Thursday, July 4, 2019

E-Book Release | "CAPITALISM AND DISABILITY: Essays by Marta Russell," ed., Keith Rosenthal

The electronic version of the new book I edited is now available for immediate download through the Haymarket Books website!

https://www.haymarketbooks.org/books/1303-capitalism-and-disability


Capitalism and Disability 
Selected Writings by Marta Russell 

Edited by Keith Rosenthal


This book comprises a collection of groundbreaking writings by Marta Russell on the nature of disability and oppression under capitalism. 

Spread out over many years and many different publications, the late author and activist Marta Russell wrote a number of groundbreaking and insightful essays on the nature of disability and oppression under capitalism. In this volume, Russell’s various essays are brought together in one place in order to provide a useful and expansive resource to those interested in better understanding the ways in which the modern phenomenon of disability is shaped by capitalist economic and social relations. The essays range in analysis from the theoretical to the topical, including but not limited to: the emergence of disability as a “human category” rooted in the rise of industrial capitalism and the transformation of the conditions of work, family, and society corresponding thereto; a critique of the shortcomings of a purely “civil rights approach” to addressing the persistence of disability oppression in the economic sphere, with a particular focus on the legacy of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990; an examination of the changing position of disabled people within the overall system of capitalist production utilizing the Marxist economic concepts of the reserve army of the unemployed, the labor theory of value, and the exploitation of wage-labor; the effects of neoliberal capitalist policies on the living conditions and social position of disabled people as it pertains to welfare, income assistance, health care, and other social security programs; imperialism and war as a factor in the further oppression and immiseration of disabled people within the United States and globally; and the need to build unity against the divisive tendencies which hide the common economic interest shared between disabled people and the often highly-exploited direct care workers who provide services to the former.

https://www.haymarketbooks.org/books/1303-capitalism-and-disability

Monday, April 22, 2019

Archive of articles written for SocialistWorker.org

http://socialistworker.org/author/keith-rosenthal


PSYCHIATRIC POLICING WON’T STOP GUN VIOLENCE
15 March 2018

PEOPLE ARE sharing around stories about how lax our gun laws are in regard to people with mental illness. In particular, they are criticizing Trump's decision in February 2017 to overturn one of Obama's last executive orders, which placed increased restrictions on the ability of people with mental illnesses to obtain guns.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Disability and the Soviet Union: Advances and retreats (Part 2 of 2)

This article originally appeared in ISR #103.

Part two of a two-part article (see part one here).

By the end of October 1917, the Bolshevik Party had won a clear majority of workers and peasants within the nationwide network of soviets (revolutionary councils) to their program of the overthrow of the capitalist, or provisional, government which had replaced the deposed tsar. Almost immediately after carrying out the revolution, the Bolsheviks began reshaping all of Russia. To be sure, their ambitions in these first optimistic years far outstripped the limited means which Russia’s backward economy put at their disposal. Yet, hopeful as they were in the spread of the revolution to the advanced capitalist countries of Europe—bringing with it the promise of direct international aid and an end to the economic siege organized by said capitalist countries—the Bolsheviks began reordering society in a truly revolutionary direction. There were three major areas in which the revolution effected significant change in the area of disability: law and policy; labor and the economy; and health and education. Changes in law and policy were discussed in part one of this article. The present article will address the impact of the revolution on the latter two categories.

