Cripping The Resistance: No Revolution Without Us
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
Dedicated to my beloved friend and long time comrade in disability justice, Stacey Park Milbern, who cripped the fuck out of resistance. Thank you for everything, forever.
I feel like the revolution is happening and I’m missing it.
I feel like everyone in the streets might die and us who stayed home will be the people who are left to keep the revolution going.
I actually just feel like we at home are going to die too because immunity is collective and everyone in the streets comes home to people with varying levels of risk. – Carolyn Lazard
(actual quotes from my brain and also other sick and disabled friends.)
On May 19, 2020, disability justice organizer Stacey Park Milbern died unexpectedly, breaking all our hearts. Two days later, police officers murdered George Floyd by stepping on his neck for 8 minutes, 46 seconds. Days later, a level of mass resistance to anti-Black police violence exploded at a scale that has not been seen in half a century in the United States.
In response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and many, many other Black people by law enforcement, people have filled the streets for the last three months. They’ve taken over police stations, hotels as homeless shelters and neighborhoods, burned down youth jails and toppled racist monuments. We are demanding things at a scale I couldn’t have dreamed of a year ago- the defunding of police and abolishment of prisons, creating community-lead fire safety and community self defense squads. After protestors took over 10 blocks of downtown Seattle for a month, turning it into CHOP- the Capitol Hill Organized Protest- Seattle City Council just voted to defund the cops by 43%. Webinars on transformative justice and abolition have hundreds of people attending.
Things are also terrifying. The National Guard and the Feds come to the streets kidnapping people in unmarked vans. Trump threatens to use the Insurrection Act to deploy the military on protestors. White supremacists show up with guns and bombs. Many of us fear martial law and fascism arriving in an absolute way.
And, it also feels like revolution might be here. I am texting “Abolition in our lifetime?????” to friends. I am feeling so many things. Blown away, and realizing how I’d started to not believe we could actually win, even after 25 years of being involved in disability and transformative justice activism.
At the same time, I’m feeling incredibly frustrated. I’m a disabled person with a compromised immune system, and I’ve been self isolating to keep myself safe from COVID-19 for five months. My central act of resistance is to keep myself alive. The extended community I love are all immune compromised/ disabled and we are grappling with the same questions of safety. Many are also vulnerable to medical eugenics because of being fat, elder, Black or brown, poor, or living and working with those of us who are. If I get sick, I could get my whole disabled community sick.
So, I didn’t go to CHOP. For the first three months of the pandemic I went to a grocery store exactly once, and it was at 8 AM during immunocompromised hour. I wipe down all my groceries and quarantine my mail. How the hell can I be in the streets with thousands of people chanting for hours? Even if they all wear masks, the risk felt so high- especially since the police themselves refuse to wear masks. Also, I’ve avoided tear gas at protests for twenty years, because of my multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS, a condition where chemicals used in “everyday” products, smoke and toxins make you sick), needing to keep my toxin exposure down to manage my fibromyalgia, and asthma. How the fuck can I be in it during a pandemic?
I kept feeling like I was staring out the window at the revolution. And, so many of the “home front” resistance activities we’ve often practiced as disabled people- creating safe houses, inviting people over for food before or after an action, doing childcare- are inaccessible right now because of the need to keep our homes a safe germ pod. And much as I love home front forms of resistance- teaching, writing, listening, organizing- I couldn’t ignore a desire to also go fuck shit up in the streets- crip style!
I know I’m not alone. I am one of many other disabled, sick, parenting, caregiver, elder, fat and/or medically vulnerable people wrestling with these same questions.
I want us all to live, especially BIPOC disabled people, to survive both the pandemic and the ways we might transmit it on the streets. I also don’t want us disabled and sick BIPOC people to be cut out of the revolution. As my friend and comrade, Black disabled trans organizer and artist Syrus Marcus Ware said recently, “We need to fight back against any idea that the revolution could be here without us. If we- disabled BIPOC people- aren’t part of it, then it’s not the revolution. Activists need to be more creative now than ever to create responses that allow for us to all survive this in the end.”
Cripping the Resistance: The Crip Rebel Alliance Fights Back
People throw around the word “strategy” or don’t even use it at all, but don’t always define it. However, longtime transformative justice organizer and movement strategist Ejeris Dixon says, “A political strategy is a plan containing a series of goals and campaigns, placed within a defined and intentional order to move towards our vision.” (Please go here and read her whole Instagram post series breaking down the fascist playbook and what our competing vision and strategies are, it’s really good.)
Sometimes during the fascism/ Covid/ racism/ ableism quadruple pandemics it’s hard for me to think about what my goals are because I’m frozen in fear. But when I stop and can feel into my core, my primary goal as a disabled queer person of color is to survive, and to work to keep my disabled kin and communities alive. “To exist is to resist” is a saying many of us say- all the ways we survive a world that wants to kill us as disabled people is resistance
But I want more than just survival. I want to transform this world so that it is not run by a death cult that wants to murder the land and most of us. I want to defeat fascism and racist ableism and create a world where care, access, pleasure, and human creativity get to flourish, where everyone has enough and no one has 50 billion dollars, and none of us live under the constant fear of being murdered by cops and doctors. And I want to do so as spoons allow, joyfully, creatively, alone sometimes and with crip kin and allies at other times.
