Wednesday 5, October 2022, was a long, wet, exhausting, but exhilarating day. I rose at 6 am from my bed at a friend and comrade’s house—I’d stayed over in order to make an early start to get to Birmingham, where we were planning to be part of the Disabled People’s Alliance protest. #ToriesKill22.
The ideas in the leaflet put together by friends and comrades motivated me to want to push my body to wake up when the alarm rang and spend hours getting to this event in a far-flung city – something the left does often to people who live outside London, where most major events in England take place. And on this occasion, given that train drivers from Aslef were striking, that meant driving rather than the relative comfort (and speed) of a train.
Cups of tea
After too few cups of tea, we set off. I was acutely conscious that the last years of the pandemic have meant that it’s only been on rare occasions that I have used an alarm or had to race out of the house faster than is comfortable. Going to an early morning picket line hardly counts because usually I’m home again within a couple of hours and can then pace the next block of time more calmly. That wouldn’t be the case today.
I was travelling with two other women. Susan, whose place I’d stayed at the night before, has been a friend and comrade for many years. We enjoy each other’s company and love bouncing ideas off each other about feminism, about anticapitalism – and increasingly as both of us have become more involved over the last year or so – around disability politics.
Jenny, our driver, is an activist in the same Unite community branch as Susan. She and I have spent time together – canvassing in Two Cities in the 2019 election campaign (another occasion when it poured) and on early morning picket lines in Hackney earlier this year – but we don’t know each other, as well as either of us, know Susan.
The journey is relatively relaxed – we have allowed plenty of time for traffic jams and for getting lost when we get to Birmingham itself. There are some road works and minor delays as a consequence, and we speculate as to whether there is more freight because of the train strike. Certainly, we will conclude that’s the reason why there are so many Royal Mail vans on the road coming back.
We have some bad news on the way. John, a long-term disabled activist who was planning to join us, sent messages to say that his lift can’t make it. We talk about whether we can divert to pick him up. That wouldn’t have put too much time on our journey – but then we discovered that his wheelchair is a fixed frame and realised there wouldn’t be enough room in the car for it and all of us. For many disabled people, travel is a significantly bigger challenge than for those without impairments—something that others don’t often think about.
This is a bit of a downer – especially as we already know that Rob, another activist, won’t be able to join us because he fell out of his wheelchair at a protest a few days ago and is in agony despite lots of painkillers. We aren’t expecting a huge turnout – both because it is a working day for most people, but also because much of the left doesn’t see solidarity with the struggles and demands of disabled people as a high priority.
We take a brief stop at a service station – and our spirits rise when we see the blue sky on the horizon and hope that maybe we will escape the threatened rain at our destination. The rest of the journey is smooth – and remarkably, we get into the city and to the car park Jenny had chosen without a hitch. We arrive at our meeting point 5 minutes early, which we consider to be quite impressive.
It’s great to meet up with Sandra and Bob, who we know very well and are waiting for us already, and then to be joined by a number of others who are coming in solidarity. Emma and Shek join us shortly – as does another guy who I think is called Dave. After chatting with us for a bit, he goes back to his car to get a banjo and a beatbox, on which he will accompany the chants we will regale the Tories with as they exit the ring of steel past us.
This is particularly useful as we discover that the sound system we have been promised won’t be available – because road closures mean it can’t be driven close enough to make it portable to where the protest is. It is frustrating because this is hardly unpredictable when the city is playing host to the Tory conference, and because if we’d known that we could have brought a much more portable one from London with us.
The fact that a rather larger Iranian protest is also outside the conference has a very effective system doesn’t cheer us up – nor does the fact that within a minute or two of arriving at our destination, the heavens decide to open.
So we decide to start the die-in quite quickly – and to do so under the open roof so that the chalk marks won’t immediately get washed away. That’s why we look a little strange amongst the bikes and bike racks. On the other hand, the racks are very helpful to get off the ground after the “die-in.”
By this time, we are around two dozen people, and we manage to make a fair amount of noise with the banjo, beatbox, and chanting—and some of us are giving out leaflets. There isn’t a lot of general footfall, both because most things are closed up because of the conference and because of the weather.
Some comrades are determined to give cards to Tories who start leaving the conference relatively quickly. Sandra in particular, a manual wheelchair user, chases after several groups taking them aback by her agility and determination to track them down.
I understand the point of expressing our rage and demonstrating that our impairments are not contagious, as some of them appear to believe, but I wasn’t sure if it was where I wanted to put my emotional energy. So I concentrated on chanting, photographing the protest, and catching up with Tony and Bob, two comrades I hadn’t seen in a long time. They were there in solidarity, and it was good to catch up after not being in that city since before the pandemic started.
Tory lies cost people’s lives
There are so many threads behind this short slogan.
The Tories under Johnson claimed to care about reducing CO2 emissions at the COP 26 climate summit in Glasgow last year – but now under Truss and Jacob Rees Mogg, they are determined to squeeze every ounce (sic) of fossil fuels out of the North Sea while lying that they are forced to do so by the Russian invasion of Ukraine…
And the latest ruse is that they are refusing to give people concrete information about how to reduce energy use safely and so reduce bills. They claim this is to prevent frightened people from leaving their heating off. But the reality is that many people are already terrified – and the danger of a huge rise in deaths from hypothermia as well as malnutrition is a real one.
They lie about disabled people who cannot work because workplaces are not forced to make reasonable adjustments to allow more of us to do so—whether by making physical adjustments to allow us to get into and around buildings or by providing us with aids and adaptations that, for example, make it possible for people to use computer software.
They lie that disabled people are scroungers because making such adjustments would cut the profit rates of their friends in business. Such stigmatisation results in a rise in disability hate crimes. That very day, the news broke that there were 330,000 excess deaths in Britain due to austerity; a follow-up on earlier research from 2021 found 55,000 excess deaths in England in the period between 2010-2015, when the impact of austerity was beginning to be felt.
They lie about why they sanction claimants – it is not, as they argue, to save money but rather to demonise people. While not all claimants are disabled people we make up a high proportion of sanctioned people. And sanctions themselves can trigger a mental health crisis in people who have never previously experienced this as well as exacerbate pre-existing conditions. Their callousness knows no bounds because they block access to research which would show what those of us campaigning on these issues have always known – that sanctions kill.
During the pandemic, the Tories managed to paint themselves as compassionate when they introduced the £20 uplift for universal credit claimants. But what most people don’t know is that most disabled people who are on benefits have desperately tried to avoid being forced onto this benefit because to do so would mean losing the already completely inadequate ‘premiums’ which are supposed to meet the extra costs their impairments necessitate.
And now the Tories are continuing towards forced migration of benefits which will, they hope, see every person of working age on universal credit by the end of 2024 (though whether they will meet that target I have some scepticism about.) They claim that transitional protection will mean no one is worse off – but in practice, their rules have more holes than a string bag.
And this is the context in which Truss is refusing to say that she will even increase benefits in line with inflation and in which public services are faced with even more draconian cuts to fund lower taxes for the rich – and unlimited bonuses for bankers.
At the same time, disabled people who need care and support have been subject to a vile pincer movement of reduced services – often to the point of effective non-existence – combined with increased charges.
These are just some of the reasons why I was drowning in Birmingham—why I and those with me were chanting and chalking.
And it was great to have some time to debrief over hot drinks afterwards, to find out how some people we didn’t know before had heard about the protest, to talk about other common projects and strengthen existing links of solidarity. Even if it’s taken me some days to recover from the exertion, I’m more than happy I made the effort to be part of this powerful action.
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