“True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice”– Martin Luther King Jr.
Q: When are indigenous rights not indigenous rights!?
A: When they are Palestinian indigenous rights.
Before the EI Convention, there are several smaller pre-conferences, including one on indigenous rights. The conference was divided into indigenous and non indigenous people (isn’t everyone indigenous to somewhere!? – I hate these simplifications of dialogue and narrative.) Andy and I went to the room for non-indigenous people. The meeting was chaired by Judith Moorehouse, from the National Union of Teachers (GB). NUT has taken a more progressive position on Palestinian human rights than any U.S. union. She posed the question: What impediments do you experience in your union in discussing indigenous rights? I raised the issue of Palestinian human rights and how difficult it was to raise that issue. She immediately shot me down, and quite rudely, by insisting (demonstrating?) that we only discuss indigenous populations within our own territories and we can’t solve that problem here. (As if, in a one hour discussion, we could solve ANY of the worlds’ violations of indigenous rights!) Andy raised the issue of Iraq and Palestine and the U.S. roles in both occupations. His contribution was more graciously received, which neither or us understands. I added that given the breath of U.S. imperialism and neo-liberalism, it behooves us to speak up for indigenous rights of those either directly or indirectly under U.S. occupation. At this point I was again dismissed “We don’t need a history lesson.”
Apparently “we” do.
Andy and I could not figure out the difference in response to us, though in both cases, politely or impolitely, Palestine was brushed under the rug, and in both cases, we raised our hands, were recognized and expressed a similar point of view on an essentially relevant topic. Neither of us were insulting or off topic. There was no reason, no apparent reason for her response. The only difference we could discern was gender and disability. Another possibility is that behind the scenes my union sisters from Los Angeles had warned the chair ahead of time, that I might bring up that issue.
My paranoia never exceeds the schemes of my adversaries. Andy and I had strategized how to avoid the two members, “Mildred” and “Camile”, of the HRC who were in attendance. But nothing prepared us for what was really in store.
After three days of trying to negotiate a conference in which I was one of a handful of wheelchairs users, and the only one in the U.S. delegation, I suggested at a delegation breakfast meeting that two seats on the aisle be reserved for me and Andy, so that I could have access to my scooter and still sit with the delegation. Reg Weaver, the NEA president, who walks with the assistance of a cane, made note of how much better I was walking that day from previous days. This provoked many of the people at the table next to us, full of UTLA members, including two UTLA officers (Julie Washington, Lois Bradford) and “Camile”, to break out in laughter.
“Is something funny about that?” I asked.
Now, there are three answers to this question, two of which provide perfect refuge for bigots.
- “No, I’m sorry we were laughing at something else.” (With either real or feigned sincerity.)
- “We weren’t laughing.” (With noticeable sarcasm.)
or the third answer, which is the answer with impunity, that was delivered, by UTLA House of Reps member, “Tammy”, a woman I have never worked with or even spoken to.
“Yep, it’s funny! Yep it’s funny!” Loud and with arms crossed.
To add fuel to their fire, we had forgotten to charge my wheelchair the night before, so were charging it during breakfast, at the only available outlet, which was near very wide double door leading to the stairs, it was one of three exits from the large meeting room. I had to negotiate the room without the scooter, which on good days, or short distances, is not a problem. But for bigots like the women at the laughing table, who feel that if one can walk one day, one isn’t really disabled (why they care?) it just increases their justification for humiliation and ostracism.
Reg insisted that no one had laughed at me, and Andy rose and explained part of the history, and that there had in fact been quite a bit of laughter at the table next to us, and that there had been a problem with gossip about my disability.
“Tammy” stood, approached the mic and announced that she didn’t understand what the problem was, that all I had to do was look around the hall, that there were plenty of chairs.
She was right, there were plenty of chairs; in the back; not with the delegation.
Now, what level of depravity or desire for belonging, or bitterness, or bigotry or self-hatred, would behoove “Tammy”, an African-American woman to tell anyone that their place should be silently and happily in the back of the room!??
