The disability movement: reflections on moving forward

By Melissa Graham

The past year has been eventful for many movements with protests taking place across the globe. The disability movement is no exception. On one hand, we’ve seen a strong increase in disability activism with protests against austerity and an active presence in the occupy movement. The trouble is, the same cuts that are encouraging increased solidarity among people with disabilities is also increasing their poverty and oppression.

The austerity measures in the UK have already hit people with disabilities hard. The government’s public spending cuts include further attacks on the inadequate but vital disability benefits in that country, similar to social assistance in Canada. Their aim is to roll back the hard-won gains affecting all sections of the working class.

A recent report by Glasgow University Media Group found an increase in media articles on disability benefit fraud, comparing benefit cheats to muggers robbing taxpayers. Terms such as “scrounger”, “cheat” and “skiver” were used in eighteen percent of articles in 2010/11 compared to twelve percent in 2004/5. Focus groups believed up to seventy per cent of claims were fraudulent, justifying this by saying they had read it in newspapers. A survey last week found two-thirds of people in the UK actively avoid people with disabilities because they have no idea how to act around them.

The program admits false claims for sickness benefits are less than one per cent of the total recipients. Years of rhetoric about benefit fraud and “dependency on the state” have helped legitimize and reinforce prejudice and ignorance against people with disabilities. It’s not just the media—politicians in the UK have freely expressed their ableism. Tory MP Philip Davies recently claimed that workers with disabilities are “by definition” less productive, so could work for less than the minimum wage. The language and subtle messaging of describing people with disabilities as “expenditure items” or as a “drain on economic efforts” further contributes to their oppression.

Understanding oppression against people with disabilities and the movement to fight it can help to unite resistance to the attacks that lie ahead.


Disability movement history

The disability movement has a long history that is largely unknown to most activists. A huge part of disability rights history has been made invisible by the more socially acceptable, liberal vein of human rights advocacy that is entrenched in modern disability politics. The connections between the disability movement and workers movement are known to even fewer people, but that is where the movement was born.

In the UK, the years of explosive strikes and growth in trade unions also saw the formation of the British Deaf Association and the National League of the Blind and Disabled (NLBD). Founded as a trade union in 1899, the NLBD affiliated to the Trades Union Congress three years later. Its members included blind war veterans, mainly working in sheltered workshops, who campaigned for better working conditions and state pensions. The league organized a national march of blind people on Trafalgar Square in 1920, carrying banners with the slogan ”Rights Not Charity”. Despite the small numbers, its demands were widely supported. The first legislation specifically for people who are visually impaired was passed in the same year, followed by more in 1938.

The long economic boom created space to challenge institutionalization and the patronage of charities, with significant numbers of people with disabilities joining the workforce. By the 1960s some had begun to reject their labeling by the professions as deviants or patients, and to speak out against discrimination. Inspired in particular by the black civil rights struggle, the disability movement began in the US.

An example of this shift was the “Rolling Quads”, a group of student wheelchair users at the University of California, who established the first Independent Living Centre in 1971. Within a few years hundreds of Independent Living Centres were created across the US and in other countries including Britain, Canada and Brazil. Its opposition to institutionalization and focus on the self-reliance of people with disabilities gave the independent living movement a lasting influence.


The movement today

These days the movement has shifted again, with the development of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. Many organizations that were once strong advocates, are now relying on government legislation to provide the next steps for the movement. These same organizations are forced to fight each other for scraps of funding, effectively silencing them from any meaningful criticism of policy. While there are individual activists rising to the challenge, the movement is still divided by disabilities and class. Those of us who are activists are marginalized by this neoliberal current of disability rights advocacy. Dissent has been criminalized and mass action positioned as a negative social disruption instead of the valid form of people-led democratic intervention that it is. Activism as a whole has been pacified to be more palatable to the people, especially in Western society.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (that Canada was one of the last to sign) creates a paradigm shift from viewing people with disabilities from a charitable perspective to the one of rights and inclusion. There is a very real fear that the austerity measures have the potential to infringe on the specific, or practical rights contained in the CRPD. These rights include the right to social protection, the right to live independently in the community, and the right to mobility.

We’re beginning to witness a similar shift in the movement itself. In connections made between the disability movement and the occupy movement, and the marches of thousands in the UK, fighting back against austerity and cuts to benefits. As actions took place across the world last month for the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, social media gave a sense of the international solidarity in the events that occurred—from wheelchair square dancing in Vancouver to a flash mob in Vienna. Young people with disabilities are stepping up to the plate, creating exciting new progressive groups and actions that can potentially create new momentum within the movement.



