I first met Ady Barkan in the halls of Congress protesting Trump’s 2017 tax cut bill for corporations and the 1 percent. Ady was very sick. He was in a wheelchair going from congressional office to congressional office pleading for his life.
Ady Barkan has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and his fight with health insurance companies—and the government—illustrates why we need Medicare for All. It costs $9,000 per month just to keep Ady alive. He’s been told by his doctors that he doesn’t have long to live.
Yet Barkan, a 35-year-old lawyer and political activist from California, refuses to give up. On Tuesday, he will launch a new video interview series with 2020 Democratic presidential candidates. In the debut episode, Ady discusses the future of health care policy in the United States with Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
“For the last three years I have been fighting our representatives in Washington to replace our unjust, predatory, and discriminatory health care system with coverage that protects the American people,” Barkan says in the trailer for his upcoming video series Uncovered.
Back in 2017, when we worked together to defend the Affordable Care Act (ACA), Ady knew that the GOP tax bill’s repeal of the individual mandate, the linchpin of the ACA, could be a potential death sentence for himself and millions of other Americans. Ady led us in a series of nonviolent direct actions that took place in the Hart Building and the Russell Rotunda and inside and outside the offices of senators and members of Congress.
Megan Anderson, a longtime disability rights activist from Cincinnati, recalls teaming up with Ady to confront Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) over the senator’s support for the bill. “Ady and I had an instant connection,” Anderson said. “We both have neuromuscular disabilities, and we both understand the value of community. Ady teaches us to empower one another and to build [onto] our gifts we were put on earth to share.”
Ady’s defiant acts of protest inspired activists across the country to join the fight to ensure that health care is a human right. And despite his deteriorating physical condition, Ady has always projected boundless joy and optimism into the world—even as the Capitol Police repeatedly took him into custody for expressing radical acts of love through nonviolent civil disobedience.
Today, Ady is continuing to help build a powerful grassroots movement to win Medicare for All. (Senator Sanders is the author of the Medicare for All Act of 2019.) Health care is the leading issue dominating the Democratic presidential primary campaign.
A veteran organizer at the Center for Popular Democracy, Ady’s ability to combine strategic organizing with tactical action is extraordinary. He has exemplified social justice work on a national level, showing a path beyond retrenchment that connects a vision of transformative justice with grassroots activism. For many of us, Ady Barkan represents the moral center of the political revolution.
“Ady taught me that no matter how difficult the circumstances are, we can’t give up, because so many are counting on us,” said Linda Sarsour, cofounder of the Women’s March. “In Ady’s world, every breath is sacred and used to make this world just a little better than we found it ”
Ady’s catalytic confrontation with Senator Jeff Flake made national headlines, but did not end with a viral video. Instead, it sparked what would become an urgent national discussion about health care. Ady’s story resonated across party identification and ideology, because everyone in America knows what it’s like to have a family member who is ill.
Since that fateful exchange with Senator Flake on the airplane, Barkan went on to launch the Be A Hero PAC, which has raised $4.5 million to defeat Maine Senator Susan Collins in favor of a progressive candidate.
As his physical condition deteriorates, Ady continues to participate in civil disobedience. He’s been arrested in the US Capitol building half a dozen times, and earlier this year, I was by his side when he testified in support of Medicare for All.
I was awestruck by Ady’s bravery and ability to articulate a clear set of demands to lawmakers about an issue that affects all of us. I was also furious. Furious because our health care system has failed Ady, and so many people in America.
“This moment calls on us all to become organizers,” Ady wrote last November. “To be heroes for our communities and future generations. To talk to our less political friends, neighbors, classmates, and co-workers, and to enlist them in this experiment we call American democracy.”