On an ADAPT Action

Nadina LaSpina

“How do you spell POWER?” “A-D-A-P-T!!!

The hotel meeting room is packed way beyond capacity. My quickie is sandwiched between a power chair and a scooter, the wheels of another manual chair are pressing against my footrests. In the power chair is Marva from Detroit, on the scooter is Barbara from Memphis. I don’t know the young man in the manual chair, this must be his first ADAPT action. I spot Frank Lozano being guided through the wall-to-wall maze of wheelchairs. “Uncle Frank!” I yell out to him. “How are you? Nadina here!” His head turns in the direction of my voice: “Hey! How are things in the big apple?” I love Frank’s tex-mex drawl. He’s from El Paso. Now I feel the sleeve of my ADAPT T-shirt being pulled from behind me. I turn around and see my friend Sharon from Kansas City. “Hope we’ll be on the same team,” she says. “Yeah!” I heartily agree.

There are about 500 of us in this DC Holiday Inn. We came from all over the country, some in groups, subsidized by local organizations or independent living centers, some on our own with money saved month after month. 30 or 40 people didn’t quite make it into the meeting room. They lingered a little too long in the halls hugging each other and trying to catch up on what’s been happening in each others’ lives in the six months since the last action. Or they just had to stop on their way to the meeting at one of the tables lining the hallways to buy another T-shirt or a pair of handcuff earrings or a key-chain with the ADAPT logo. Many local groups sell their ADAPT-ware at national actions to help pay for their members’ plane tickets and hotel rooms. The colorful tables give the otherwise sober hotel halls a festival-like atmosphere. Now, those who lingered in the halls are lined up, four and five rows deep, at the two doors, trying to make up for their tardiness by yelling A-D-A-P-T louder than those inside the room.

I swear they must hear us throughout this entire hotel. But Mike Auberger, one of our national leaders, from Denver, CO, doesn’t think we’re loud enough. He’s trying to look tough in his power chair in the front of the room. In their chairs alongside him, Bob Kafka and Stephanie Thomas, husband and wife team, from Austin, TX, are smiling. “Gotta do better than that!” Mike yells, “Let’s try again. How do you spell POWER?”

At the top of our lungs or in a tracheotomy-whisper, with slurred vowels and spastic arms flailing, in the mechanical voice of a communication device, or forcefully fingerspelling with eloquent hands we all --in anyway we can-- spell A-D-A-P-T!!!

The excitement is mounting. This is the big meeting that marks the start of the real action. All day we’ve been attending workshops. New people have learned the basics of civil disobedience. The nervous ones have been reassured: “don’t worry, you don’t have to be arrested if you don’t want to.” Tonight we get down to the nitty-gritty. We’ll break up into six teams (red team, blue team, green team, yellow…), we’ll fill out legal forms, we may even get some “ADAPT jewelry” (handcuffs, that is, which we'll use to chain ourselves to each other or to gates and other fixed objects). We all listen carefully as Stephie reads off the names of the people on each team. Then Bob tells us who our day leaders (12) and color leaders (5 for each team) are on this action and how to recognize them by the color of the little flags they carry or have mounted on their wheelchairs.

Day leaders and color leaders are very carefully chosen from among those who have distinguished themselves at previous actions and those who have been recommended by their local groups. Day leaders pretty much lead the action. They’ll make quick decisions throughout the day (do we keep blocking the doors? do we escalate?). They’ll go in to negotiate and they’ll talk to the media. They’ll keep the color leaders informed and work closely with them. Color leaders lead the troops. They’ll move the people according to plan, make sure their team gets where it’s supposed to be and does what it’s supposed to do. They know who on their team is willing to get arrested and they’ll get them ready when it’s time. They’ll get everybody charged up when we’re escalating and try to keep the excitement alive with chants and talks when we’re sitting around waiting.

Yes, ADAPT is run like the army. Most of the 500 people here --the foot soldiers-- only know we’ve come to FREE OUR PEOPLE. They have no idea of what our specific targets will be, nor do they know the amount of planning and strategizing that precedes an action. They will be ready early in the morning to join their team and, led by their color leaders, they will "single file" to an unknown destination. ADAPT is careful --some would say obsessively so-- about not letting information leak out. ADAPT’s meticulously wrought plans have been blown in the past. There are stories of undercover cops in wheelchairs -- more likely someone told someone who told someone else… However it happened, ADAPT will not let it happen again. You just try asking a color leader “where are we going today?” You could be the guy’s mother he’s not going to tell you.