===


Labor and the economy
The dramatic nature of many of the legal decrees notwithstanding, it is important to note that the Soviet government’s maximum agenda in the first years after the revolution remained largely aspirational. From its inception, the revolution had been fettered by the underdeveloped economic conditions inherited from tsarist feudalism and a disastrous world war; the inception of a counterrevolutionary civil war backed by the imperialist Allied countries of Europe and the United States; and a debilitating economic blockade placed upon Russia by an alliance of imperialist countries. As a result, it was estimated that by 1919 industrial production had declined to a mere one-fifth of its prewar high.1
At best, the revolutionary government could set for itself the initial task of dividing up equally amongst the population the existent accumulated domestic wealth of the landowners and capitalists. Such a measure could provide immediate relief to the population, but could not stave off hunger and the generalization of want for more than a brief period. The Bolsheviks were therefore acutely aware that the eventual success of socialism in Russia hinged entirely upon the spreading of revolution to the wealthier capitalist nations of the world, from whom Russia could obtain substantial economic aid and favorable relations of trade. Failing that, the Russian people were doomed to either remain mired in relative poverty or else face a growing compulsion to proceed down the road championed by the Bolsheviks’ conservative detractors: namely, to act as a kind of surrogate bourgeoisie committed to wealth accumulation via the exploitation of labor. As Engels had long before noted in The Peasant War in Germany, 
The worst thing that can befall a leader of an extreme party is to be compelled to take over a government in an epoch when the movement is not yet ripe for the domination of the class which he represents and for the realization of the measures which that domination would imply. What he can do depends not upon his will but upon the sharpness of the clash of interests between the various classes, and upon the degree of development of the material means of existence. . . . Thus he necessarily finds himself in a dilemma. What he can do is in contrast to all his actions as hitherto practiced, to all his principles and to the present interests of his party; what he ought to do cannot be achieved. In a word, he is compelled to represent not his party or his class, but the class for whom conditions are ripe for domination.2 
For the time being, however, the working class of Russia was simply determined to enjoy the immediate fruits of its victory. The experience of the revolution itself had thoroughly imbued Russian society with seemingly unbounded feelings of hope, solidarity, and comradeship. The watchword of the day was that the welfare and well-being of all trumped all other concerns.
Naturally, the reorganization of the economy proceeded along lines informed by this prevailing mood. Initially, this was done largely spontaneously as workers and peasants took matters into their own hands. They were not waiting for Soviet decrees, but simply proceeding to reorganize their lives, knowing that the soviets—their soviets—would invariably codify their actions after the fact. To this end, a massive wave of factory and workplace takeovers directly succeeded the revolution. The lowest strata of the peasantry likewise engaged in mass seizures and occupations of the former estates and mansions of the landed aristocracy.
Having thus placed the means of production under their own cooperative control, the workers immediately began to freely adapt and accommodate the labor process to their abilities, needs, and desires. This took the following forms: slowing down the pace of work; decreasing the length of the workday; prioritizing the implementation of safety precautions and measures; creating substantially more flexible work schedules; exerting more direct control over the flow and process of the work; and allowing for greater flexibility in the division of labor within the production process. 
The promise of such a socialist reorganization of the economy was, as Lenin wrote in December 1917, to draw “the majority of working people into a field of labor in which they can display their abilities, develop the capacities, and reveal those talents, so abundant among the people whom capitalism crushed, suppressed, and strangled in thousands and millions.” 
Every factory from which the capitalist has been ejected, or in which he has at least been curbed by genuine workers’ control, every village from which the landowning exploiter has been smoked out and his land confiscated has only now become a field in which the working man can reveal his talents, unbend his back a little, rise to his full height, and feel that he is a human being.3
Reminiscing decades later on the practical changes which the revolution in the factories had initially wreaked, the Bolshevik leader Nadezhda Krupskaya wrote, “The revolution had done away with the bullying, swearing and driving class of foremen and bosses, and the worker was glad to be rid of them, glad to be able to sit down and have a smoke when he was tired without anyone driving him. At the beginning the factory organizations readily released the workers to attend all kinds of meetings.” She continues by relating a particularly illustrative anecdote which occurred in early 1918: 
