Bechtel,
meanwhile, is suing the government of Bolivia for $25 million at the
World Bank's International Centre for the Settlement of Investment
More than thirty years ago, in an essay called "Uncle Tom and Tiny Tim:
Some Reflections on the Cripple as Negro," I suggested that cripples
emulate the civil rights movement by focusing on political solutions to
the problems of living under difficult physical conditions. (It's a lost
battle, but I continue to prefer the term "cripple" to the bland "disabled.") The problems cripples faced seemed as much the result of our inability to
define our needs as they were the fault of a society quite willing to
live with its ignorance of those problems and quite willing not to see
us at all unless absolutely forced to. It wasn't until the late 1960s
that cripples began to believe that they had the right to demand that
America meet their needs.
Anyone who has spent significant time living with a serious physical
condition probably has had an experience similar to the following:
entering a restaurant with another person, he (or she) finds that the
waiter is addressing not him but the person he is with. He is a
category, and categories are simply assumed to be unable to take
responsibility even for something as minor as placing an order. Yet even
such infantilization can seem liberating if the cripple realizes that
the problem it bespeaks is political rather than psychological: One
infantilizes the other by assuming attitudes held by society at large.
And this process is something that the cripple, too, is encouraged to
do. Even Randolph Bourne, as tough a social critic as America ever
produced, looks inward in his famous essay "The Handicapped," published
back in 1911. Writing about other issues, Bourne understands that
political problems demand political solutions. But when it concerns the
cripple, among whose ranks he was numbered, he was curiously
inner-directed and soft.
The demand for the rights of cripples was already under way as I was
writing "Uncle Tom and Tiny Tim." And while I would be happier without
much of the rhetoric of the Disability Rights Movement, to its credit,
it has helped change the consciousness of those who must confront the
world with physical disabilities. Both its success and its burgeoning
political potential seemed wishful thinking in 1969, when I still
dismissed its prospects. But that success was confirmed with the
enactment of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990. Despite its
admitted weaknesses, few Congressional acts more deserve the term
"landmark legislation." The Americans With Disabilities Act promised
those forced to live with severe physical impairments the possibility of
legal if not functional equality. Its most profound accomplishment, even
allowing for the vagueness of definition that has come to haunt it, was
to accept the idea that cripples have the right to specific
accommodations that meet their employment needs. For a population
battling the indignities of permanent illness, its promise was
comparable to that of the Civil Rights Act for African-Americans in
Twelve years after its passage, that promise seems about to be swamped
by a legal system in which what constitutes a workplace disability is
undefined and perhaps undefinable. The confusion about what would seem
to be the most elementary of definitions--what is meant when we speak of
a disability--threatens to weaken if not make the act virtually useless.
The cripple's demand for rights still commands a good deal of public
interest and a degree of public sympathy. Yet the Americans With
Disabilities Act has not led to widespread political activity on behalf
of the nation's cripples. Their quest for equality is not only
threatened with that most severe of American sins, being relegated to
political unfashionability, but the question of what a disability is
shows few signs of being resolved in favor of those whom the act was
supposed to help. Recent Supreme Court rulings in which disability was
ill defined must be seen as setbacks for those who look to the judiciary
to enforce what the act called for, a policy of accessibility and
inclusiveness. The Court ruled in April by a 5-to-4 majority in US
Airways v. Barnett that US Airways' seniority system took precedence
over the right of a disabled worker to transfer to a more suitable job.
In Toyota Motor Manufacturing v. Williams, the Court ruled
unanimously that the definition of disability must mean substantial
limitations on abilities "central to daily life," not just the job. And
the Court also unanimously held, in mid-June in Chevron U.S.A. v.
Echazabal, that employers had the right to refuse to hire a worker
whose health they believed might be impaired by performing a particular
For this alone Ruth O'Brien's Crippled Justice is a welcome
addition to the literature on living with disability. A professor of
political science at the City University of New York, O'Brien approaches
her subject armed with an analytical perspective nurtured by her earlier
work. Her first book, Workers' Paradox: The Republican Origins of New
Deal Labor Policy, 1886-1935, already reflected her interest in the
subject of workers' rights. Yet even academic inquiries can be rooted in
personal experience. "Had I not sustained what is now a ubiquitous
workplace injury," she writes, "a debilitating case of bilateral
tendinitis in my hands and forearms, I might never have explored the
development and implementation of...disability policy." Yet the focus of Crippled Justice is neither
personal nor anecdotal. It is a serious inquiry into the history of
public policy as that policy has affected large numbers of men and women
crippled by illness, accident or birth. As serious scholarship is
expected to be, it is factual and analytical. The past few decades have
witnessed a rich expansion of memoirs and essays by writers forced to
struggle with their own physical or mental deterioration, books that
depict what life is like for those who must live it with severe illness.
But the kind of political analysis O'Brien offers in Crippled
Justice is what, I believe, cripples need now.
Analysis demands perspective, particularly when it begins in personal
experience. While bilateral tendinitis may not have the same sort of
consequences as, say, pushing through life in a wheelchair or trying to
earn a living as a blind person, the experience limited O'Brien's normal
ability to function. It turned her temporarily from normal to cripple.
And however temporary an experience, it was also sufficiently
dehumanizing to give her a strong sense of what life is like for those
forced to live with more severe conditions. The first discovery one
makes on entering the shadowy world of cripples is that one no longer
defines need, ability and ambition for oneself. The experience of living
with disability forced Ruth O'Brien to recognize that the cripple must
"struggle over the same issues that women and minorities battle." But
she also saw that the problems cripples faced were in some ways less
soluble and in others more mechanical than the problems of other groups.