One of the foundational principles of disability justice is that nothing has to be the way it is. And there is no law saying that protests always have to be thousands of people in the streets chanting.
I believe we need to keep using our disabled creativity to crip the resistance. To keep creating crip strategies to fight to win.
As disabled people we have always cripped resistance, and we have so many models to draw on;
- From Carrie Ann Lucas pulling out the wire control of her power wheelchair to use her body and chair as a barricade, holding off the cops for hours at a sit in against Trump’s proposed cuts to Medicaid;
- To disabled protestors bringing chairs and beds to protests, as fat and disabled protestors did outside the ICE office in San Francisco in August 2019;
- To the Capitol Crawl and Mad Pride Bed Pushes;
- To Deaf protestors at the Section 504 Protests using ASL to communicate without the cops being able to understand;
- To disabled youth incarcerated in youth lockup and psych wards smearing shit on the walls and sneaking in hugs to each other.
Making forms of protest that are accessible for our bodies and minds are just the beginning- we in our cripness create new forms of protest the ableds could never imagine.The recently revised (and always amazing) 26 Ways To Be In the Struggle Beyond the Streets, by Ejeris Dixon, Piper Anderson, Kay Ulanday Barrett, Ro Garrido, Emi Kane, Bhavana Nancherla, Deesha Narichania, Sabelo Narasimhan, Amir Rabiyah, and Meejin Richart, lift up ways we can organize without being in the streets, through teaching, making art, posting, fundraising and educating. There are some amazing protest guides with harm reduction suggestions, asking people to self quarantine after protesting, mask at protests and make hand sanitizer available and wipe microphones and bullhorns between speakers.
No solution is one size fits all. Some of us who are Black and brown disabled people are heavily targeted by the police as “threats” and can’t depend on being seen as “helpless” or “invisible” to do certain actions. However, I firmly believe all of us have disabled ingenuity from our unique community/ personal situations we can use to figure out ways of protesting that work for us, that the powers that be might never see coming. We are all needed to kick ass all the ways only we can to make this NEW WORLD OF DISABLED POWER, JOY AND FREEDOM THAT IS COMING.
So, some things I am thinking about…. (with some additions from crip friends I asked.)
….. Banner drops, wheatpasting, painting murals and slogans on public streets or projector art? These are all things that can be done alone, sometimes from cars, or in small germ-podded groups. You can just write some words on a sheet and tie it to something! What if a bunch of disabled people did a whole bunch of banner drops in different areas, at the same time?
—Helping organize protests and speaking at them via Signal or Zoom, projected?
— “Walking at night wheatpasting or stickering up propaganda when no one is around? Art of all kinds. And documenting it!” (Syrus Marcus Ware)
— Drawing, graffiting, or making a memorial to our dead in many ways- dropping sculptures or painting a slogan or names in big letters on a sidewalk or street, also alone or in small or socially distant groups?
— Using the ways some of us might be seen as “helpless cripples” who aren’t a threat to sneak in places or do things in plain sight, like lockdowns, wheatpasting, banner drops, occupying offices, or much more?
— Doing sneaky small actions far away from the big ones, when the police are distracted?
— Protests that are not just 6 feet apart, they are SILENT? Using our righteous rage and nonverbal skills to bring the righteous wrath of pointing a silent finger at the powers that be? I am thinking as an autistic person especially of the power and access of silent protest.
–”Making food and medicine to distribute to folks post demo, left in jars in a no contact cooler on a porch or stoop. Or coordination of rides, tinctures, etc- who needs what where?” ( Eli Clare)
-Car caravans as COVID safer alternatives, like the Anti Police Terror Project’s caravan that stretched for 8 miles. Offering the option for folks to participate in foot marches from within our cars
-Doing ritual and prayer in the streets or at home. Spells binding the police from doing harm! Spells asking the empire and prisons to crumble! Candles for the goddesses of transformation! Whiskey for the ancestors and the murdered! The instagram action #TurnUpAtYourAlter was a great example of this.
— Getting N95s to protestors- working with makers to make mass masks plus face shields available. Early in the pandemic when there was panic buying, the mass advice was to not wear masks let alone N95s. This has now shifted to a mass ask to ask people to mask up, with cloth masks, as a harm reduction effort. Protestors- from protestors facing tear gas in the 1960s to protestors with MCS- have long used respirators to protect ourselves from gas and other toxins. If we tried to mass produce and mass distribute N95 and respirators at protests, we could go a long way towards making protests safer for everyone- but ESPECIALLY for those of us who are immune compromised.
— Using noise makers not voices to stop vocal spray. Playing mixtapes. Pre-recording voiced chants at home and bringing along to play loud (or sending these recordings w/ someone who can be there irl if we can’t be there irl). Could edit these to higher volume OR go silent and modulate them with infrasonic sound waves (sound that isn’t audible but can be vibrationally felt). Could place these under cars or other infrastructure like wheelchairs or even brick and play on transducers. Heavy and could probably get broken but maybe could be auxiliary to main protest or installed elsewhere. (These ideas are by Tina Zavitsanos.)