I remember a woman worker coming to me once at the Commissariat of Education to receive some certificate or other. During our conversation I asked her what shift she was working in. I thought she was working in the night shift, otherwise she would not have been able to come to the Commissariat in the daytime. “None of us are working today,” [she said]. “We had a meeting yesterday evening, everyone was behindhand with her domestic work at home, so we voted to knock off today. We’re the bosses now, you know.”4
Another aspect of the revolution that immediately expressed itself throughout the economy was the desire for equality between all sectors of the working class. For instance, whereas in August 1917 the ratio between unskilled and skilled workers’ wages was 1:2.32, by 1920 it had become 1:1.04.5 Historian Marcel Liebman notes that for Lenin and the Bolshevik party, the impossibility of achieving the complete equalization of wages was in fact seen as “one of the constraints imposed by the crisis and by the country’s economic backwardness, and [Lenin] regarded the necessity of giving specialists specially favored rates of pay as nothing less than a setback for the revolution. In the draft program he put before the Eighth Party Congress [March 1919] he repeated: ‘our ultimate aim is to achieve . . . equal remuneration for all kinds of work.’”6
The spirit of equality that attended the democratization of the production process also applied to issues that existed at the intersection of workplace accommodation and gender. For instance, some workplaces established free on-site childcare spaces for the benefit of working mothers, while others implemented regulations allowing working mothers to take off up to two hours out of their normal workday for the purposes of feeding their children.7 
Perhaps one of the most popular new accommodations that Russian workers now enjoyed was the ability to take a near-unlimited number of paid sick days and respites away from work. Because the new revolutionary healthcare system was controlled by the workers, patients, and local soviets—and because the health system was free, universal, and removed from the dictates of market profitability and finance capital—it became easy for a worker suffering from injury or ill health to obtain authorization from a nearby medical center excusing them from work for a given period of time or indicating the necessity of a change in their workload or workflow.8 
In addition to paid sick leave, revolutionary Russia also became the first country in the world where all workers, without exception, had the right to an annual paid vacation of two to four weeks. 9 Moreover, the Soviet government took the added measure of facilitating the widespread enjoyment of this right by seizing the beautiful seaside palaces and country estates of the former aristocracy and bourgeoisie and opening them up to peasants and workers to use for free as therapeutic resorts and communal vacation homes.10
Outside of the immediate sphere of relations pertaining to the workplace, there were a number of broader noteworthy social changes that improved the accessibility of general economic and civic life to all. For instance, important services such as public transit, electrical power, and postal and parcel delivery were provided free of charge to the populace at government expense.11 
Another significant development was the national campaign to establish free communal kitchens, laundries, childcare, and the like; the primary aim being to lift the many tasks of social reproduction off the shoulders of the individual family unit in general, and women workers in particular. Though the scale of these communal experiments was unfortunately limited by overall economic constraints, it is clear that those who especially stood to benefit from such measures were mothers with disabilities and mothers who had children with disabilities. Additionally, with the complete socialization and universalization of many tasks associated with individual daily living, all people with disabilities would be able to more easily obtain all manner of personal (i.e., communal) assistance necessary for meaningful self-development and realization.
Ultimately, a fully accurate depiction of the labor and economic situation in revolutionary Russia cannot be complete without recognition of the exigencies that stymied all but the most halting progress. By the end of 1918, sabotage, economic blockade, and open civil war on the part of the capitalist class and its international imperialist backers was well underway. From 1918 to 1921, the area under Soviet control was a society literally under a state of siege. Famine, unemployment, and the near-total breakdown of railroad transport plagued the cities and countryside alike. This was the period of so-called War Communism (a horribly inexact appellation), in which every nerve and fiber of Soviet society was marshaled toward the fortification and defense of the revolution. In many regards, it marked a significant retreat (or at the very least, an austere detour) from the path of democratic, cooperative, and post-coercive socialist development. As Trotsky put it in retrospect, “War Communism was the regime of a beleaguered fortress.”12