Some will say "single filing" is another ADAPT obsession. You just try rolling alongside a friend carrying on a conversation and a color leader (maybe Weasel from Grand Rapids) is sure to yell: "single file!" Single filing makes it possible to move 500 people without need of permits; we won’t block traffic… though we will stop traffic, you can bet on that. I always try to imagine what those motorists are thinking who stopped at an intersection to let what they thought was a bunch of crips on an outing go by and a half hour later they're still sitting there while we keep going by and by and by… Nothing is more awesome than the endless ADAPT single file. 500 of us of every shade, shape and size, tiny bodies and huge ones, some utterly still, some wildly spastic, some with missing parts, with all kinds of appliances, in all kinds of chairs, scooters, and gurneys… one behind the other just coming at you and coming and coming...

We always know we’re approaching our destination when we start picking up speed. If we look at our leaders we notice their face muscles tensing up. Their voices get louder: “Go! Go! Go! No gaps! Keep moving!” Things must be done just right now! The single file will usually break up into separate lines when we reach our target, as the different teams are led to the front, the sides, the back of the building. “Block the doors! Block the doors!” the leaders are yelling. And we’re chanting faster and faster, furiously: “Free our people! Now! Free our people! Now!” Lots of doors usually in the front of a building --half the red team goes toward the left, the other half toward the right, the green team joins in while blue and yellow head in opposite directions going for the side doors… It all happens so fast! It may look like chaos but every move has been carefully orchestrated.

Nothing is overlooked by the ADAPT warriors laying siege to a building. If there are low windows we’ll park our wheelchairs in front of them to prevent people from climbing out; if there are steps leading to a door, a few of us in lightweight manual chairs will get carried up to the door. People get very angry, at times, when they realize they can’t get out. They may try to force their way out, yell obscenities at us from open windows, or try the personal approach: “I have a disabled uncle, I understand your plight so just let me out.” They very well may try climbing out of windows, as the republicans did in October 2000 in DC when we surrounded their Headquarters and spoiled the party they were having. The leaders advise us not to argue with people. We just stare at them and chant: “Just like a nursing home, you can’t get out!” and “We’re ADAPT, you’re trapped, get used to it!”

At times the plan is not to surround the building but to get inside. Walking people will rush to the doors, hold them wide open while we file in, through every door at the same time as quickly as possible, confounding the security guards… Till we fill the lobby, make it reverberate with the sound of 500 people chanting: “Our homes not nursing homes!” “Free our brothers, free our sisters, free our people now!” Fourteen year-old Kyle might lead the chant through his Liberator (communication device). Maybe a team will be led to the elevator bank, we’ll push all the buttons and as the elevators come down we’ll park our wheelchairs half-in half-out of each elevator door… If there are people in the elevators as the doors open, we’ll savor the shock on their faces first, then let them out. Maybe another team will take the elevators to go upstairs and occupy someone’s office. “We’re here for a meeting with the commissioner,” a day leader (maybe Barbara Toomer from Salt Lake City or Linda Anthony from Harrisburg) will tell the dumbfounded office worker who will sputter: “But…but you don’t have an appointment.” The answer, of course, is always the same: “We don’t need appointments, we’re ADAPT” and everyone starts chanting: “How do you spell power? A-D-A-P-T!!!”

It can get pretty damn exciting! I’ve been doing ADAPT actions for the past 10 years, I’ve worked as color leader and day leader, and yet each time I get as excited as I did on my first action. Now that I’m not as young as I used to be, when I feel the adrenaline rushing through my veins, I can’t even enjoy it. I have to worry whether the medication I took in the morning will be enough to keep my quickly rising blood pressure from reaching the dangerous level.

