Imagine protesting, in front of a line of cops, while your involuntary tic disorder forces you to say:
…Right in the officer’s faces.
Should people with conditions like that, or other serious physical or neurological disabilities, protest with XR on the streets?
Meet Emily, from XR Glasgow. Emily was diagnosed with Tourette’s in 2018, and now has to worry, every time she steps out in public, that she’s going to get kicked out of a coffee shop, taunted by fellow bus passengers, accused of bigotry, or whispered about in an activist meeting—for a verbal or physical tic that she has absolutely zero control over.
When I first encountered Emily at a meeting, during a dark Scottish downpour, she was muttering a constant stream of “more orgies, please,” and “fuck the wankers” from her chair in the back. As the meeting facilitator struggled through a list of announcements, her voice cracked and wavered under the weight of cat-meows and bubble-popping sounds and swearing. Scores of faces turned, bodies craned. As the minutes went on, I, too, was profoundly confused–Why was this tolerated? Is this person pulling a prank? There were laughs, punchy-exhale laughs. Disquieted laughs. Some of what she said was really quite hilarious.
Twenty minutes passed before Emily’s friend explained the situation to the assembled group: Emily can’t help it. Then Emily apologized herself, explaining her condition without a single curse. People nodded, turned back, let the meeting continue.
Imagine having to prove you’re not crazy like that, everywhere you go. That struggle is Emily’s life.
When we spoke, a few weeks later, Emily barely stopped to take a breath for over two hours, and hardly gave a tic through our entire conversation; I later learned that it is common for Tourette’s sufferers to remit when they are intensely focused, as she must have been. She cited at least a dozen articles, two government studies, and multiple court cases. She explained the history of disability policy in the UK and referred to disability-studies theory as if she is a university lecturer. As if she has a PhD.
Unsurprisingly, she spoke with piercing outrage about human rights abuses, about having to demonstrate that she’s not insane. Under that anger, however, I believe that what ultimately drives Emily’s passion, courage, and fury is hope–hope that the world can learn to accommodate the disabled more humanely. Hope that we can take her advice on the many ways that all of us, on the streets and in our communities, can make it possible for people like her to participate in the world, including engaging in activism, as full citizens. Hope, because she knows that we can do it. Because she has a small group of friends supporting her in Glasgow, and she wants that circle to expand.
Here is what Emily wants us to hear, between the tics:
What’s been your experience of being a disabled rebel in XR?
We and the XR Disability group sorted out port-a-loos and all sort of nice stuff [for the October rebellion]. Now the week before [rebellion] happened, there was a police raid [on the XR warehouse], and a big chunk of that raid was actually disabled stuff. Port-a-loos, which are specialized for disabled rebels. [XR] said, “Oh yeah, it’s fine, come in” …and then when [disabled rebels] got there the loos were taken.
There’s been cases of people that are blind, having their canes taken off them because they could be an offensive weapon…and not having it back! Someone’s actual powerchair was getting confiscated, and we gave the one last chair we had left to a lad who was stranded and potentially having bodily harm, grievous bodily harm, done to him by the police, due to taking of his equipment.
It was a fear tactic. And this needs to be talked about: This is the worst case of police discrimination and attack in twenty years, since the time of the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995. I was actually crying at a [post-rebellion] debrief, saying, “There was no backup plan!” and they go to apologize, “You know, it’s dangerous, disabled people shouldn’t really go,” and I’m like if I’m not a full fucking citizen of the UK, and protesting like everyone else, then that’s a society that I don’t want to be part of.
We are 20% of the population. There are more people in the UK with a legally recognized disability than there are UK immigrants, It’s not a small little niche thing. If you miss out, you’re missing out on a pretty big percent of the population.
What’s your vision for XR – what would it be like, ideally?
They should have had what’s called social infrastructure, something that can’t be taken away [physically]. So people can say, “Look, our physical stuff is gone, but, OK Emily, we know about your Tourette’s, we’ve got these policies, we’ve got these guidelines, we’ve got these trainings so that if something happens, we would have your back.” I wouldn’t need a port-a-loo if someone was like, “Alright Emily, you’re staying at my house if you’re struggling. You can stay out in a tent, but if you can’t, you can stay at my house. The whole shebang…If I had that kind of system, I would have actually gone down [to October rebellion], proper, with that social net of people actually understanding and helping.
Can you give examples of barriers to entry for disabled rebels into XR?
I’ve got This is Not a Drill and there’s no mention of disability in the oppressed group section, not even a whisper. Did you know that?
(Emily takes out a pamphlet and waves it in front of the webcam)
This is the Regenerative Support At Actions Guide …Here I go. Page 2. Nothing about disability whatsoever in this. Because I’m a person with severe trauma, I have an atypical expression of distress. So what would help one person, wouldn’t deescalate me. So, in a moment when I’m [escalated] it becomes a danger of people imposing what they think I need. It should be, “We know Emily, we should have a discussion about what’s best for her, write it in a document so that she can show it to people, or she can mail the teams that are for an action, that this is how you deal with her, she’s having a problem.”
Imagine you’re in a local group – if you could give them advice on how to support their disabled rebels, what would you tell them?
If someone needs water, you don’t go, “Well, you need to prove to me how thirsty you are before I give you this bottle of water.” People go, “What you on about? Let’s give them the water, or a cup of tea or a scone or something.”
When a disabled person says they need something, believe them. Do not try to talk them out of it, to say, “Oh no, you don’t need this.” Go: “Ok, let’s collaborate on that.” We might mess up, we might make mistakes, but it’s a process.