After the program ended, Reg Weaver came over to talk to me. He is generally a sympathetic man, but like many, often respond to an injustice by attempting to find fault with the target and not the marksman. It’s easier that way, to blame the victim. The victim is only one, usually, alone and less powerful. If it’s the vicitm’s fault, there’s no problem and then, there’s no conflict. This is typical of how teachers handle teasing and bullying in the classroom. It’s just easier that way. The target leaves, the problem is gone; much easier than taking on a powerful and organized clique. He suggested it wasn’t my disability that upset people but the way I handle myself. It’s a ridiculous assertion. Did their dislike of me, regardless, ever justify their ridicule of my disability? Perplexed at when he had seen me “handle myself,” as our contact had been very minimal, and certain that his point of view was fueled by gossip, I asked him what he meant. “Was there something wrong with my initial request for a seat?” He assured me there was not. He gave as an example, my behavior at the Indigenous Rights Conference in bringing up the issue of Palestine, which he had not attended. That is, his point of view was only fueled by what he had been told. Andy and I relayed to him what really had happened and I pointed out to him that the president of Education International is from COSATU, the South African Federation of Unions, which has declared Israeli apartheid to be worse than South African apartheid, that to limit discussion on that issue was totally out of line. But I was really hurt by this admonition and the preceding humiliation, and made my points without the decorum that this assembly respects (the negative peace!) ; behind the scenes, indirect, with deference to power and prestige and only the most minimal recognition of real human rights or the challenges and confrontation that the fight for social justice always exacts.
Which is really the rule I broke: the emphasis on manners and decorum, that strangely doesn’t apply to the laughing women or to Howard’s ridicule at the Human Rights Committee Retreat the year before.
At that point people converged on Andy and me, both sympatico and antipatico.
I felt all connection to my legs go, which often happens under extreme stress and I sent Andy to get my wheelchair. UTLA Elementary Education Vice President, Julie Washington, who was seated at the laughing table, and had made no attempt to contradict the bigoted ridicule, or defend my right to basic access. (all I asked for was a seat at the table!!) told me I wasn’t helping Andy. That was her entire contribution. She didn’t offer me support, solidarity or compassion nor had she admonish “Tammy” or the others, for the ridicule; she had been at the HRC retreat, and the dock in Philadelphia. I’m sure had heard “Camile’s” gossip, and unlike Reg, was totally aware of the social dynamic “You need to speak up Julie.” I told her. Neither she nor anyone else at that laughing table, full of UTLA members, admonished, disassociated themselves from or denounced the bigoted behavior of the laughing UTLA members. It’s safe to say that at the very least, their silence was complicit.
While Andy was getting my chair, Julie left me and went over to him, and reportedly told him the same: that I wasn’t helping him any. What did she want him to do? In addition to the humiliation I had already endured, did she want him to demand obedience and passivity in the face of discrimination and humiliation? Can you imagine the private conflict in our hotel room, she was lobbying for!? Michael Novick is right when he says the problem is one of a lack of sisterhood! The next time she saw me was at Barbara’s funeral, at which point she extended an unsolicited hug “Emma, we haven’t seen you since Berlin.” Amazing!
Shirley Howard, The Chair of the NEA Physically Challenged, Caucus approached me and also, in the sea of people, made greater issue with my anger than with the indignity. She might have introduced herself to me, not after a problem erupted, to silence me, but perhaps on the first day of the conference to let me know how she might help me negotiate a difficult social rubric, where niceties are the mandate, and more is resolved behind the scenes than in open discussion, where gossip is deadly and recourse limited. I don’t know what her disability is, as it was not visibly apparent, and perhaps she doesn’t understand the nuances of maneuvering in a scooter. Nonetheless, her inability to advocate for disability rights calls into question her ability to serve as national chair within NEA, advocating for PWDs. Her role in this situation was clearly to enforce the status quo, to bring my protestations into line and to quell her own embarrassment. Perhaps she was also offended that anyone would speak to the issue in ways beyond her own, that perhaps we had upstaged her, that this was her territory and in defending myself, I had stepped on her toes.
“Tammy” approached me and told me that she hadn’t laughed at me, which of course, was not true. Then she said something so amazingly outrageous. She told me she didn’t have a problem with my disability (why should she?) but she did have a problem with my wheelchair, because it could be in the way during a fire when everyone else needed to run down the stairs!!!!
(For those who don’t get it; wheelchairs don’t go down stairs. What did she want me to do? Burn quietly in the corner?)
