The unrest and violence we have seen across England over the past week is upsetting on many levels: there is upset for the innocent victims of criminality and those hurt and traumatised by events, upset over the prevalence of a lack of morality and empathy within our society, and upset that once again the violation of disabled people’s rights has been eclipsed.
In justification of the welfare to work programme, government and right wing media have played up the existence of a benefit scrounging element bent on fraud and deceit without regard for the consequences of their actions on the rest of the community who pick up the bill for their irresponsible lives. Disabled people have argued that so-called welfare reform is actually targeting the powerless and the oppressed in society and denying basic rights and freedoms. Just as we were being listened to, as the Work and Pensions Select Committee issued their report raising concerns over the Work Capability Assessment Process, just as the Lib Dems announced a vote on 10th September on their position over Employment and Support Allowance, a vision of the disaffected and feckless has been hurled into the lives of the nation, bringing to life the worst Daily Mail stereo-types in a fashion more dramatic and immediate than even shows such as Saints and Scroungers, have managed.
It is too early to say how recent events will impact upon the campaign against the government’s disability policies but our ability to protest is likely to be adversely affected. Last Saturday Disabled People Against Cuts stood with the anti cuts campaigners handing out leaflets in Birmingham City Centre publicising the protest against the Lib Dems on 18th September. It was intended to be the beginning of a mobilisation process to build support ahead of the march. To stand in the same spot this Saturday after the violence and murders that have occurred in the city since, would be insensitive and inappropriate. We had been planning how to oppose Birmingham City Council over the restrictions they are placing on the route for the march. We were hopeful there was room to negotiate. The chance to march down the main high street through the commercial area of the city is very slim, even more unlikely now . At the time of the TUC-organised March For the Alternative earlier this year there was some criticism of the demonstration by unsympathetic press and public, accusing protesters of wasting resources and police time. The association between violent disorder and dissent is now firmly etched into the public consciousness and it is reasonable to anticipate greater hostility towards plans for future demonstrations, however peacefully intended.
Without the option of protest, how are we then to raise awareness of the issues faced by an overlooked minority in whom neither the public nor the press nor politicians are interested? Government cuts are hauling disabled people through fear and distress and robbing them of their dignity and in some cases their lives. The scenes of disorder and violence which the country has witnessed are symptomatic of a bigger picture, a picture where the rich can behave with impunity in the pursuit of material gain, whereas the poor are punished and demonised for the same. Disabled people are part of that bigger picture but our voices just got smaller as attention is turned to more immediate issues and fears. Moreover there is a danger that government injustices against disabled people will now be justified as unfortunate but unavoidable consequences of necessary measures to deal with the disaffected in society and those dismissed as undeserving. As emotions run high it is too much to hope that perspective will prevail and it is sadly inevitable that recent events will be exploited to discredit future dissent and protest.
Many of us have been glued to news listening with disbelief to riot details as they were spelled out in different cities across the country from London to Birmingham to Manchester etc. For disabled people, there is the extra fear of not having access and added stress and anxiety of being unable to get essentials from local shops in the affected areas. The Broken of Britain set out a hastag #disabledriothelp for disabled people in Twitter who felt the need to communicate about worries about the riots .
We joke amongst ourselves as mobility impaired disabled people that our disability gives us an alibi by default because we are not able to loot, break windows and disguise ourselves with hoodies.
It’s too soon to write about the impact of the riots on disabled people and our ability to protest. We can probably assume that the TUC March of the Alternative, Birmingham will definitely not be allowed to march pass the ICC where the Lib Dem annual conference is held this year. But will the demo be curtailed further? What about peaceful anti protests against Atos – will these be jeopardised given the mood of the police and rhetoric from the Con Dem government?
And for those of us disabled people who use the social media to communicate, politicise, campaign and yes, to rant and vent – we will also be affected by David Cameron’s diatribe against social media. A 14 year old schoolboy in Leamington Spa was arrested by police ‘on suspicion of encouraging or assisting criminal disorder. The mind boggles about the reality of the implications that postings to “ incite criminal activity of any kind will be arrested and dealt with accordingly.” Another report of Jason Ulett ‘s arrest adds to my disquiet that the effect of the riot is to descend into some kind of witch hunt.
But we would want to question the reaction to the riots, undoubtedly disruptive and hard on those who have lost property and work, in comparison to the carnage wracked on disabled people’s lives as a result the result of the cuts. How many will give (media)attention and mourn for those who gave up in despair and committed suicides (eleven at last count)? Who counts the stress and worry the real cost of the havoc on disabled people’s lives – those who have to submit to Atos assessments? There was some uproar over the abuse handed out to disabled people in care homes after the Panorama programme but people in care homes are still systematically neglected and left unattended for hours in end. Do we see the same type of punitive and swift reaction for the perpetrators? Today (12th August) there was the ‘first’ Battersea riot-related eviction notice served by Wandsworth Council as a result of Monday night’s rioting and looting in St John’s Road and Lavender Hill. In fact we read that David Cameron has said there will be ‘no “phoney human rights concerns” (about publishing CCTV images of suspects involved in rioting) would be allowed to “get in the way of bringing these criminals to justice”. Is it not because of the same disregard of human rights – the shooting of Mark Duggan – that started the whole spiral of violence? Does he care equally about the woman in wheelchair who was stoned in Sittingbourne by ‘yobs’? What about violence against disabled people?