In this time of social distancing, we may think wistfully back to the days when we were able to congregate in church, in theatres, and in protest. It was only six months ago that people from all strata gathered at the Manitoba Legislature for the Strike for Climate Action, inspired by Greta Thunberg. That march feels like a thousand years ago. Gathering and moving together feels like a memory or a dream these days. But there was once a time when people gathered together to march for political and climate action, Pride, water sovereignty, and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
What’s often key in protests, and what is most exciting, is the walk, parading down Broadway, or, in the more exhilarating circumstances, blocking off Portage and Main for the parade or for a round dance. More often, these routes are chosen for their accessibility to those with mobility aids, canes, walkers, and wheelchairs, who may not march the route, but parade with us nonetheless.
But, despite what the pictures tell us, disability is more than wheelchairs and walkers. It’s chronic illness. It’s neurodiversity. It’s being deaf. It’s having a brain injury. Many rallies and marches are organized without adequate funding for an ASL interpreter, and there are many who are unable to handle the raw intensity of a protest. All aspects of the protest, parade included, can be exclusive to those with invisible injuries.
“I have missed out on almost every protest since my brain injury,” Jane Orion Smith says. Smith is a Winnipeg Quaker who served as the General Secretary of the Canadian Friends Service Committee from 2000–2018.
“I made it to Pride for a bit in 2017 – because, compared to Toronto, Winnipeg seemed like it would be at least a viable outing! Most of my social action work was rooted in my writing and advocacy behind the scenes, not out in the street. I no longer have the capacity to think through issues or communicate them in writing, in the kind of clear way needed, nor the energy to sustain myself on an ongoing issue. My brain feels like it’s going to explode within a half hour of actually ‘thinking.’
“Pivoting to do in-the-streets protests as an alternative to the more cerebral work of yore is also tough – lots of noise, lots of people, lots of stimulation. Attending any protest is going to cost me – and I won’t know how much until two days later. Pain. Fog. Fatigue. Cognitive difficulties. The list goes on. At the time, I get disoriented, can have balance problems, certainly aphasia. I get overwhelmed quickly and have a hard time making decisions – which means I always need to go with a support person when I go to a public event. And being able to go means I have to be having a ‘good day.’ I really pay if it’s not a good day and I push myself.”
Smith isn’t alone in this struggle. Johanna Hedva is a writer and academic who lives with chronic illness. In 2014, she wrote an essay called “Sick Woman Theory” for Mask Magazine, questioning Hannah Arendt’s proposal that the political is any action performed in public, and how someone who cannot march in the parade, hold a sign, or shout a slogan can participate in protest: “If being present in public is what is required to be political, then whole swathes of the population can be deemed a-political – simply because they are not physically able to get their bodies into the street.”
Indeed, we are all suddenly finding ourselves in the same boat – unable to gather, unable to venture outside except for necessities, unable to show up at the Leg and tell Brian Pallister exactly what we think he should be doing. Instead, all the forms of protest that have been disregarded at times – social media activism, slacktivism, Tweeting for the cause – have become our only forms of protest. We carry on and hope that our voices will be recognized just as much as they would be if our politicians saw us from their offices.
How do we engage when we can’t physically engage in the march?
“How I have decided to stay engaged, at this moment in time, is to be supportive of the people that have the capacity and energy and ability to do it. You could say I have moved more into a more pastoral care role,” Smith says. “Given most of my social action work was within a faith-based setting over the past 20+ years, this seemed a natural transition. By being a listening ear, a caring presence (even if that means only via text, email, or phone), a supporter of their work, I know I am making a contribution of value – because people used to do this for me. Often they were older folks who were no longer as active. They provided a model. And I can only read or be on a computer so much (planning and pacing is the order of the day for me every day!), so actual involvement seems like a future goal right now.”
I am seeing every day the kind of mutual and pastoral care offered to people at this time. People on Facebook have bought groceries for complete strangers. Handed out toilet paper. Radical expressions of love from people with mobility and those with reduced mobility.
As Hedva writes in “Sick Woman Theory,”
“The most anti-capitalist protest is to care for another and to care for yourself. To take on the historically feminized and therefore invisible practice of nursing, nurturing, caring. To take seriously each other’s vulnerability and fragility and precarity, and to support it, honour it, empower it. To protect each other, to enact and practice community. A radical kinship, an interdependent sociality, a politics of care.”
We may not be able to walk or parade together, but we can learn something from those who have been in protest of harmful systems and support each other with the love and care Jesus showed us.
Hannah Foulger is a British Canadian theatre artist and writer. Her disability poetry has been published in Blue Mountain Press’ Disabled Voices anthology and performed in Sick + Twisted Theatre’s Lame Is… cabaret. Her plays Clink and My Frozen Heart: A Comic Tragedy have been produced at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival. She lives on Treaty 1 Territory in Winnipeg, Manitoba.