Andy and I left, making our way down a long hallway through the staffing area, to the tiny elevator, provided for disability access, and “Tammy” with two friends, apparently opting not to take the more proximitous stairs, had the nerve to follow us into the elevator, admonishing me on the ride down, to think positive! That was my problem in the first place; I mistakenly thought that a simple and positive request to participate would receive a positive response. Positive thinking can have devastating consequences. I often do better when I am prepared for the worst.
These conflicts have been very trying. What we learned in Philadelphia and Berlin is that I’m not welcome even as his partner, at a breakfast meeting or a social gathering related to his union work. This is no longer about power within the HRC. That’s been established. I’ll never chair another conference, host the listserve or master the web page. (Not that anyone has stepped in to really take on those tasks, but that wasn’t the point, was it?) We’ve had difficult waters to navigate. One would think, with all the power politics, and the people who claim to be loyal to Andy, that they would give him the respect of treating me with at least the most superficial courtesies. Later that summer, and in Berlin as well, Andy has been approached by HRC members wishing reconciliation, but adding that that doesn’t include me. Strange, there’s no position or action that I took, that Andy didn’t take as well, but for some reason, I’ve been the target. He’s suffered as well, though the party line is his behavior is due to my bad influence.
We’ve struggled with the imbalance. I remember in discussions on racism, on being confronted with the exclusivity of her church, one woman said she wouldn’t invite her Black friends because they wouldn’t be comfortable, to which the answer was “Why do you belong to that church?”
Andy has national stature in an organization where it has been made clear to me, should I even show up for breakfast, I will be confronted with extreme levels of humiliation.
Back in the room, we tried to figure out what to do next. Everyone who had just humiliated me was staying at this hotel. They couldn’t be avoided, even if I didn’t participate in the conference. It was like being back in grade school. I couldn’t just ignore them. Strange advice we give the targets of bullies, as if the target sought out the bully and not the other way around. You can’ t ignore people if they go out of their way to interfere with and harass you. This pithy advice puts the burder for solving and absorbing the problem once more, on the victim. There was no internet access in the hotel room. If I went to breakfast, at any of the restaurants in the hotel lobby, sat at a table to check my email, left the hotel to go somewhere, these people could not be avoided. I was a goldfish in a fish bowl. They had sought out, provoked and took visible pleasure in my pain, suffering and discomfort; (in children, a sign of immaturity, in adults a clear indication of sociopathy!) If they simply didn’t like me, they could have left me alone. (What did they care if I sat on the aisle? Why walk all the way down the hallway to go into a tiny elevator when the stairs would do? ) If we stayed at the hotel, I would feel uncomfortable and unsafe every time I left the hotel room.
At considerable expense, we decided to change hotels, and Andy would continue at the conference once we got settled. In the midst of the physical task of packing, I fell in the hotel room. My coordination had been compromised by the stress of the morning. I hurt all over. This had been my biggest fear; them laughing at me if I fell. I never anticipated them laughing because I was walking better.
We found a hotel away from the conference in downtown Berlin. It took us most of the next day to settle in. Andy made his way back to the conference two days later, spoke to what had happened and gave the history for those not from Los Angeles. “All she asked for was a seat at the table.”
Members of the delegation, not from Los Angeles, let him know that we had been missed and that they had saved seats for us. Reg told Andy to tell me he was sorry. His offer of an apology was kind, appropriate, and appreciated, but a public offense deserves a public apology. Something I doubt I will ever get from any of the parties involved, either for their overt actions of exclusion or their silent duplicity. And he also asked when I might apologize. For what? Expressing appropriate outrage at humiliating and discriminating behavior? This was nothing like my outburst at Howard’s house at the retreat, for which I did apologize. In Berlin I started my protest with an inquiry “Is something funny about that?” to make sure that I hadn’t misunderstood. My tormentors, apparently confident that there would be no stigma attached to their ridicule, confirmed my understanding of their intentions “ yes it’s funny!” followed by my (and Andy’s) clear and appropriate protestation of the ridicule. (Funny, why didn’t Andy owe an apology?) Otherwise, was I supposed to laugh along, take a joke, or a poke? Who is responsible for assuring peace at these gatherings, real peace, not the negative peace.* Why is the target of the ostracism the one, the ONLY one held responsible for the breach?