….. Double masking. Masking plus face shields. Making propolis or salt spray nose spray for self protection. Distributing these.
…… Running HEPA purifiers while masked during indoor events. Opening windows. Having all events outside. High ventilation events.
……. Using social distance spread to spread out protests and make for a wild rumpus in the streets that is decentralized but harder to control.
— Using hacking, targeted flooding of social media (as K Pop fans have done to destroy Trumo rallies and flood right wing spaces ) projecting images or solo lockdowns as socially distant ways of disruption. That’s something you can do from a couch.
— Creating tools. Teaching online about abolition, de-esclation, transformative justice and fighting fascism. Making those tools accessible, through image descriptions, captioning, ASL and audio description. Creating guides for how to do online access well.
— The complexities of crip time. Sometimes we are very good at using spoons skillfully, doing something quickly. Sometimes we cannot be caught up in the “urgent immediate response” action cycle the same way abled people can. Case in point: I started working on this article in early June, and I thought it would be published quickly. Instead, I was moving slowly, because of grief and depression and some mental disability crisis. I worried that this piece would be “dated.” Maybe it is- but it also gained more depth and evolution as time went by,
— As a neurodiverse person, I think a lot about the power of actions that are not public, not on a 10k Instagram feed. Secret actions. Private actions.
A recent Facebook post by Dubian Ade said, “It’s a real shame that most activists aren’t interested in underground work bc they can’t post about it on they Insta, snap, FB, or Twitter. It’s pretty damn sad because some of the most vital, tangible, and insurrectionary activity must be done underground. Some of the most impactful rebellions we owe to nameless people who labored in the shadows. In an age where many of us will have to go underground as repression increases, we need to reclaim the clandestine legacies of our ancestors and shake off the celebrity activist culture that is very quickly becoming a burden to our movements.”
This rang true for me, and made me think about, while I do have a public presence as a writer, as a neurodiverse person, I am not comfortable with being all out on front street all the time. I think sometimes people are surprised my instagram isn’t like, an activist brand one with lots of infographics. and I’m like, no, it’s private and it’s a LOT of pics of my cats and THIS TOO IS THE RESISTANCE. Part of resisting accessibly for me is doing things that never become public.
— Creating spaces for disabled joy, rest and healing.
Make Crip Resistance Soup
I understand it can be easy to think that we can do nothing, or that nothing we do matters. That somebody else is the brilliant organizer, someplace else. But I’m going to leave you with a story.
A week or so after Stacey died, I had a dream where we were hanging out. I was telling her, Stacey, you’re gone, who’s going to make the hand sanitizer to distribute via the crip mutual aid network now? (Or the homemade air purifiers, or the number you could call during the power shut offs to get hooked up with a generator, or any of the other five million brilliant crip survival organizing ideas she spearheaded.) I can’t do it, I only got two bottles of rubbing alcohol before everyplace sold out, I’m afraid to leave the house. We’re fucked.
She looked at me and said (I swear to god, I am not making this up), Leah, you don’t have to make the hand sanitizer. You have three chicken thighs in your freezer, right? (She knew me. I always have three chicken thighs in my freezer.) You make soup, That’s what you’re good at. Make soup.
The point I took from this wasn’t that we should all literally make soup. I took it to mean, use what you’ve got. Make crip resistance soup out of whatever skills, resources, tactics and brilliant wild crip ideas you possess. For me, that includes writing essays and poetry and tools. Checking in on my friends, cracking jokes and being there to witness. Doing things that are often underground and not “visible” on social media. Prayer and ritual. And believing in us.
Our possibilities are endless. And we are needed- all of us. All of our disabled brilliance is needed if we’re going to create the liberated, abolitionist, disability justice future we need.
Let’s get to it.
Postscript: Thank you to Eli Clare, Carolyn Lazard, billie rain, Syrus Marcus Ware, and Constantina Zavitsanos for reviewing and giving feedback and suggestions on this article.
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha is a queer disabled autistic nonbinary femme writer and disability/transformative justice worker, a descendent of many gardeners, psychics, teachers, border jumpers, people with a hustle, queer cousins and weirdo/neurodivergent people. Proud to be raised in Worcester, MA, they have called Brooklyn, Oakland and most of all Toronto home, but have been living in South Seattle, Duwamish territories for the last five years. They are the author or co-editor of nine books, including most recently, co-edited with Ejeris Dixon, Beyond Survival, Stories and Strategies from the Transformative Justice Movement, Tonguebreaker, Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice, and Dirty River. Their work has won the Lambda Award, been short listed for the Publishing Triangle four times, and they received the 2020 Jean Cørdova Prize in Lesbian/Queer Nonfction, recognizing “a lifetime of work documenting the complexity of queer experience.” They have performed with Sins Invalid since 2009, and co-created Performance/Disability/Art, Mangos With Chili, and Toronto’s Asian Arts Freedom School. They believe in the power of storytelling and witnessing, being an everyday-ass human being, crip and Crazy person brilliance, and the unpredictable future. They are fluent in sarcasm. Their website is brownstargirl.org