So how can socialists build solidarity? Any struggle for freedom from oppression has something in common with Marxism. The capitalist class exploits wage earners for profit to the detriment of the working class. A primary source of oppression of people with disabilities (those who could work with a reasonable accommodation) is their exclusion from capitalist exploitation.

Many people with disabilities are unemployed or underemployed against their will. Industrial capitalism imposed the label of disablement upon those people whose bodies did not conform to the standard of the ideal worker. The ideal worker is one who’s body can work like a machine for the ruling class. Though people with disabilities are deemed less or not exploitable by the owners of the means of production, they are further oppressed by being left out of it. To put it in terms of the occupy movement, they are often the lowest 1% of the 99%.

The best thing we can do right now is build connections. Reach out to people with disabilities who we see doing activist work, and connect them with related struggles. One of the biggest barriers people with disabilities face is isolation. Even when groups of people with disabilities do become active, it is rare for allies to reach out. Last October, when the Toronto Disability Pride March took place, people from Occupy Toronto and the International Socialists were there in solidarity. There was strength added to that action because of their presence, and it stands out as an example of the kind of solidarity we need.

It seems fitting that the theme for the 2011 International Persons with Disabilities Day was “Together a better world for all”. This is a very exciting time for many movements, and a time of exciting growth for the disability movement.


Escalation in Somalia Part of AFRICOM’s Resource Wars in Africa

By Farid Omar

After suffering defeat in Iraq and getting bogged down in Afghanistan, the US is shifting its imperialist ambitions to Africa. The bloody military intervention in Libya was swiftly followed by deployment of Special Forces in Uganda, paving the way for large scale militarization in the Central African region and the new escalation by President Obama of America’s two decades old war in Somalia.

Under the auspices of the US Africa Command (AFRICOM), the US is looking to forcefully secure Somalia’s vast untapped oil reserves, natural gas and uranium deposits. Strategically located at the confluence where the Indian Ocean, the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea converge, resource-rich Somalia is the gateway to the world’s busiest shipping lanes along the Red Sea and the Suez Canal.

Its proximity to oil-rich Sudan, North Africa and the Middle East makes it a pawn in the new scramble for Africa pitting the US against China’s rapid ascendancy in Africa, characterized by its increased inroads into the continent’s oilfields. The US is also seeking to counter the wave of revolutionary protests that have swept North Africa and now spreading into other regions of the continent.

Since mid-October 2011, the US has deployed regional proxies to conduct its war in Somalia with Kenyan forces rolling into the southern region of Jubaland/Azania under the pretext of flushing out Al-Shabab militants blamed for a recent spate of kidnappings of foreigners in Kenyan soil, a charge the Islamists vehemently deny. It appears that the recent kidnappings have nothing to do with Kenya’s incursions into Somalia as officials in Nairobi have openly admitted that Kenya’s planned invasion of Somalia has long been in the making.

Under the tacit approval of Washington, Ethiopian forces re-invaded Somalia’s central region in November while Djibouti, which is home to US and French bases has started deploying troops in Mogadishu under the banner of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), seen by many Somalis as another US proxy force. Sierra Leonean forces are expected to deploy soon.

In addition to the multiple proxy forces on the ground, the US is also waging direct war in Somalia through air strikes and sustained drone attacks in the South that has resulted in civilian deaths.

The US strategy in Somalia is to escalate the 20-year old conflict to consolidate AFRICOM’s military objectives of securing vital resources, countering China’s strategy and confronting the revolutionary wave sweeping across the continent. America’s war in Somalia has had a devastating impact on the Horn of Africa nation resulting in massive loss of civilian lives, mass displacement, refugee crisis and ongoing famine.

Left Jab: Reading the tea leaves for 2012

By John Bell

“For a long time it has been frowned upon to use terms like ‘class’ in everyday conversation; that’s just old fashioned, dusty, Marxist jargon we’d be told. Just a few years ago using the word ‘capitalism’ brought a similar response. Now ‘capitalism’ is back in common parlance, in the newspapers and around the water cooler. My prediction for 2011 is that we are about to see a similar return of ‘class’.”

