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Oxford Circus protest: Activists had “nothing left to lose”

(1 February 2012)

Disabled activists have explained why they took part in a major direct action protest about the Welfare Reform Bill that brought large parts of London’s West End to a standstill at the weekend.

About 20 wheelchair-users locked themselves to a chain across Regent Street, at the Oxford Circus crossroads, and completely blocked one of the major routes into London’s shopping heartland for more than two hours on Saturday.

They were joined by other disabled campaigners, as well as activists from the mainstream anti-cuts group UK Uncut.

The protest was organised by Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), the Disabled People’s Direct Action Network (DAN), and UK Uncut.

Disabled people came from across the country to take part, including Scotland, Cornwall, Manchester and Birmingham.

They said they wanted to “shame” MPs and peers into throwing out the bill, which is set to complete its passage through Parliament within days.

Despite the activists’ anger with the government, the protest was peaceful and disciplined, and there were no arrests.

Rev Paul Farnhill, a supporter of DPAC and the disabled people’s protest group Black Triangle, who is terminally ill and has been given less than a year to live, said: “Giving up one day for the people who are going to lose their benefits for the rest of their lives is not much.

“The cuts that the ConDems are introducing are going to drastically reduce disabled people’s quality of life and are going to trap many people in their homes.

“Why are we always the scapegoats? What have we done to bring the country to this state?”

Pointing to the crowd of protesters, he said: “David Cameron wanted a Big Society. Here it is.”

DAN activist John Smith said the bill “feels very much like an attack on disabled people, on our rights that we have fought for for the last 20 or 30 years, fighting on the streets”.

“They are just rolling back all the gains we made in disabled people’s rights. You might have public transport that is much more accessible but you will not be able to get out of your house.”

He said disabled people were being “attacked on every level” and used as scapegoats for the government’s debt problems, while there were also renewed calls for legalised euthanasia.

He said: “Why don’t they just kill us? Let’s be honest, that’s what they want to do.”

Sam Brackenbury, one of the wheelchair users who was chained across the road, said: “I am not doing this because I want to do it, I am doing it because I have to do it.

“If I sit at home and say I can do nothing then nothing changes. If I sit at home when they cut my benefits, what are the futures of young disabled people going to be?

“People need to remember that disabled people were the first people to go to the gas chambers in 1934 and what is happening now through the right-wing media in this country is exactly what happened in the media in Nazi Germany in 1934.

“We are being quantified by how much we can produce and how much we cost.”

Linda Burnip, a member of DPAC’s steering group, said: “People are so frightened and angry and feel that they have nothing left to lose.”

The disabled comedian and activist Liz Carr said: “This is not just about one group, it is about everybody.

“The Welfare Reform Bill will probably affect most of us in society, so we have an obligation. That is what got me up out of bed on a Saturday morning.”

Claire Glasman, from the disabled women’s organisation WinVisible, said: “We are absolutely furious. Our very survival is at stake here. They want us to die as quickly as possible.”

She said protesters included older people, single mums, young people and unemployed people, and added: “We are here to defend each other and say we are not going to accept it.”

Disabled activist John McArdle, co-founder of Black Triangle, had travelled from Scotland to take part in the protest.

He said: “I wouldn’t have missed this for anything. This is what needs to be done. Direct action.”

He said the Disability News Service story published the previous day, which showed the government failed to carry out any statistical analysis of the responses to its disability living allowance (DLA) consultation, and the government’s refusal to engage with last month’s much-praised ‘Spartacus’ report, were proof that it had failed to listen to disabled people.

McArdle added: “There is no other choice but to take direct action to counter the pernicious lies and propaganda of this despicable government.”

Disabled activist and blogger Lisa Egan said she believed she would lose much of her support when working-age disability living allowance (DLA) was scrapped and replaced by the new personal independence payment (PIP).

She said: “Once I have lost that little bit of support, I am not even going to be able to get out of my house.

“I literally cannot see how I can survive. I am terrified for my future.”

She welcomed the support of UK Uncut but said they had left it too late. “This time next week the welfare reform bill is a done deal. They left it too late to make a difference.”

Molly Solomons, a UK Uncut activist, said it was “never too late”, and added: “We have to be optimistic and fight back.”

She said UK Uncut had previously concentrated on issues of tax avoidance, but saw the welfare reform bill protest as “an excellent opportunity to use our supporter base to help activists have their voice heard who are being directly affected by the cuts”.

She said UK Uncut had been building its relationship with disabled activists over the last year.

She said: “This has been so successful. The tag line was to ‘make the invisible visible’ and I think we have done that. It was a great act of solidarity between disabled and non-disabled people.”

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