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Stancile's act has given new energy to ACORN activists. Read story.


"Good for him!" writes Vince Bonura. "If I were there I would have sat with him!" Read Bonura's and others' letters.

A difference in tactics

by Cal Montgomery

Is it true that Donald Stancile is no Rosa Parks?

On December 1, 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks got onto a bus, sat down, and refused to yield her seat. She was arrested.

On January 7, 2004 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Donald Stancile found himself unable to get onto a bus because the driver did not deploy the ramp. In frustration, he wheeled in front of the bus, and refused to yield the street. He was arrested.

On January 15, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which had previously called Stancile's wheelchair "a weapon," ran an editorial saying that "there's no need to enshrine Mr. Stancile as the Rosa Parks of the disabled" because while the driver should have deployed the ramp, "in the real world . . . mechanical devices are subject to failure, and sometimes people fail in meeting their responsibilities, too. The issue is whether the agency is making a decent effort to comply with the law, especially when problems are revealed."

Is it true, though, that Donald Stancile is no Rosa Parks?

One issue is the tactics. And Stancile's and Parks's tactics are very different. Rosa Parks prevented someone from sitting in one seat, but she didn't prevent the bus from moving or the passengers from getting to their destination. Of course, blocking one seat wasn't an option available to Stancile. Still, it's worth noting that the two actions had different effects on bystanders.

And bystanders understand the two actions differently.

Rosa Parks -- at least in retrospect -- was seen as someone just trying to go about her business, whereas Stancile is seen as actually interfering with people.

A second issue is that people see what's being protested against differently. Today, people recognize that Parks was protesting an official, entrenched, and maintained system of bigotry. But Stancile, people think, is protesting over a series of incidents that, however unfortunate, can't be avoided.

I know someone who loudly bemoans how unjustly she is treated whenever it rains. I think that's utterly ridiculous. Rain may be unpleasant and inconvenient, but it isn't a matter of injustice. It's one of those things that's outside everyone's control, right? I also think it's annoying. But while I might be prepared to sympathize with her about the unpleasantness of the rain, once she gets going about how it's something I have done to her personally, she doesn't get the reaction out of me that she wants: I simply get angry at her.

I suspect that much of what I see as ableism is generally believed to be like rain.

The editorial writer, notice, stressed that that the bus driver was powerless: There was a malfunction which kept the ramp from working. There was some breakdown in the bus driver's training; he didn't know how to lower the ramp manually. But the bus company says it will do better in the future. And, of course, there's the problem with Stancile's body itself. That's unfortunate, but is just one of those things.

The Post-Gazette editorial says, "The issue is whether the agency is making a decent effort to comply with the law." The editors think it is, so, they say, Stancile should have let the bus go on.

But he didn't. He forced it to a standstill. The problem seems like it's something the other passengers did not cause, could not prevent, and believe they shouldn't be punished for. It looks like it's merely a case of an unreasonable individual causing everyone problems.

I'm usually unsympathetic, too, to someone who endangers something that matters to me for reasons I don't understand.

One of the major accomplishments of other movements -- such as the civil rights movement -- was to show people that what may look like unconnected events are actually part of a larger pattern, that what may look inevitable (or at least neutral) is in fact not inevitable but the result of some "ism" like racism. And that it is possible to be part of the problem without intending to be. So today we may understand an event like Rosa Parks's arrest very differently than people did at the time.

The ground was prepared for Parks -- a great many people were prepared to understand her refusal as a legitimate protest against injustice, and to act on that understanding in a way that had major implications for people with the power to change the system. People were ready to spin the story so as to take advantage of the attention of people watching from a distance. They cast Parks as a decent woman just trying to live her life rather than a political agitator. And it was possible to do this, because the ideals for which she was fighting were at that time shared by a lot of people who didn't see themselves as political agitators.

A great many people were prepared to understand Rosa Parks's refusal as a legitimate protest against injustice.

It's easy for me today to say that the system Parks protested was wrong, because I'm not even remotely part of that system. It's easy for me today to say that system was wrong, because the system has been mostly dismantled. None of my friends' livelihoods is tied up in defending it.

But when we protest against bus companies and school systems and CILs and psychiatric institutions and federal and state bureaucracies that oppress people today, we may be trying to convince an audience made up of people who may be part of those systems. So we are accusing them -- and they probably, on some level, realize it. We should not be surprised that people defend themselves.

While a variety of approaches to challenging injustices can be valuable, all of us who want social change need to take our colleagues', our opponents' and our audiences' reactions to our tactics into account. So is Donald Stancile another Rosa Parks? No, he's not. But give it another 49 years, and hard work by disability rights activists, and who knows how people will remember him?

Posted Jan. 22, 2004

Cal Montgomery writes frequently for Ragged Edge. See also A Hard Look at Invisible Disability and Critic of the Dawn.

WHAT DO YOU THINK of what you've just read? Click to tell us.

Readers respond...

At least the bus stopped long enough for him to get in front of it. I have been bypassed by buses once they see me in a wheelchair. Good for him.
-- Steve Johnston, Bellevu, WA

Many were put off by Sol Alinsky's tactics as well.
-- Helen Kutz, Norman, OK

Good for him! If I were there I would have sat with him!

Sometimes you need to do something that gets the attention of a company or people. Writing or calling may not get results. There have been many occasions in my life that I did something because words were ignored. It may not be the correct way to do it, but it does get some attention, and grant it it may make you look bad, but you did accomplish what you wanted and that was to bring out an issue that more may see it.
-- Vince Bonura, Peachtree City, GA

Donald Stancile, I think, was justified in his actions. In our society it is all too easy to "let the bus go on." When this happens, life goes on, people on the bus make it to their destination on time, the bus driver is praised for his good work, maybe even recieving promotions for driving a timely route, and the lift remains under the control of an incompetent bus driver who claims ignorance as his excuse.

Although I was not alive during the actions of Rosa Parks I do not imagine that the following days' papers were filled full of praise and compliments. Like Rosa Parks, Donald Stancile is an activist who through his actions has brought attention to the issue at hand; causing some to learn, reflect and potentially change. If nothing else, his actions have hopefully caused a single bus driver in Pittsburgh to learn how to better perform his service to society, helping the next wheelchair user.
-- Matthew Hendricks, La Crosse, WI





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