1984 – Washington – Bob Kafka


In 1984 I was a VISTA Volunteer for our state coalition – Coalition of Texans with Disabilities (CTD). I had met Stephanie Thomas at the CTD state conference in San Antonio and was excited to receive an envelope posted from El Paso, Texas where Stephanie worked for the local Independent Living Center. I opened it up and saw it was an application for an organizing training to be held by a group called the Access Institute sponsored by ADAPT, American Disabled for Accessible Public Transportation (or Transit I can’t remember what it said). On the front of the application was a picture of a city mainline bus being flushed down a toilet. In big letters over the bus was the statement “DON’T FLUSH – ORGANIZE! along with the dates of the training and location.

I hurriedly filled out the application and sent it off to the Atlantis Community located in Denver, Colorado hoping I would be selected to go to Washington, DC and get some experience in community organizing. When I didn’t hear for weeks and the training was getting closer I assumed I hadn’t been picked. WRONG! I called the Atlantis Community and to my surprise I had been picked to get my way paid to the training they just were a little behind in letting folks know. Paper handling, as I was to find out, was not the Atlantis Community’s high suite.

I was a little nervous getting off the plane at National Airport in DC not real sure how I was going to get to the Harrington Hotel on 11th and K St NW in downtown DC where we were suppose to stay for the training. The training was to be held the next day at the New York Avenue Church. (Where that was I had no idea) I was relieved when I was met at the baggage by Mike Auberger and Babs Johnson. Mike had an intense look riding in his motorized wheelchair with his beard and long ponytail while Babs grabbed my bag as we headed for the Metro hidden in a back corner of the parking lot. We got off at the Federal Triangle Metro stop and rolled the three blocks to the hotel. The Harrington will not win any awards for accessibility but it certainly had a lot of weird like ambiance.

I most remember the place we ate most meals the “Kitcheteria”. It was a cross between a cafeteria and an old fashioned greasy spoon. The food was good (some don’t remember it that way) but the characters that you saw in the place would make for a great short story. The rooms at the Harrington were all very large and had many beds for large groups to share. I shared but I can’t remember with how many or with whom.

Got up the next morning and headed to the New York Avenue Church with the rest of the trainees. Folks I remember (there were others but…): Claude Holcombe from CT, Rick James from Salt Lake City, a female little person from Los Angeles, Mike Peluso from Syracuse, NY, a woman from Little Rock, Dixie from Cincinnati and Doris Ray from Virginia.

On the ground floor of the New York Ave Church there was a big room with a flip chart set up and hanging out in the front in baggy jeans and a totally bald head was this scary fire hydrant built man who was our trainer, Shel Trapp. The morning session agenda was: Power, Issues, Strategies. This classroom exercise was just a prelude to the on the job training of Direct Action organizing we were about to experience. The head of the Urban Mass Transit Administration, Ralph Stanley had been invited to a meeting with ADAPT at the church.

The plan was to meet with him on the issue of lifts on all new buses but as he was leaving we would surround his car and demand he institute a policy that would result in lifts on all new buses. This was not your regular classroom experience. The thoughts that went through my head made me very nervous. As a VISTA Volunteer I was not allowed to protest and certainly not get arrested. (The Reagan Administration had just issued rules on that very subject in the early ‘80’s).

Well, the meeting began and some of us went outside and surrounded Ralph Stanley’s black limousine. When Stanley and his entourage came out they were quite flustered to see a group of people in wheelchairs, chanting WE WILL RIDE, blocking their way back to their offices. We held the vehicle till the cops arrived and as planned pulled off.

We decided not to get anyone arrested because the next day we would need all the folks for the protest at the American Public Transit Administration (APTA) Conference at the Washington DC Convention Center. I didn’t know what to expect. After the blocking of the limousine I got a good feel for the tactics of Direct Action but protesting at a huge building like the Convention Center seemed daunting.

After a night at the bar we got up early, ate breakfast at the “Kitcheteria” met in the very small lobby of the Harrington and headed to 9th and “H” NW, the Convention Center. We gathered on the corner about 2 blocks from the Convention Center to discuss final tactics. We knew which entrance they were going in from some “mole like” intelligence gotten from someone getting the APTA Conference packet. All I can remember now is following Mike Auberger through some wooden police barricades in a mad dash to the front door of the Convention Center. About 50-75 of us blocked all the doors and began chanting and knocking on the doors with our hands and spoons distributed by the leadership.

I felt a rush of excitement. The police were running around trying to stop us from getting to the doors. One redheaded woman with a motorized chair was grabbed and she was pulled up into a wheelie with her legs hitting the wooden police barricades. She cried out that her leg was broken. I was at the door and turned my head and saw Phil Caulkins. I didn’t know Phil at the time but he was to become a national leader in the disability community.

Out through another door came one of the attendants, handcuffed and being led away by three policemen around him. Somehow he had gotten inside and was arrested trying to hold the door open so the rest of us could get to the APTA members. We didn’t. After about an hour at the door the police started the long process of arrest. After saying over and over I wouldn’t, I couldn’t get arrested, I was. I learned a lot about organizing that day, I learned a lot about myself.

The other vivid memory I have of my first Action was not related to protesting but of friendship. I got very close to folks at the Harrington Hotel. I was impressed by the intensity and commitment of Shel Trapp.

Mike and Babs were to become good friends. Claude Holcombe, Rick James and I still joke about a nighttime roll we took in downtown DC.

Claude and Rick in motorized chairs, me in my manual. Found out Claude and Rick could be turned around whenever a pretty lady would pass us by. 1984 was a life-changing year for me. I learned the truth about the statement “Action Speaks Louder Than Words”. It changed my way of thinking about people, relationships and how best to bring about social change. It was a very good year.