Exactly a year ago a very perceptive pundit wrote those words, and boy-o-boy was he right. Best pundit ever! Okay, it was I. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

Sooner or later ideas and debates about “class” were bound to come to the fore. The division of society into opposing classes–particularly into a minority who own and control the resources and technology, and a great majority who live by selling their ability to work–is the stark reality. The ideology that we had evolved beyond class, that we were all in it together and that anyone could rise to the top through their hard work and initiative, that was the fiction.

That fiction has been blown away by the fearless masses of the Arab world, still struggling to push their revolution forward in the face of tricky words, false friends and brutal repression.

And by the working people of Europe who refuse to see the progress won by several generations of struggle wiped out to benefit financial speculators.

And by the Occupy gang worldwide who wisely resisted demands to get “specific” about their demands. Refusing to point to one or another symptom, they effectively indicted the entire sick system that grinds down the 99 per cent to empower the 1 per cent beyond the dreams of avarice.


Class war

Everywhere you looked in 2011 you saw class warfare breaking out. From Tunisia to Wisconsin to Athens to Sudbury: the battle lines were being drawn more clearly and honestly than at any point in my lifetime.

Oh yes, Harper got his majority. Yes Rob Ford took Toronto’s City Hall. Yes the bankers got richer. It takes two sides to make a class war, and while we’ve been dithering for years our enemies have always been clear (if not always united) in pursuit of their class ends. In many ways we were playing catch-up, and often we lost this skirmish or that battle.

But the genie is out of the bottle. Our class is starting to get organized, to feel the strength in its numbers and, more importantly, in the crucial position it holds in the economy. If the 99 per cent refuses to work, the 1 per cent loses its hold.


Occupy Everything

The Lancaster Eagle Gazette is the newspaper of Lancaster, Ohio. Lancaster is a small city in the middle of the state that epitomizes middle America. Its Christmas Day editorial about the Occupy movement is worth noting:

“Those who ‘occupy’ today’s streets use the occasion to demonstrate–not so much against Wall Street, but against their loss of both economic status and their self-esteem.

“It could be called class warfare.”

The Eagle Gazette points out: “Four years ago, 26 million Americans’ incomes were so low that they qualified for [food stamps]. Today, the number has increased to 46 million, an increase of 20 million during the Great Recession and its supposed recovery.”

The editorial isn’t out to fan the flames of revolt. It ends by telling readers all will be well if they go back to school and learn new skills. The inane conclusion is beside the point. If people are talking about “class warfare” in Lancaster, Ohio they are talking about it everywhere.

My fearless prediction of 2011 didn’t come out of nowhere. If one strains to listen to the deep rumblings from below instead of the noisy chatter from above, one has a good chance of spotting the coming trend. The level of struggle and protest in Egypt had been rising for years. The gross chasm between the 1 per cent and the struggling 99 per cent had been growing wider and more evident for years.


Continued crisis

As for 2012, my bet is that the Canadian economy will be sucked deeper into the instability and crisis that we see everywhere. Harper’s vaunted claim, that Canada is exceptional and its banks a model of stability and honesty, will crumble like a house of cards. That isn’t a cliché; the Canadian housing bubble is due to burst, revealing the weakness and corruption within.

I’m not alone in predicting this, nor does one have to be a socialist to see this train wreck. One of my favourite bloggers is former Tory MP Garth Turner. Of the Canadian real estate bubble he writes:

“It’s impossible to play down the magnitude of this mess… Millions made the choice of throwing whatever investment dollars they had into a single asset–real estate. It may have worked while the economy chugged, but no longer. So without enough financial assets to actually provide income, even more needed as the feds cut back, what’ll they do?

“Simple. Bail.”

Canada is about the only nation in the world where the majority holds a favourable opinion about its bankers and, by extension about its financial system. That impression has been fostered by a sycophantic business press, and by the fact that the housing bubble didn’t pop in 2008. My guess is that the real estate balloon, and with it the fiction of the righteous Canadian banker, will not survive 2012.

The class warfare is about to get hotter.

Hands off Syria, Victory to the revolution

By Bradley Hughes

NATO powers are using repression in Syria as a pretext for long sought intervention. Like Libya, Western military intervention in the Syrian revolution would hijack another part of the Arab Spring and undermine its potential, which has already produced defections in the army and organized a general strike.

For years Western imperialism has wanted “regime change” in Syria, one of the few regimes of the region not armed and controlled by the West. After 9/11, Syria was on the hit-list for US imperialism, along with Iraq and Iran. Like Iran, the Syrian regime presents itself as anti-imperialist, and has provided support for resistance movements in the region like Hizbullah. But both regimes have embraced neoliberalism, and this combined with local political repression and global economic crisis has produced genuine grievances.