At the war’s conclusion, the peasant-worker alliance which had made the tsar’s overthrow possible began to break down under the weight of generalized scarcity, postwar exhaustion, and industrial collapse. The breakdown of transportation and the outbreak of the civil war crisis prompted the new government in August 1918 to begin sending detachments of workers and poor peasants into the countryside to forcibly requisition grain in order to sustain the Red Army and to forestall the depopulation of Russia’s cities. In 1921, with socialist revolution having failed (at least for the moment) to spread internationally, the Bolshevik government initiated a New Economic Policy (NEP) premised upon the limited introduction of capitalist forms of economy. If the policy of War Communism was one of retreat, then NEP marked a retreat from a retreat. Nonetheless, it was deemed a necessary concession to the demands of the peasantry and even elements of the working class, not to mention the very historical economic conditions obtaining in an isolated, dilapidated, and underdeveloped society.
As the decade of the 1920s wore on, the NEP saw the gradual reintroduction of privatized production, the commodities market, wage determination according to the labor market, social and economic inequality, and regularized unemployment. The Bolsheviks who ran the government during this period often felt that they were hostage to circumstances beyond their control in their implementation of NEP. Lenin, for example, remarked at the 1922 party congress: “It was like a car that was going not in the direction the driver desired, but in the direction someone else desired; as if it were being driven by some mysterious, lawless hand, God knows whose, perhaps of a profiteer, or of a private capitalist, or of both.”13
In reflecting upon the limitations and characteristics of Soviet Russia during these years, it is worth returning to Karl Marx, who in one of his more expansive descriptions of communism, wrote of a society in which, 
After the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly — only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!14
And yet, how far Russia of the 1920s was from a society in which such conditions even remotely obtained. If, as Marx wrote, a political superstructure “can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby,”15 then we are compelled to return to the original Bolshevik assertion that a workers’ state that remained isolated in an underdeveloped Russia would be simply unable to conjure into being a genuine communist, classless society. 
Nonetheless, it is worth pointing out that in certain key respects, the genuinely socialist aspirations of the Bolshevik government and the advanced sections of the working class remained evident even during these years of retreat and dissolution. For instance, the 1920s witnessed, inter alia, the emergence of three important labor-oriented disability advocacy organizations that enjoyed the support of both a large number of disabled Russians as well as the Bolshevik government. 
The All-Russian Cooperative of Disabled People (VIKO), All-Russian Union of the Blind (VOS), and All-Russian Union of the Deaf (VOG) were established in 1921, 1923, and 1926, respectively. Insofar as these three organizations were controlled by their members and yet operated with the support and under the aegis of the national government, they were quite without precedent. In fact, it has been argued that VIKO represents the first national pan-disability advocacy organization in modern history.16 VIKO was directly established in December 1921 by a vote of the Council of People’s Commissars.
The structure of VIKO was [that of] a national umbrella disability organization. All decisions were made democratically (in the early ’20s it was still allowed), and only people with disabilities had voting power at VIKO . . . VIKO focused its efforts on providing work opportunities for people with disabilities by creating special production lines, kindergartens, resorts, health retreats, vocational schools and sport centers.17 
Along with VOS and VOG (which operated under the purview of the Commissariat of Social Services), these groups set for themselves the task of integrating disabled Russians into society by helping them find “socially useful work; helping them complete secondary and higher education and find suitable employment; and drawing them into the ranks of active builders of Communist society.”18 Describing the activities of VOS in the mid-1920s, historian Bernice Madison writes, “The effort to do away with illiteracy among the blind began . . . with a cultural revolution of sorts. Clubs, houses of culture, red corners, and libraries multiplied. Night schools were developed; records became available.”19 Of work amongst the deaf, disability studies scholar Sarah Phillips writes, “Thanks to the VOG, which enjoyed the approval of Party functionaries, deaf people were able to nurture a deaf culture and improve the social standing of people with disabilities.”20