But the excitement doesn’t stay at the dangerous level throughout the action - thank goodness. As soon as things quiet down a bit (when the teams are where they’re supposed to be, the building is secured, the offices are occupied), the color leaders will go around to tell everyone exactly where we are and why we’re here, and to read to us ADAPT’s list of demands. Color leaders and day leaders will continue throughout the action to give updated reports: “No response yet,” or “They’ve invited our negotiators in,” and “They’re talking.” At times we’ll wait and wait and wait -- for hours -- for a response, for a meeting to be set up, or while the negotiating goes on. The color leaders will do their best to keep the chanting going, or they may come around with snacks or lunch. ADAPT pays no attention to fat and cholesterol intake. The ADAPT lunch is typically: McDonalds hamburgers and french fries. I’ll pass on it and get my banana and granola bar out of my bag. After lunch we’ll chant again and wait…

You know what? It can get pretty damn boring! But you know what else? Everyone stays put. No one ever says: “I’m tired of waiting around, I’ll go for a little stroll now.” Everyone knows how important everyone’s role is. Of course, it may happen that someone feels ill or has to go to the bathroom real bad. A color leader will get someone else to take his place so no gaps are left. It may happen that one team is in the sun. Quadriplegics and people with MS, who cannot sit in the sun for long, will go visit with another team that’s in the shade and members of that team will take their place.

ADAPT actions are held in the Spring and in the Fall when the weather is most mild. Of course, with the weather you never know. We’ve sweated in Memphis, TN and in Washington, DC. We've sat in the rain in our ADAPT ponchos in Lansing, MI and in Atlanta, GE. And we froze our butts in Columbus, OH. It was 70 degrees the first day we were in Columbus (Fall ’99). The next day we were thrown in the middle of winter – mean wind, wet snow falling. Because of post-polio, I am extremely sensitive to the cold. And I was totally unprepared - I had not thought of packing my winter coat. We sat for three hours outside the Human Services Building (in order to get the local ADAPT chapter to start meeting with their Medicaid Director), till all my joints were stiff and aching, my teeth chattering. When the police started arresting us, I saw the accessible school buses they had brought to transport us to the police station and all I could think of was: “Those school buses are well heated.” I must have said “thank you” to the policewoman who pushed my chair to the bus at least ten times. I’ve never been so happy to be arrested.

Over 200 of us were arrested during the Columbus action. Every effort is made by ADAPT so that arrests are carried out in as orderly a manner as possible. Color leaders know who on their team is willing to be arrested. They will tell them where to position themselves. We’ll use handcuffs to chain our wrists or the wheels of our chairs together to make it harder for the police to move us. Right before arrests start, usually, color leaders will make sure that people have not changed their minds, that those being arrested for the first time are not too nervous, that all who are being arrested have identification, and that they have any medication they need in the original bottle.

In the early days of ADAPT, activists were roughed up badly by the police while being arrested and after the arrest they often spent the night in jail. Very rarely now does anyone get sent to jail. It did happen to John Blevins from Rochester, NY. John is Deaf. He rushed to hold a door open for people to file in to the AARP building during the Fall 2000 action in DC. He did not hear the cop who had been trapped behind the door and was yelling at John to let go. John was quickly thrown to the ground by another cop and charged with assault. ADAPT’s lawyers got the charge dropped but he did spend two nights in jail.

Usually the worst charge pressed against us is “disorderly conduct.” We are booked and then released. Later the lawyers will appear in court for us and settle the matter. Even when things go very smoothly, though, the process takes many hours. We always all wait around while everyone is questioned, photographed and fingerprinted. ADAPT’s rule is: “we get arrested together, we leave together.” We may not get back to the hotel till the middle of the night. No matter what time it is, there is always a group waiting to welcome back those who were arrested.

But we don’t always get arrested. They didn’t arrest us in Memphis (May ’97) and they have not arrested us in DC the last few times we were there. Sometimes when they don’t arrest us they make things more difficult for us. In Memphis about 100 people had occupied the Office of the Governor of TN, while the rest of us filled the lobby and spilled outside and made a lot of noise. When ADAPT demanded a meeting with the Governor, we expected one of two things to happen: some form of dialogue to start (our negotiating team was ready to go in) or the police to start arresting us. But we waited and nothing happened. No word from the Gov’s office and no arrests. We couldn’t just leave. So our people spent the night up in the governor’s office while the rest of us held an all night vigil outside the building. We sure got lots of media coverage in Memphis.