Syrian revolution 

Syria is a country of 17 million people, half of them under 19. Unemployment stands between 25 and 30 per cent. GDP is falling and the oil is running out. At the same time as poverty is growing, a small corrupt layer around the president is getting richer and richer. After 11 years of rule by the dictator Bashar al-Assad, and 29 years before that by his father, the people of Syria began an uprising last March as part of the Arab Spring.

The opposition is organized both by the heterogenous Syrian National Committee (SNC), and on the ground by local coordinating committees that have arisen in neighbourhoods across the country to mobilize for demonstrations and to try to provide defense.

The last months have also been marked by defections from the army, leading to the creation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The FSA has been attacking Syrian army units called in to disrupt protests. In some cases they have attacked the officers and recruited their soldiers.

In early December the protests spread to a one day general strike that was observed across the south of the country, which has been the centre of the revolt. The spread of the protests to strike action is crucial because it was strike action combined with mass protests that toppled the regimes in Egypt and Tunisia.


Counter revolution: Internal and external

The regime has sent soldiers to attack and imprison protesters, even hijacking ambulances and kidnapping injured protesters from hospitals. The UN estimates that over 5000 people have been killed by the regime and hundreds imprisoned, many tortured—despite the presence of Arab League monitors.

Now the West is using Assad’s attacks, and the impotence of the Arab League, as pretext for intervention. Canada and the US have imposed economic sanctions against Syria, which could spill over into military intervention. “Canada will continue to put the squeeze on the Assad regime,” Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird told the CBC. “We will not sit idly by—not while Assad and his thugs continue to violate the rights of the Syrian people.”

But the Canadian and US history of not “sitting idly by” as Syria tortures people includes their treatment of Maher Arar. In September of 2002, the US kidnapped Canadian Maher Arar during a layover at an American airport. They sent him to be tortured in Syria. The Canadian government knew he was imprisoned and did nothing. Canada also has its own economic interests in Syria, like the corporation Suncor that opened a $1.2 billion natural gas plant last year.

A genuine revolution in Syria threatens not only Assad and Syrian elites, but also Western imperialism in the region, which is why NATO countries are intervening with the support of some sections of the SNC and FSA. But like Libya this would reduce the revolution to a military exercise—purging its political and economic demands. Only the people of Syria can win their revolution, with solidarity from other struggles around the world.

NATO attacks on Pakistan reveal misery and divisions in US “war on terror”

By Salmaan Abdul Hamid Khan 

The NATO assault on a Pakistani border post that killed 24 soldiers and wounded 13 others does not come as much of a surprise. It is commonplace for the US to violate Pakistan’s sovereignty and show complete disregard for human life.

In response to this act of aggression, the Pakistani government reacted by halting NATO supply convoys to Afghanistan and asked the US to vacate the Shamsi airbase from which drones are launched on targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

This is not the first time Pakistan has reacted by halting supply lines: the same action was taken the same course just last year when NATO helicopters opened fire on a similar Pakistani border post, killing three and injuring four.

In response to this recent tragedy, the US has refused to accept official responsibility. A recently released investigation report maintains that the incident was the outcome of a lack of communication and knowledge as to the existence of the Pakistani checkpoint. These conclusions are highly contested conclusions as Pakistan maintains that they have long supplied NATO commanders with maps and markings of all checkpoints in the region. The “Volcano” border post itself being set up at the request of the U.S. in order to help curb the flow of militants across the border.

Though what really happened that Saturday morning may never be known, what is very real is the continued destabilization of the region as a result of such military ventures. The recent attack will contribute to ever increasing divisions within the Pakistani military, the further weakening of a corrupt civilian government, and a strengthening of religious militants and anti-US sentiment.

These sentiments have been growing as Pakistanis continue to receive the blows of a war they never asked for. To date, America’s “war on terror” has resulted in the deaths of 3,097 Pakistani troops, and 721 being permanently disabled. As for innocent civilians caught in this conflict, 40,309 Pakistanis have lost their lives and millions have been displaced. All this in a country plagued by endemic poverty and still recovering from floods last year which UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called “the worst natural disaster he has ever seen”.


