As the world faces up to centuries of racism, we all need to take a side. Chairman Mao saw it clearly.
I am disabled. I am a Graduate of 20th Century History, proud of my Irish descent. I had a Catholic up-bringing. I know, understand and have experienced discrimination and appreciate the privilege of being a straight white male. I have always felt a strong link with any other oppressed group and am painfully aware of their struggle. As nobody showed me the deep links between black lives and disabled lives, I wondered if my fellow disabled people knew.
Taking a position on Black Lives Matter is pretty easy for me. I believe in equality of opportunity and of an enabling supportive society founded on democratic principles. All lives matter, but now, we must recognise the cruelty that has been meted out specifically to black people for centuries and ensure we reject racism in our lives, educate our children, friends and families by refusing to keep silent when we see it.
Racism is not the same as Ableism, but they are close friends. The struggles of people of colour has similarities with those borne by disabled people they are distinctly different too. A big difference between racism and ableism is slavery. The first slaves reached America in 1619. In Don Cornelius’ Soul Train Nightclub in San Francisco in early 1974, Comedian Richard Pryor tells his audience a story about an everyday experience of racism. He says “We’ve had 400 years of this shit.” The audience laugh. It was, and still is, part of their shared experience.
When I was studying at University of Rhode Island, I studied Black Power politics. I wanted to learn about American History in the country where it had happened. The course started from the position that the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement had only been the start of addressing the problem of racism and examined how black communities in America continued the struggle. I found this course fascinating. One of my proudest moments was when the Professor handed me back an essay I had written and said with a smile; “Richard, you’re with the programme.”
The Black Panther Party
As part of the course, I studied the Black Panther Party in some depth. Although notorious for militancy, the BPP also established food kitchens, schools, medical centres and a newspaper to empower black people all over America. I remember reading an article called ‘Black like Mao’ exploring the links between Maoism and Black Power. Essentially, Marxist thinking promised justice for those oppressed by capitalism through revolution. It appealed to many revolutionary groups in the sixties and seventies. In 1967, Robert Williams, a key figure in the Civil Rights Movement, announced: “Chairman Mao is the first world leader to elevate our people’s struggle to the fold of the world revolution.” Mao was calling for a global revolution against the forces of Capitalism and recognised that an oppressed group in America were black people and likely to join him. The Black Panther Party were influenced by Maoism. Members were encouraged to read and follow Mao’s Little Red Book of Revolution to set up ‘survival programmes’ within their communities and take their message around the world.
This resonated with me. If Chairman Mao could align his people’s struggle with African Americans, then so could I. But it wasn’t until I learned about the Social Model of Disability and our own struggle for equality that I began to see the links between racism and ableism.
Disability in the UK
In 1976 in the UK, The Union of Physically Impaired against Segregation (UPIAS) published its Fundamental Principles of Disability which became its manifesto and a seminal document for the British disabled people’s movement. It became the basis of the social model of disability. Later, pioneer Mike Oliver used Marxism to frame the story of disabled people in Britain. During the 18th century, Industrialisation exposed disabled people to the forces of Capitalism as forced outside of shielding family into institutions. This has led to 250 years of stigma and oppression as disabled people continue to be excluded from society. It is a perspective used today by Disability Groups such as Disabled People Against Cuts to highlight the dangerous erosion of the rights and support of disabled people in the UK.
It was the recent Netflix documentary Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution, that pulled it all together for me. Early in the film, a black counsellor talks about how he knew never to look a white policeman in the eye and how he was struck by the similarity of how disabled companions were treated by others. This gives a hint that there is common ground between the prejudices faced by black and disabled people, but this point is made very clearly later in the same documentary. In April 1977, disabled protesters are occupying of a Government building in San Francisco.
Amongst them is Bradley Lomax (pictured), a member of the Black Panther Party with MS and his assistant, Chuck Jackson. As the occupation stretches into its eleventh day, the protesters, with their own ingenuity and support from other groups, are kept going with hot meals supplied by none other than the Black Panther Party from their kitchen in nearby Oakland. When asked why they were giving their support, they explained ‘we’re all trying to make the world a better place, if you care enough to sleep on the floor here, then we’re going to help you.’ The FBI tried to stop these deliveries, the Black Panthers held their ground. The daily deliveries continued until the protest ended successfully on the twenty-fifth day.
Chairman Mao died a mass-murderer of his own people in 1976, and his failed Cultural Revolution with him. He recognised the struggle against oppression was universal and aligned himself with black people in America. When disabled Americans were fighting for equality in 1977, they were supported by the black community. Today, all of our communities are being divided and turned against each other. Something terrible is coming. Now is our turn to return that support.