Disability and the Russian Revolution (Part 1 of 2)

This article originally appeared in ISR #102.
Part one of a two-part article.
Although there is scant available literature specifically addressing the topic of disability in the context of the Russian Revolution of October 1917, disability issues, nonetheless, figured quite prominently in it. As evidenced by the demands raised and literature produced by the revolutionary masses and parties in the years leading up to the revolution, disability seems to have been a significant contributing factor to the upheaval. Disability was an explicit component of the Bolshevik party program and propaganda between 1903 and 1917; after 1917, it was an area subject to much social and legislative reform on the part of the revolutionary government, which was in turn a product of the disability politics raised explicitly by the revolutionary soldiers, workers, and peasant masses.
Owing to the distortions of both Stalinist and Western capitalist ideologues, this history has largely been hidden or ignored. To be sure, the fate of people with disabilities in Russia after the turn toward forced
industrialization, capital accumulation, and exploitation of wage labor in the late 1920s, followed essentially the same oppressive historical trajectory as that of all newly industrialized and industrializing capitalist societies. Nevertheless, just as Stalinism represented the negation of the emancipatory and socialist character of the Russian Revolution in its first years, so too did the worsening conditions of people with disabilities under Stalinist Russia represent a negation of what had been obtained in revolutionary Russia. 
The 1917 Russian Revolution marked a turning point in the history of the world socialist movement and, indeed, the history of humanity. It was the first time that a revolutionary party founded on the principles of Marxism—that is, the Bolshevik Party—was able to lead the majority of the working class in rising up, defeating the political rule of the capitalists and landowners, and instituting a form of government organized around the democratic self-rule of the exploited and oppressed.1 
While the full scope of the changes that the Bolshevik revolution effected was necessarily limited by the overwhelmingly underdeveloped and internationally isolated nature of Russia’s economy and society, nonetheless what we find in revolutionary Russia is a society that proceeded as far, if not farther, down the road toward the overcoming of disability oppression than any other society before or since. Moreover, this history is arguably proof of the Marxist-derived principle that the liberation of people with disabilities is impossible without the liberation of the entire working class, and the liberation of the entire working class is impossible without the liberation of people with disabilities.2
Russia before the revolution
The Russian economy at the turn of the century was largely agrarian and impoverished, combined with small but growing advanced pockets of industrial capital. Roughly 80 percent of the population was rural and consisted of small farmers, or peasants, working for semi-feudal landowners, while urban wageworkers, or proletarians, comprised roughly 15 percent of the population. What existed was an incipient capitalism, overshadowed by pre-capitalist feudal relations, all under the autocratic hand of the tsarist monarchy. The peasants and workers had virtually no rights, either at work, at home, or in civil society, and there was no apparatus in place for the provision of such basic public services as health care, social security, or unemployment assistance.
It was in this context that mass struggle began to emerge between the years 1900 and 1905. This struggle ultimately set the revolutionary overthrow of the tsar as its central demand, but it also raised an entire range of social and economic demands in the process. Though the 1905 uprising was violently repressed by the tsarist state, it nonetheless had a profound and lasting impact on the whole of Russian society. The demands raised in 1905, as well as the revolutionary methods of organization and struggle—the soviet (council) and the mass strike—would be brought even more forcefully to bear in 1917. 
In relation to the issue of disability, a number of these demands and struggles were of particular note. These include a demand for the development of a national system of social security, and in particular, for comprehensive disability insurance; a demand for the reform and extension of the wholly inadequate health care system; and a demand for the liberation of psychiatry from the tight grip of the tsarist police state, as well as the decriminalization of mental illness. 
Finally, as an addendum of sorts, it is worth exploring briefly the issue of workplace democracy and control as it emerged in the lead up to 1917, and its relevance to certain vital questions pertaining to disability.

Pioneers in the fight for disability rights: The League of the Physically Handicapped

This article was originally published in ISR #90.



IT IS commonly held that the inception of the modern US disability rights movement occurred amidst the social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. Specifically, two major developments figure prominently in this narrative.


