by Lydia Gans
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]hey called it Arnieville, a Berkeley encampment of concerned people who joined together to call attention to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s threat of devastating cuts to services for seniors and people with disabilities.
The name was a takeoff on the Hoovervilles of the 1930s, when homeless people lived in tents and shacks, both for shelter and to protest then-President Hoover’s Depression-era policies. Now, some 80 years after the first Hoovervilles were built, Berkeley activists carried out one of the longest-lasting disability rights protests ever, and christened it Arnieville, in response to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s crippling budget cuts.
For a month, disabled people, seniors, home care workers and innumerable friends and supporters camped out on the median strip on Adeline Street in Berkeley. It started on June 22, the anniversary of the Supreme Court decision on the Olmstead Act which declared that under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), people with disabilities cannot be forced to live in institutions if they can live in the community. Furthermore, services must be provided for them.
Dan McMullin, one of the original organizers, recalled, “There was a lot of fear, of terror about the budget cuts.” Earlier, there had been protests in Sacramento and people with disabilities wanted to participate, but just getting there presented problems.
“The train has two spots for wheelchairs in each car,” McMullin pointed out. “So in a train of eight cars, only 16 people can go.” Yet, many more disabled people wanted to take part in the actions. The alternative was to do something locally. There was a one-week camp-out in May and, he said, “Next month we came back and it was overwhelming.”
That month-long camp-out, from June 22 to July 22, ultimately consisted of more than a dozen tents, and drew tremendous community support. City officials and police were friendly, and individuals and organizations brought supplies and food. There wasn’t a day that there wasn’t a hot meal, coffee and baked goods brought for the encampment.
There was also music, poetry, art, a film series and all sorts of community activities and workshops, as well as daily strategy meetings. Among the campers themselves were people with disabilities who are threatened with having to be confined in institutions if Schwarzennegger’s cuts are implemented. Also present were home care workers who would lose their jobs or have their hours reduced, causing them to lose their medical benefits. And there were homeless people too, who were a key part of the community.
McMullin talked about the “homeless connection” to the disability rights movement. “I would say a good 80 to 85 percent of the people that are homeless are disabled, so they are the same community,” McMullin said. “A lot of people want to separate the communities because it looks bad for people that are in power to let disabled people rot on the streets, but that’s what’s going on.”
He added, “The homeless people are not only part of that community already, but the more able of them really stood in solidarity with the disabled in this class action and took care of them — helped them get in their beds, helped them turn over at night, carried them in and out of their tents, stayed up all night with security.”
McMullin went on to declare: “I can’t turn my back on something like that.” He is in the process of organizing a program to get more permanent assistance for the homeless community.
At present, the Arnieville camp has closed down, but the pressure on Sacramento will continue. Urged by the campers, the Berkeley City Council sent a strongly worded letter to the governor stating opposition to the cuts and to the increasing harassment of home care workers and recipients.
The protesters are now working to get city councils throughout the state to do the same. Jean Stewart, another of the organizers, described this tent city as a “role model” and hoped “that other communities around the state who are being impacted by these cuts will replicate what we’re doing — set up their own tent cities. We want tent cities to spring up on every median strip in California!”