Brad Lomex: The Black Panthers and the Disability Rights Movement
Updated: Jul 30, 2020
It's probably obvious why I am posting this now. This feeling that has hit many of us is that of horror.
All the subtle and completely unsubtle racism that has been baked into anything and everything we know has gone unnoticed by most of us for far too long, because we get the option to not think about it.
I often hear people describe our racism in the UK as subtle compared to in the US. Of course it's subtle to us. We don't have to look at it. And this crescendo of feeling has hit hard in the face because we were purposefully looking the wrong way.
Disabled people are thought to make up 50% of those killed by police, with people who are Deaf, those with mental illnesses, and neurodiverse people massively overrepresented.
I can't protest, so all I can do is donate to bail funds, read freely or with this whole lesson plan to try and be a better white ally and support my black friends, particularly those who are also disabled.
The black rights movement has long supported the disabled cause, and we need to remember that and support them now, unconditionally.
By now I think we've all seen Crip Camp (and if not, watch it and then read my post about it here)
In that film, there is a short but wonderful scene where they discuss how the support of the Black Panther Party allowed the protesters to succeed when they wouldn't have otherwise, but they didn't go into too much detail about how the offer of help came about, or anymore of the surrounding context.
Most people have heard of the Black Panthers, but many outside the US have a limited understanding of who they were and what they did in any form of detail. Now of course I'm not an expert on the subject and there are many others who will write much more knowledgeably on the subject (such as Janelle Harris and Robyn C Spencer) but I'll give you a brief summary.
The Black Panthers were a revolutionary socialist political party that was set up in 1966 to protect the community from police brutality in Oakland, California. The passing of civil rights legislation had done little to improve the lives of African American communities, with poverty still rife and a lack of public services and the Black Panther Party filled in many gaps in the community with at least 35 different programmes to help the community survive. These included things like ambulance transport, testing for tuberculosis and sickle cell and breakfast clubs (which somehow annoyed a lot of white people in government), and spread, along with the party membership, to over 60 cities across America, including Berkeley.
In the George Jackson Clinic in Berkeley, volunteer doctors and nurses ran free community medical services funded by the Black Panthers as part of the "basic survival toolkit" to serve the community. Working there was a man called Brad Lomex.
Lomex had Multiple Sclerosis and was a wheelchair user, and because of that he worked as the clinic's PR coordinator. It was here where he met Ed Roberts, who was the director for the Berkeley Centre for Independent Living. Lomex was aware that so far, with the Berkeley CIL being almost entirely white, they were having no effect on the predominantly black communities in the East Oakland area who could really use the services, and so he proposed setting up a new centre there using Black Panther funding.
This collaboration between the Black Panthers and the disability rights movement extended to the 26 day long 504 sit-in at the Department for Health, Education and Welfare in San Francisco in 1977, thanks to the involvement of Lomex. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act 1773 stated that no person should be excluded from any program, service, or similar which received federal funds. This was the most important disability rights legislation until the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, but was repeatedly delayed and watered down until the disabled community felt they had no further option.
The movement had worked with a network of other organisations, such as LGBT+ groups, organisations of ex-prisoners, drug campaigners and of course the Black Panthers for a long time, and these connections were used to help them survive the sheer length of time spent in the building, particularly when the power and phone lines were cut to deter them.
Brad Lomax was present for the whole sit in, along with another Black Panther Chuck Jackson, who provided personal care for Brad and many other protestors. Just by his participation, the Black Panthers had to respond, and thanks to his influence the movement gained a massive boost not just with news coverage in the BPP newspapers, but with public endorsement of the protest.
But the most simple and practical support was the most important. The Black Panthers set up shop, and committed to providing hot meals every single day that the sit in continued "keeping [them] alive body and soul".
”We support you because you're asking America to change, to treat you like human beings, like you belong. We always support people fighting for their rights."
After the first two weeks of the sit in, the protesters decided that in order to really make the most impact, they would have to send some people to annoy the government about it directly. 25 out of the approximately 150 protesters occupying the building were sent as the delegation to Washington DC, including Lomex and Jackson, and the Black Panthers paid for their travel there. The successfully annoyed everyone they came into contact with, including the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare whose house they sat outside of, and Jimmy Carter who ran out of the side door of his church to avoid them.
Eventually, the Secretary of HEW signed in the 504 regulations on the 28th April 1977, following one of the first examples of a cross-disability protest movement. While there had been many arguments for disability rights before, they frequently came from individual impairment groups rather than the whole spectrum of disability.
On April 30th, as the people were leaving the building and returning from Washington, the support from all sides was unanimous.
Non-disabled people had recognised the struggle and according to organiser Kitty Cone “people all over the country... have learned... that we are capable of leading a struggle that has won major gains from the government".
Ericka Huggins, a leading BPP member addressed the crowd and was incredibly well received with a speech on the importance of black disability rights, and Brad's low key activism lay foundations for disability campaigning within the Black Panther Party, which helped to guide the support for healthcare and disability initiatives within the party.
As the Black Panther Party newspaper wrote: "Over and over the significant themes were repeated at the rally – “human rights,” “equal access,” “an end to segregation,” “finally feeling like a human being” – all summed up by Kitty Cone when she simply yelled into the microphone the one thought behind all the smiling emotions, “WE WON, WE WON, WE WON!”"
Lomax's Matrix: Disability, Solidarity, and the Black Power of 504. Susan Schweik - Disability Studies Quarterly, Volume 31, 2011
BLACK #DISABILITY HISTORY: BRAD LOMAX, BLACK PANTHER - REVOLUTIONARY BLACK NATIONALISM AND DISABILITY POWER. Lead On Network, Day Al-Mohamed, 2016
Black Panther Party Newspaper, May 7, 1977. Black Panther Party Archives (found on disabilityhistory.org)
"Patient No More: People with Disabilities Securing Civil Rights," Online Exhibit sponsored by Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability, San Francisco State University"
Cone, Kitty."Short History of the 504 Sit in"