The first is the rise of the Independent Living Movement in Berkeley, California. This movement was born of the efforts of a group of disabled University of California students. Politicized by the civil rights struggles of the period, they became active on their Berkeley campus and later established the first independent living center in the United States in 1971. The aim of the center, of which hundreds of others would soon spring up across the country, was to create a space where disabled people could exercise control over all aspects of their lives—professional, medical, social, civic—rather than remain marginalized by a paternalistic society constructed around their exclusion.
The second major landmark of the new disability rights movement was the formation of the group, Disabled In Action (DIA) in New York City, in 1970. Like the independent living centers, DIA sought autonomy for disabled people, but was more explicitly political and organized confrontational protests against discriminatory laws, attitudes, and institutions.
Out of and alongside these two organizations flowed countless springs of disability rights awareness, activism, and organization. This all played a fundamental role in changing the way that society—and most importantly, disabled people themselves—viewed the question of disability. This transformation is best expressed in the articulation of what has come to be known as the social model of disability. In sum, this model explains disability oppression as a phenomenon which limits the self-determination and life opportunities of people with impairments, and which arises primarily from social and political—rather than medical or personal—factors.
In other words, it is not the existence of a physical or mental impairment itself which diminishes one’s life, but rather the systemic unemployment, poverty, discrimination, segregation, etc., imposed upon people with impairments by an inaccessible and unaccommodating society. As Judy Heumann, founder of DIA, put it, “Disability only becomes a tragedy for me when society fails to provide the things we need to lead our lives—job opportunities or barrier-free buildings, for example. It is not a tragedy to me that I’m living in a wheelchair.”1
The disability rights movement of today can trace its immediate lineage—directly or indirectly—to these 1960s-era progenitors. Yet, it is possible to look even further back in US history to the Depression era of the 1930s, to see the very first emergence of a self-conscious movement for disability rights, organized by disabled people themselves, and promoting a view which closely foreshadows that of the social model.
It goes without saying that the Great Depression that began in 1929 had a devastating impact on the lives of all American workers, with official unemployment rates skyrocketing to 25 percent. But for disabled people the economic crisis hit even harder. One study found that 44 percent of deaf workers who had been employed prior to the crash had lost their jobs by 1935. The overall unemployment rate for disabled people was probably upwards of 80 percent, translating into crushing levels of poverty.2
Finding employment had been extremely difficult for disabled workers even in times of economic prosperity. Industrial capitalism had come to develop a tendency to discard all those whose labor was deemed insufficiently productive or too costly in relation to the amount of profit they could create for an employer.
The years leading up to and during the Great Depression saw a veritable explosion in the popularity of eugenicist ideas among the political, medical, and economic elite of the United States. These ideas posited all disabled people as so much worthless refuse to be cast aside in the “survival of the fittest” struggle that was free-market capitalism. As a consequence, millions of disabled people were subjected to forced institutionalization, sterilization, and/or death at the hands of both private and public officials.
Yet for all its nightmarish features, the 1930s were also marked by a great upsurge in working-class radicalism and resistance against exploitation and oppression. Strikes, occupations, sitdowns, pickets, and demonstrations for jobs, welfare relief, and against evictions, and for many other reasons became commonplace. Millions of workers formed labor unions to protect and extend their rights. Notably, the American Communist Party (CP) also grew during this period into a substantial force on the US left. It ballooned to a membership of approximately eighty thousand, with hundreds of thousands more passing through its ranks.
As a consequence of all this turmoil and struggle, the administration of Franklin Roosevelt had begun implementation of its New Deal program in the mid-1930s. A centerpiece of the New Deal was the creation of millions of federal jobs through the Works Progress Administration (WPA), inaugurated in January of 1935.
Yet even the WPA—as important a victory as it was for the working class—proved to be woefully limited in its scope. Among other flaws, state and federal WPA regulations barred disabled jobseekers from enjoying any of the program’s benefits, categorizing such individuals as “unemployable.” WPA advertisements underlined this point by explicitly stating that “only able-bodied American job-seekers” need apply.