When there are no arrests, Spitfire from Philadelphia is very disappointed. She’s been arrested 48 times and is anxious to make that number a nice round 50. She’s sure she’ll reach her goal at the action in Washington DC (May 2001). We’re all sure. We’re expecting the worst from the new administration. “Dubya will tell the DC police to throw us all in jail,” is the word going around. But are we in for a surprise!

The target for the first day’s action is the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). We surround the Humphrey Building (HHS headquarters) and demand a meeting with Secretary Tommy Thompson. Through the Clinton years ADAPT met regularly with HHS Secretary Donna Shalala and much was accomplished through those meetings. Not wanting to lose its connection with HHS, ADAPT had been trying to meet with Thompson since his appointment -but with no success. 500 people at his doorstep make Thompson quickly come around. Actually, Thompson is in Geneva, Switzerland. But from there he agrees to meet with ADAPT.

Since, when we get the written confirmation of the meeting with Thompson, it’s still early enough in the day, we go on to pay a visit to our old foe, the American Health Care Association (AHCA), which is the nursing home owners’ professional organization. ADAPT demands that AHCA fund an ADAPT-written “Notification of your rights under Olmstead” to be distributed to nursing home and other institutional residents across the country. With 500 activists surrounding the AHCA headquarters, ADAPT wins a meeting with President and CEO Dr. Chip Rodman, to start working on the brochure. We return to our hotel chanting: “How do you spell power? A-D-A-P-T!”

The next day, demanding that within 30 days Bush issue an Executive Order to implement Olmstead, ADAPT hits the White House. ADAPT activists have been arrested chained to the White House fence a few times in the past. We’re ready to be arrested at the White House fence again. But we have not even been here an hour when 15 ADAPT representatives (and a sign language interpreter) are invited into the White House for a meeting with John Bridgeland, Director of the President’s Domestic Policy Council. I’m one of the fifteen. “No problem,” Bridgeland assures us, “the Order will be out in 30 days, maybe sooner.” Diane Schacht, Special Assistant to the President for Justice Policy, then accompanies us out: “The Executive Order will be completed and signed within 30 days,” she says, addressing the crowd. And the crowd roars: “How do you spell power? A-D-A-P-T!”

The third day brings yet another victory. ADAPT rolls up to the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Headquarters to demand a meeting with Secretary Mel Martinez. Two previous attempts to set up a meeting had failed. ADAPT activists quickly surround the building, blocking all doors. The 3-foot high orange metal barricades and the scores of police officers in front of the building do not stop us. A group of activists actually breaks through the barricades, goes through the doors and into the building. That really gets things moving. Our negotiating team is invited in and after about an hour comes out accompanied by Daniel Murphy, the Secretary’s Chief of Staff. He announces the meeting to the crowd that once again cheers: “How do you spell power? A-D-A-P-T!”

Everyone is triumphant. But there are a few who are wondering if ADAPT isn’t getting too powerful. They’re starting to worry that, if this trend continues, future actions might not be as exciting as they were in the past.

As always, three days of actions end with a party. There’s music and dancing way into the night, raffles and bargains at the ADAPT-ware tables. New friends exchange addresses and phone numbers, old friends exchange gifts and promises. There’s gossip going around: who fell in love with whom this time? In the past we’ve had birthday celebrations. We all remember Spitfire’s 50th when the surprise gift was a male stripper. We’ve even had a few ADAPT weddings and there are rumors there’ll be another wedding at the next action in the Fall in San Francisco.

The morning after the hotel lobby is crowded with ADAPT activists lugging their suitcases, shower chairs, air mattresses and other equipment, waiting for their rides to the airport or to the train station. Everyone looks exhausted. A few might be hung over. We’ve all had little sleep, for four days we’ve survived on cold hamburgers and candy bars; we’ve really pushed ourselves to the limit. We’ll need a few days to recover when we get back home. But everyone is elated, exultant. Everyone is feeling powerful and proud. As we all hug each other, the refrain sounding off in every direction is not “Goodbye” but “See you at the next action!”