Nothing would be more beneficial to cripples as a group than a fantasy
I've held for the past decade--a law that would make it mandatory for
every elected official in the country to live a single week each year as
If nothing else, that would show that the problems involved are as
political as they are psychological. And that is why I am grateful that
Crippled Justice restricts itself to the conditions cripples
confront in the workplace. To the writer, physical disability offers a
personal confrontation. And as is the case with writers, that
confrontation is about language. But what the cripple confronts in the
workplace, as O'Brien shows, are confrontations that have solutions. And
those solutions are political. What she tells us about the history of
disability policy in the workplace may not be as powerful or as dramatic
as, say, Andre Dubus writing about the changes that were imposed upon
his life by the sudden transition he underwent from being a normal man
to being wheelchair-bound. Nor does Crippled Justice offer us the
savage honesty of Harold Brodkey writing about his own impending death
from AIDS. O'Brien's focus is more mundane, which is to say that it is
more political: She is interested in the possibility of a meaningful
work life for those who lack the talent of a Dubus or a Brodkey.
We do not, of course, read memoirs and essays to create public policy
but to recreate individual lives. Yet if the experience of being forced
to live as a cripple is invariably personal, the reality of how
one lives that life is invariably political. I have no choice but to
accept being in a wheelchair. On the other hand, the New York through
which I push myself has any number of choices in how it reacts to my
need for that wheelchair. It is able to define how I live, what is now
subsumed under that horrendous phrase "quality of life," through the
public policy decisions it makes. Such seemingly trivial items as the
condition of the streets through which I push speak less eloquently but
more truthfully of what is or isn't possible for me than Dubus's essays
or my own essays or Nancy Mairs's essays. Public policy defines the
boundaries of the cripple's life. Mundane issues such as the condition
of the streets and the accessibility of restaurants and stores and
theaters (and how the Court defines disability) speak to the cripple's
ability to live with dignity.
The first half of Crippled Justice offers a historical overview
of the rehabilitation of the cripple in America. The ideas dominating
medical and social policy after the end of the Second World War in 1945
were largely formulated by two physicians, Dr. Howard Rusk and Dr. Henry
Kessler. (War may be unhealthy for children and other living things, but
it has done wonders for the fields of prosthetics and rehabilitation
medicine.) Rusk and Kessler are among the villains of the book, since,
along with Mary Switzer, the federal bureaucrat responsible for the
Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1954, they created models of
rehabilitation still largely followed today. From Freud and even more
from William Menninger, rehabilitation medicine was inspired to shift
its focus from the need to treat the cripple's physical symptoms to the
need to treat the whole person. And the models were psychological.
O'Brien describes "the deep strain of individualism in American
liberalism" as the source of the mistaken path rehabilitation medicine
took. Yet I am not convinced that individualism is so negative in the
life of the cripple. No one can overcome the effects of disability
through mere willpower or a well-developed work ethic--but a
well-developed sense of self helps if one is to be a "success" as a
cripple. One might even suggest that the successful cripple must combine
a free-market head with a socialist soul. Perhaps more than others do,
he needs to see himself as singular. After all, what else can account
for all those memoirs about the singularity of the experience of
disability? The best passage I know about living as a cripple--as moving
to me as Shylock's "Hath not a Jew" speech--wasn't written by a cripple
but by a healthy Saul Bellow at the height of his powers. Put into the
mouth of the poolroom entrepreneur in The Adventures of Augie
March, its power derives from how it speaks for us cripples as it
speaks about Einhorn's aching sense of his individual quandary.
O'Brien is on more solid ground when writing about how Rusk and Kessler
expected the "sick" individual to "adjust" to what they viewed as a
"healthy" society. The cripple unable to make the adjustment was a
social and psychological problem. Even so, one can argue that the
individualism O'Brien finds irritating is the cripple's best chance to
find salvation. Ambition should be made of sterner stuff than turning
all problems into psychological barriers. At the same time, the desire
to get even with an unjust fate shouldn't be dismissed lightly.
Liberalism may have a lot to answer for where attitudes toward the
cripple are concerned, but excessive concern with individualism is not
the biggest item on that bill. Still, the psychologizing of disability
was a mistake for which we continue to pay a price. And it remains, I
believe, the source of the Court's restricted vision of workplace
The conditions cripples face in the workplace cannot be conquered by
their adjusting to normal society but by society making certain minor
but necessary adjustments to their problems. By the 1970s the
psychological definition of the cripple had already shown how limited it
was. But is it better to define the cripple legally? Despite its immense
promise, the Americans With Disabilities Act is, as O'Brien writes, "an
idiosyncratic body of law." Where once cripples had to convince the
world of their ability to meet standards set by normals, they are now
expected to meet thresholds of disability set by a Court that seems
oblivious to the obvious. When the issue is as clear-cut as it was in
the case of the golfer on the PGA Tour, Casey Martin, whose bone
deterioration made it impossible for him to walk the links although it
didn't prevent him from playing golf, the courts seem willing to allow
the spirit of the original act to serve as its definition. But even that
makes the judiciary our "modern-day experts of vocational rehabilitation
because of the idiosyncratic nature of disability." The Court has not
yet claimed the right to define whether an individual is or is not a
cripple. But by insisting on its right to define what constitutes
disability in the workplace, it has assumed the power of defining what
the consequences of being a cripple are. As far as work is
concerned, cripples "have gone from being subjects of medicine to
subjects of law." Whether this is an improvement over the psychologizing
of disability is certainly open to question. The conclusion of
Crippled Justice is not despairing but it is skeptical. And for
good reason. In a valuable study of workplace disability as both a
political and social issue, O'Brien has performed a service to anyone
interested in social justice. Unfortunately, recent Supreme Court
decisions threaten to make her skepticism the book's lasting legacy.
Whether defined by the judges or doctors, it seems to be the cripple's
fate to be defined as the other.