THE ROLLING FREEDOM EXPRESS FROM ALABAMA TO WASHINGTON, D.C.
The Rolling Freedom Express (RFE) was an eight day, ten city bus caravan to raise awareness about the latest attacks on the Americans with Disabilities Act that the CO delegation was very proud to be a part of. We had fund-raised, saved, planned and anxiously waited for Sept 20th, the day to leave. It was finally here! The press were taking pictures and interviewing as all of the local ADAPT members cheered while the eight of us were jamming into the big gold van with the magnetic sign saying “Don’t Tread on the ADA”. There was Rick James, Rick Viator, Scott Hinton, Frank Krall, Gil Casarez, Tisha, Malachi, and myself. The trailer was hitched up behind us filled with what we would need for the next two weeks.
It took us three days to get to Birmingham, AL.
The folks from Birmingham welcomed us and even got Gil’s chair fixed that broke along the way. We were joined with ADAPT members from Texas, Kansas, and Georgia. The next day at noon the Rolling Freedom Express was launched! We set up the tables, sold the t-shirts, and raised the banner which were all packed in the trailer. The setting was perfect. It was Ingram Park which is this awesome civil rights park with statues portraying the tactics the cops used against the protesters marching with Dr. King (IE. the dogs, the fire hoses, the clubs, and jailing the children).
Patricia Garrett and Milton Ash, the two people with disabilities in the Garrett case, spoke about how glad they were to know that they were not alone in their fight. The Mayor of Birmingham came out wearing an RFE shirt promising his support for the ADA. Then he boarded the bus (which was wrapped in its Rolling Freedom Express message of support for the ADA) and rode it out of town with the procession on its way to Atlanta.
We arrived in Atlanta, GA that night ready for Day 2 of the Rolling Freedom Express. The event was held at the King Center with over 100 people from Atlanta attending. Kate Gainer from ADAPT began the ceremony. At the end a bell for freedom was rung in symbolic connection with the mental health bell that was created from the iron shackles that patients at psychiatric institutions were chained not so long ago. Afterwards we caravanned to the capitol and then on to Nashville.
The third day of our campaign was held at the Tennessee Capitol’s Bicentennial Mall where people from across the state gathered. Deborah Cunningham, Tony Perrone, Barbara Bounds, Carol Westlake, and Tim Wheat gave rousing speeches as the constant rain gave us a little break. We packed up and drove on to Louisville.
Even though the rain followed us all the way to the Federal Building in Louisville, it stopped long enough for the event. There were still around a hundred people and media that showed up. Representatives from the Kentucky Governor and the Louisville Mayor brought proclamations supporting the ADA. After the event local supporters joined the RFE caravan as we headed north to Columbus. By this point the hotel rooms looked the same. This night Scott went to a strangers room thinking that it was ours. They had their door cracked open. It was an older couple and the guy was sitting on the toilet. I’m not sure who it scared worse Scott or him!
The capitol of Ohio was the location for the fifth RFE rally where 200 local supporters gathered. Roland Sykes gave a powerful speech saying:
“The passage of the ADA was a struggle. Protecting it will be a WAR. A war with many fronts. A war we must not lose! The Garrett case is a wakeup-call that says the ADA is under attack and could be weakened or lost. We must be united.”
With that Roland joined the caravan and we moved on to Pennsylvania.
Bustling Market Square in downtown Pittsburgh was the location of the RFE rally for Day 6 where the mayor and city councilman proclaimed their support. Each city had been very hospitable, but I remember in Harrisburg they served us a home cooked Pennsylvania Dutch dinner. We stayed at the Hilton where six of us shared a room. It was there that Roland taught me how to back the trailer out of the parking lot.
The fountain side of the capitol in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania hosted our 7th rally. We ended it by marching across the Harrisburg Bridge. Day 8 found us at the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. The City of Brotherly Love was certainly portrayed by our ADAPT family. But, I will tell you that I have never been flipped off so many times as I was following the bus in our van with our trailer through the streets of Philadelphia!
Our last day on the road was at Fort McHenry in Baltimore Maryland. We packed up for the last time after nine cities in six states over eight days. The Rolling Freedom Express rolled into Washington D.C. to meet others joining the caravan at the stadium. We had anxiously awaited this moment. Now there were at least 25 vehicles following the bus!
Bobby Coward was on his phone seeing if the police were going to give us an escort. When he didn’t get an answer, he just said he would do it himself. He led us through the congested streets of Washington which our very patient bus driver manipulated. By this time the bus driver knew us all and even wore our t-shirt! Tisha and Greg jumped out of the bus to block the streets so the caravan could stay together. We arrived at the Supreme Court and a waiting crowd of cheering supporters. This was the day that we were waiting for and it was truly exciting.
The next day was the beginning of our fall action of 2000.
The week before the president had announced a billion dollar give away to the nursing home industry. We were now 400 strong taking it to the streets to confront President Clinton. I remember at one point the cops pulled two of their cars and a bus diagonally across the intersection in an attempt to block our march. That would not stop us. We stood in front of them. Our well trained troops kept on going to Pennsylvania Ave. and the White House. At our destination we chained ourselves to the fence.
We could see through the fence that there was a media event planned. But, I guess, they did not want to hold it with 400 angry disabled people chained to the fence in the background! So the national media decided to come over and see what we were doing! Finally after hours of waiting a delegation was invited inside to meet with the chief of staff to schedule a meeting with ADAPT and President Clinton before the end of October. I would say that was a successful first day!
The second day began with a big rally for the Garrett case with thousands of people attending. Speakers included Jesse Jackson, Ted Kennedy Jr., Martin Luther King III, Justin Dart, and some of us. The Mental Health Association brought their eight ton bell made from shackles. Gallaudet University turned out in force.
After the rally everyone marched to the Supreme Court for a closing ceremony. Again the cops got stupid and would not let the interpreters stand on the steps so they could be visible above the crowd. The interpreters were being threatened with arrests. We (ADAPT) had plans to move on, but we were willing to change them and be arrested if that is how they wanted to play the game! Suddenly a solution was found, the ceremony was over, and we moved on to our plan.
The Republican National Headquarters (RNC) was a couple of blocks down the street.
Our goal was to ask the RNC to get us a meeting with Bush, who was running for President. That night was the second Presidential debate. I guess they had planned a big fund-raising party where people were to pay $1,000 to come and watch the debate. We shut down the headquarters, the Republican Social Club, and the parking garage. No one was moving until we got a commitment. A few people climbed in and out of the windows. But the party goers began to trickle away.
About 9:30 that night the strangest thing happened. A whole bunch of cop cars came screeching up the street with their sirens on. Then a bunch of Metro buses pulled up in front of the club. They pulled some people from the doors, the cops brought everyone from inside out to the buses, and they all left including all of the cops. The message was clear. Bush would rather lose a half million dollars than meet with the disability community!
For our last day in D. C. we chose to confront the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) who had remained very silent about MiCASSA. We marched over to their huge offices. Half of us went to one of their buildings and the other half went to the other one. We filled both of the building’s lobbies. We all began to chant about meeting with their CEO Horace Deets.
Within an hour our negotiation team was meeting with their people to get an agreement on the actual meeting. Within another hour ADAPT had another victory with a meeting date for November 9th. Every trip is always a new experience. This one was truly jam packed and one that I would not have wanted to miss.