Revolution from below, not bombs from above, can bring change to Syria and Iran

Canada and other Western powers are trying to stifle the Arab spring—escalating the threat of military intervention against Syria and Iran, while quietly supporting repression in Palestine, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

The Harper government announced sanctions on Iran, declaring “the question is not if, but rather the degree to which, we will act.” Meanwhile Canada’s navy will continue to patrol the Mediterranean despite the end of the war on Libya, raising questions about a similar intervention in Syria. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird announced new sanctions onSyria, declaring “we will not sit idly by, while Assad and his thugs continue to violate the rights of the Syrian people.”

But the West will sit idly by while the thugs it supports continue to violate the rights of people in Palestine, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

One scenario for war with Iran would have Israel attack. Clearly the only nuclear-armed power in the Middle East, which for six decades has maintained a brutal occupation in Palestine, will not help the people of Iran—who showed through mass protests in 2009 that they have the power to challenge their own regime.

In solidarity with Palestine the people of Egypt overthrew their Western-backed dictator Hosni Mubarak, and continue to challenge his military regime. Harper supported Mubarak to the end and has been silent on the recent brutal beatings of Egyptians; while US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton expressed “shock”, the US continues to supply the Egyptian dictatorship with a billion dollars of weapons each year.

Revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt inspired the region, including people in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. But the West continues to arm those dictatorships and sit idly by while they brutally repress democracy movements.

Where the West has intervened, it has been to hijack popular movements while bombing civilians. In Libya NATO was forced to admit it had killed dozens of civilians during its bombing campaign—which hit civilian houses, a food warehouse and an ambulance. Meanwhile the new regime inLibyais ruled by former members of the Gaddafi regime, who have maintained his contracts with Western oil companies.

On December 11 the people of Syria organized a general strike, one of the key factors to revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. As in Libya, a western bombing campaign could derail revolutionary change from below in order to install a puppet regime that supports neoliberalism.

The Arab spring has shown that liberation only comes through self-determination, which means challenging Western imperialism. The real way of showing support is by stopping Western arms sales and military intervention, so the people of the region can liberate themselves.

Resistance and solidarity continues in Bahrain

By Jesse McLaren

On November 23 the people of Bahrain continued resisting the regime of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, in a “black day of anger”—in reference to the black smoke from burning tires. Despite an intense crackdown on Bahrain’s uprising since it began in February, demonstrators continue to fight for justice, and the small country of 1.2 million people is getting the world’s attention.

The day of anger coincided with the release of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), which is deeply critical of Bahrain authorities. The report, conducted by international experts, criticizes the use of torture and force of the Bahrain government in dealing with protests that have rocked the country since February. The report cites hundreds of cases of abuse, including mass arrests of peaceful demonstrators, torture in detention and dozens of military trials. It also calls for greater protections of human rights and justice for the victims and protections for human rights.

The report vindicates the experience of the people of Bahrain, but there are concerns it will be misused. While journalists have been welcomed back into the country after a months-long ban and on November 21 all forms of torture were declared illegal, many do not trust a commission appointed by Khalifa to stop the systematic repression that has gone on against peaceful protestors. The report fails to blame anyone for the repression, allowing the regime to claim all the violence was simply the result of rogue elements who will take the fall.

The report also ignores the international context of the crackdown. Bahrain is home to an important US navy base, and the regime could not survive without heavy US military backing. The NATO bombing of Libya was used not only to attempt to hijack the Libyan revolution, but also to bury any news of Western complicity with the dictatorship of Bahrain. As recently as this summer the Obama administration approved $53 million in military sales to the regime. The US state department said it would put the sale on hold until it reviews the report, and there are concerns that the report will be used to justify continued Western arms sales to the dictatorship in Bahrain.

The report itself does not alter anything on the ground. Just hours before the report was to be released, police fired teargas at protestors and continued their assaults on makeshift medical clinics. Abdul Nabi Kadhem, 44, was killed when his car was intentionally hit by a police vehicle, running him into a building. Police used sounds bombs and arrested a number of people protesting the death of Kadhem.

But the people of Bahrain are continuing to resist, and there is growing international solidarity. When the regime sentenced 20 medics to up to 15 years for healing the wounded, international outrage forced a retrial for November 28. On November 26, petitions signed by 1000 global medical professionals were delivered to Bahrain embassies in Washington and London, demanding their immediate release. The trial will resume on January 9, with the regime now making the preposterous claim that the medics were armed and dangerous. Continued international solidarity, and pressure on Western governments, can help the people of Bahrain fight for their own freedom.