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Freedom RIDErs

A new civil-rights movement emerges
By SEAN FLYNN  |  August 14, 2008

This article originally appeared in the August 12, 1988 issue of the Boston Phoenix.

By 1:55, finally, they were all there. Crammed onto Boylston Street in front of the Boston Public Library, a dozen or so fed-up and pissed-off demonstrators were ready. Their armbands — color-coded to show which ones were willing to protest their way into the slammer — were secured, and Cindy Miller started giving instructions. Stay together, she said, single file, down Boylston Street to the Transportation Building. And yell. Let ’em know you’re coming, and let ‘em know you’re mad.

At two o’clock, the caravan started moving. Miller led the way, followed by Jim Brooks, a big man with a big voice and a bullhorn to make it even bigger. “Hey, hey, hey, ho,” he chanted, “discrimination’s got to go.” The marchers, a platoon of approximately 15 people with disabilities, who stretched out for almost a block behind Brooks, joined in, belting the words out into the sticky August heat. After five weeks of watching the MBTA’s RIDE service — their only reasonable public-transportation option — disintegrate around them, the words came easy. They were mad. And today, on Monday, August 8, they were going to be heard.

For years, disability-rights activists have struggled with a movement that’s never fully blossomed. Split by differences in philosophy, hampered by a perpetual isolation that makes organizing doubly difficult, disabled people have spent years waging sporadic battles that have won small victories but never the big war. But now, after coming dangerously close to losing one vital asset — reliable transportation — the movement may have hit a turning point. On August 8, the radicals and the establishment insiders of the disability-rights movement joined together to confront the MBTA and its general manager, James O’Leary. And the media, in a rare display of interest, turned out in force to chronicle an angry response to a shoddy service. The failure of the RIDE, activists say, may prove to be the catalyst that turns a fractured disability-rights movement into a full-fledged attack.

“There was something magical about it [the march],” says John Winske of the Massachusetts Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities (MCCD). “It suddenly felt like something. It finally felt like the whole world was watching.”

Winske and others in the disabled community like to spin out phrases — “the whole world is watching” was the war chant of brutalized demonstrators at the 1968 Democratic Convention — and analogies that link their movement to the civil-rights and anti-war struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. Disabled demonstrators in other parts of the country regularly pin on name tags that read, “Hello, my name is Rosa Parks,” and organizers of the August 8 demonstration likened the sticky-hot day to one more than 30 years ago when Parks said she was tired and refused to give up her seat on the bus. But thus far, the anger of the disabled has yet to crystallize into a single force capable of toppling the obstacles that keep people with disabilities out of much of mainstream society.

The RIDE, however, may have changed that — at least in Boston. On July 1, a new company took over the 11-year-old program — a door-to-door van service for those unable to gain access to the T’s regular buses and trains — and service deteriorated dramatically. In the first week, 20 percent of those who called for rides were refused service outright (according to MBTA records), and hundreds more complained of vans that showed up too late to be useful, if at all. Transportation Management Services Incorporated (TMSI), the Virginia-based company that took over July 1, was accused of putting untrained and unsafe drivers on the road. TMSI has denied that charge, but by the end of July RIDE vans had been involved in 23 traffic accidents, and six people, according to advocates, had had to be hospitalized because of injuries they received on the vans (MBTA spokesman Vincent Carbona has said he knows of only three hospitalizations). Some clients say they were frightened out of using the service.

Even as officials at both the MBTA and TMSI admitted the service was abysmal and pledged to improve it, the disabled community was facing a major crisis. Although the service had never been perfect before, the RIDE was sliding backward to a point that threatened the health, safety, and livelihood of thousands of people who rely on it as their only link to the outside world. “The fact of the matter is that this never should have happened,” says Jim Gleich of the Massachusetts Office of Handicapped Affairs (OHA). “And it wouldn’t have happened in any other part of the [MBTA] system.”

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Related: The trolley Svengali, Boston in the 70s: Part 3, Master of Hub hits, More more >
  Topics: Flashbacks , Boston Public Library, Public Transportation, Transportation,  More more >
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