What the 504 Protest can Teach about Activism Today

The following letter to the editor appeared in the SF Chronicle in response to this column:

By: Emily Beitiks

Regarding “Inflexible protesters are failing Politics 101” (May 5): C.W. Nevius accuses the Frisco Five of “failing Politics 101.” However, his critique seems oblivious to the truth that when the system has completely failed your group, playing a game of compromises (which leaves the system intact) might not be desirable. To understand this better, we can look back at an all-but-forgotten San Francisco protest from 1977, where 150 disabled people and their allies occupied a federal building to demand the first disability civil rights legislation.

After 25 days, the protesters left victorious. Some of the occupiers also held a hunger strike throughout. My organization recently conducted oral histories with people affiliated with the protest. With each participant, I asked: “What was your plan B? What would you have done if your demands were not met?” and repeatedly, I received the same answer: There was no backup plan. They were going to just stay in there until they got what they were asking for. Period. What Nevius forgets is that when your government makes you feel as though your people are under attack (let alone when you have suffered literal casualties, as the Frisco Five have), buying into that same power structure is not an acceptable option.

(SF Chronicle "Letters to the Editor" post here)