To make matters worse, two additional pieces of New Deal legislation, following on the heels of the WPA, further codified federal discrimination against disabled people. The Social Security Act of August 1935 specifically defined “disability” as “inability to engage in substantial gainful work,” thus precluding anyone receiving any disability insurance from obtaining employment. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which established a national minimum wage, exempted workers with disabilities from the law’s coverage, thus giving official sanction to the common practice of employing disabled people in “sheltered workshops” where they were paid a mere pittance for their labor.
For one particular group of disabled workers living in New York City, such blatant discrimination on the part of the putatively progressive Roosevelt administration was simply too much to endure passively. On May 29, 1935, six of these individuals presented at the local office of the Emergency Relief Bureau (ERB) and demanded equal access to jobs under the new federal relief program. When told they did not qualify, being “unemployable,” they demanded to speak with the ERB director, Oswald Knauth. When Knauth refused, they began a sit-in right then and there, initiating an indefinite occupation of the ERB office.3
This particular group of protesters was not yet part of any formal organization, but they had come to know each other through their previous involvement with radical politics and labor activism. Most had been at least peripherally involved in the activities of the CP.
Undoubtedly, this prior experience played a role in giving them the confidence to defy the prevailing bigotries regarding disabled people as social and medical “invalids.” Rather, they situated their struggle and their demands on an explicitly political terrain. They forthrightly referred to themselves as “handicapped” rather than “cripples,” “invalids,” or any of the other then-common derogatory euphemisms.
As one participant recalled, “What started it was finding out that jobs were available, that the government was handing out jobs . . .  everybody was getting jobs . . . those of us who were militant just refused to accept the fact that we were the only people who were looked upon as not worthy, not capable of work.”4
When the second day of the occupation began, the protesters decided to drastically expand the action. They sent one of their numbers over to a nearby rally being held by the CP in Madison Square Garden in order to appeal for help. Immediately, the emissary returned with several dozen reinforcements. Before long, hundreds of people were picketing outside the ERB office, with thousands more looking on. By the day’s end, the action had drawn the support of members of the local Writer’s Union, the Young Communists of America, and the Unemployment Council. It had also drawn the attention of various media outlets, which reported on the protest in a predictably sensationalized manner.
Over the next several days, Knauth employed a number of tactics designed to break the occupiers’ resolve. Yet the sit-in persisted. A steady group of picketers—disabled and nondisabled—held constant vigil outside. Though the number of picketers slowly dwindled as the days wore on, newcomers continuously showed up to lend their efforts to the fight. This included visits from disabled people throughout the region who had read reports of the action and identified with it.
On the sixth day of the occupation, Knauth finally conceded to a meeting with the group at which point he was informed of their demands. First, they wanted fifty jobs to be immediately given to supporters of their as-of-yet unnamed organization, followed by ten more jobs every week following. Second, the jobs must be at or above minimum wage. Finally, the jobs must not be in segregated “sheltered workshops” or as part of a charity, but rather in an integrated setting with nondisabled workers.
Knauth peremptorily stated that he could not acquiesce and that, furthermore, his policies were merely in compliance with those of the federal government. At this point, one of the occupiers, a man named Hyman Abramowitz, angrily retorted, “That’s not a good enough answer. We are all handicapped and are being discriminated against.” He then proceeded to indict the Roosevelt administration. He accused Roosevelt of “trying to fix things so that no physically handicapped person can get a job, so that all of us will have to go on home relief. . . . We don’t want charity. We want jobs.”5
Though few would have been aware of it at the time, the irony was that Roosevelt himself was also disabled. In fact, he was impaired in much the same way as Abramowitz—paralyzed from the waist down due to a childhood bout of polio. The only difference between these two men, one from the working class and one from the ruling class, was that Roosevelt and his presidential entourage were able to develop an elaborate system that kept his impairment all but completely hidden from the public. Thus, while Abramowitz fought for the right of all disabled people to obtain jobs, Roosevelt used the power of his position to deny this right to millions of other disabled people less fortunate than himself.6
Nine days after the occupation had begun, the police were finally called in to quell the protest. After roughing up the defiant occupiers and their supporters outside, they dragged away eleven protesters in handcuffs.