I miss street protesting. It’s good for my soul. It’s been one of my keys for maintaining good mental health. But I’ve found that street protesting is a bit like toilet paper: You don’t realize how vital it is until it’s not around anymore.
The street protesting has stopped, but the stuff that makes me want to get out there and protest keeps coming. It never stops. It’s like I have a terrible itch that I can’t scratch.
I’m used to hitting the streets at least a few times a year with my comrades from the disability rights group ADAPT. I’ve been doing it for about thirty years. There’s nothing more invigorating and life-affirming than getting together with a bunch of fellow malcontents and doing something raucous—like blocking an intersection or taking over the office of some deserving soul like Mitch McConnell. It’s especially rewarding when we get arrested as a result.
I’ve been arrested about two dozen times for engaging in acts of civil disobedience. Many of my ADAPT comrades have been arrested even more than I have. This kind of street protesting sure makes me feel like I have some say in what’s going on. (If you’ve never tried it, I highly recommend it. You don’t know what you’re missing.)
But it’s been more than two years since I’ve taken part in an ADAPT action. They’ve been placed on hold, like so many other joyous get-togethers, because of this damn pandemic.
About the only thing that can stop ADAPTers from protesting is the fear of dying if we do so. The street protesting has stopped, but the stuff that makes me want to get out there and protest keeps coming. It never stops. It’s like I have a terrible itch that I can’t scratch.
I’m jonesing for that wonderful buzz that I can derive only from helping strike a blow for justice. So I’m feeling deeply restless, stuck in the mud. Maybe I’m just too old fashioned. Maybe when I feel the protest itch, I need to get past the knee-jerk assumption that all I can do about it is grab a sign and take to the streets. I need to remind myself that there are plenty of other important ways to participate more from the sidelines. Other people do it all the time.
I could, for instance, give money. That’s very important. Every movement needs money. Even if your goal is to obliterate every glimmer of capitalism throughout the universe, you still need money to make it happen.
And besides, I’ve been personally urged to become a philanthropist by Barbra Streisand herself! I received an email from her awhile back with the subject line, “I’m coming to you for help, Mike.” The email said it was “critical” that I join her in helping a certain environmental action group reach its $65,000 fundraising goal.
Wow! I didn’t think Streisand even knew I existed. And then I got a follow-up email from a guy representing Streisand’s pet environmental group. He identified himself only as “Kevin,” and the email subject line said, “Mike, Barbra Streisand reached out to you.” The email reiterated how urgent it is for me to give.
But I still didn’t contribute. I guess I figured that if Barbra Streisand really wants to help some activist group raise $65,000, she could probably make that happen without me.
Besides, the most I could give right now would be maybe twenty-five bucks or so. I know they say that no amount is too small, but donating such a small sum wouldn’t do much to scratch my protest itch. If I had George-Soros-type money to give, I could set aside a few million to bankroll a group of malcontents to repeatedly do raucous things like blocking an intersection or occupying Mitch McConnell’s office. That might come close to replicating the thrill and satisfaction I get from street protesting.
Another way I can take action is by signing a petition. Solicitations to sign online petitions land in my email inbox pretty much every day.
Some of these petition campaigns seem like they’re doomed from the start. For instance, one of the petitions I received was addressed to Texas Governor Greg Abbott. It read: “If you care about helping the people in Texas . . .” Clearly, he doesn’t, so I deleted it right there. But most of the petitions are pushing for something I can get behind, so I click to sign, even though it doesn’t do much to scratch my protest itch. It feels like an empty gesture.
I can’t believe that petitions do much good. The whole routine just seems too easy. There’s no struggle involved. And isn’t it true that nothing big and important can happen without an equally big struggle?
Maybe I could sue somebody. That sounds like it could be entertaining. I bet it would be especially fun to sue one of those rideshare companies, like Uber or Lyft. Those guys are practically begging to be sued. I think it would be heroic and rewarding to knock them down a peg or two—not just for the betterment of disabled people, but for the betterment of all. The arrogant, libertarian business model of those rideshare companies is designed to deliver maximum profits by passing on most of the costs and risks of doing business to the workers.
To maintain their income gusher, rideshare companies shirk responsibility for not discriminating against customers, including people with disabilities. Drivers have sometimes refused to transport blind people and their dogs. And wheelchair users have sued because often it’s damn near impossible to find a ridesharing vehicle that’s wheelchair accessible, since the drivers use their own cars.
Some disabled folks have sued rideshare companies for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. Lyft and Uber have tried to weasel out of these lawsuits by trying to create a dangerous loophole in the ADA. They say the rules don’t apply to them because they are not transportation companies, just simple, humble providers of technology to connect drivers with customers.
The courts have consistently rejected this argument. That’s the good news. The other good news is that lawsuits filed by the National Federation of the Blind of California have resulted in settlements that require all Lyft and Uber drivers to accept service animals as a condition of employment.
But the bad news is that the wheelchair-access lawsuits have not produced a similarly positive and comprehensive result. One early case ended in a secret settlement. In September, a federal judge ruled that Lyft did not violate the ADA by failing to offer wheelchair-accessible vehicles in parts of the San Francisco Bay Area, because doing so would cost too much money.
So hailing a Lyft or Uber ride if you need a wheelchair-accessible vehicle is still very much a shot in the dark. Maybe you’ll eventually get a ride if there happens to be an accessible vehicle out and about, but don’t count on it. That’s the opposite of how it is for people who don’t need wheelchair-accessible vehicles. They can be confident that the ride they need is right around the corner.
Still, as deserving as some people are of being sued, I’m not sure that filing lawsuits can scratch my protesting itch. Courts are too fickle for my taste. It’s way too easy to lose in court and I’m too much of a sore loser.
I take no solace in moral victories or in fighting the good fight. I want to win, dammit! And if I’m in the right, which I am, then I ought to win. But in the courts, it often doesn’t matter if you’re right. All that matters is how some judge decides.
It would be so cool to win a lawsuit and become a revered, triumphant plaintiff in a landmark civil rights case like Obergefell v. Hodges, Loving v. Virginia, Brown v. Board of Education, or L.C. in Olmstead v. L.C. That would probably fill me with a lasting sense of righteousness and perhaps tide me over in the absence of street-protesting opportunities.
But if I file a lawsuit and lose, I’ll probably feel just the opposite—like I’ve wasted a ton of blood, sweat, tears, and legal fees.
When I’m street protesting, I feel much more in control of my destiny. I feel like if we just keep at it and don’t give up, it’s inevitable that we will eventually win, because we’re right.
I can’t wait for this damn pandemic to end.