1985 – San Antonio – Stephanie Thomas

San Antonio was my first action and ADAPT’s first hit on a regional APTA (the American Public Transit Association) conference. We stayed in a convent and our rough ways were not too pleasing for the nuns. The place had a kitchen, meeting rooms and little bunk bed sleeping rooms. The doors of many rooms were too narrow to get in; nothing was really accessible — but we made it work.

Mark Ball and a group of others came out when I arrived. He walked, and he had a portable vent thing with him at all times. They immediately started in with a lecture on the politics of oppression. They were so tough, so ready to cut through the crap. My heart opened and I thought, “hmmmmm this group is something real.”

Back then we had group meals for dinner – we were much smaller in numbers, about 40 people – but it felt like an army. When I went inside everyone was in a big meeting discussing targets and tactics for the next day. Everyone was talking. The dishes from dinner were in the sink. I went in to wash them – it was clear the folks who cooked were listening intently to the discussion and they were going to do attendant work when it was done. Dishes were the least I could do. The discussion and debate went on for hours, as the group thought through the strategy and tactics for the upcoming days.

All the Texans slept in this sitting room together. I was the only woman in the group and they insisted I take the couch. It was so quaint and gentlemanly.

The next day Wade bought everyone straw cowboy hats to wear. We loaded into vans and drove downtown. We had lots of vans and packed in tight! Some of the local disability community joined us as we marched around the Alamo with signs calling for lifts on buses. We went over to the lobby of the hotel where APTA was meeting and took over the lobby. With its open atrium, our chants echoed through all the floors. Finally Jack Gilstrap, the Executive Director of APTA, came down and met with us, but he refused to budge. He would not support lifts on buses.

We took off in pairs and trios, as planned, fanning out across the downtown. Our demand was a meeting with Mayor Henry Cisneros. There were no cell phones or radios, yet we simultaneously started blocking buses all over downtown. It was my first time and I was with Mel Conrardy and George Florum. They told me it was easy: two in front and one behind, making sure to stick out so the driver would see you in the rear view mirror. Mel looked so mellow it was hard to believe he was doing what he was doing. George had the biker look down to a “T”. We waited for the bus to stop for a red light and boom — we were rolling off the curb cut and were in front, then behind, the bus. My heart was pounding through my rib cage.

We had about 20 pairs, but in the end, the only ones arrested were two people who couldn’t find an unblocked bus, got frustrated, and blocked a car instead. Cisneros quickly agreed to meet with us on Wednesday.

The next day I had to go back to work, but the group took over the VIA Transit office. I came back to tales of ringing a giant bell in their lobby for hours on end, of sticking crutches through double swinging doors and wheelchairs everywhere in the office. The Transit director, Wayne “lifts on San Antonio buses over my dead body” Cook, sounded wild.

Day three, we met with Cisneros in the Convention Center. He seemed truly interested and promised to make changes, which he actually followed through on later. The media, though they covered our issues and us, was also full of happy locals riding VIAtrans paratransit. Some locals had bravely marched with us and spoke out to the media in support of our goals, risking retaliation from the notoriously oppressive VIAtrans.

A local cartoonist, Leo Garza, did a series of Nacho Guarache cartoons on our issues with the transit pros! After Cisneros, we went back out to ride the trolleys. They were not accessible, so a couple of others and I crawled on different trolleys. Once up in my seat, I could not remember a more beautiful and peaceful tour of San Antonio – like a completely different city. The experience underlined for me “how the other half lives” and why we needed to do what we were doing.