It is perhaps ironic that I struggle to recall the details of a day that I claim to be one of the days I will never forget. When recounting events of twenty eight years ago, the memory becomes an unreliable source for information, therefore photographs, TV footage, and texts offered by others act as triggers to unlock what has been buried or stored away as symbolic emotional ties. The apparent contradiction exists primarily because what I recall is not so much the blow by blow activities that took place, but my emotional scars which I have carried with me ever since. These scars are part of my consciousness, made up of good and bad responses, to the encountered social oppression I have lived through.
The Block Telephon protest was a marked watershed for the Disabled People’s Movement. For a decade, the movement had constructed its base and begun to forge a collective political identity, around seeing being ‘disabled’ as the oppressive outcome of ‘unequal and differential treatment’ encountered by people viewed as “tragic, dependent creatures who were ‘burdensome’” for society. As disabled people – disabled by society – our oppression had historically been maintained by ‘charity’ which was used to remove people with impairments from the ‘public gaze’ and ‘look after them’. Disabled people’s history does contain accounts of protests by specific groups about their living or working conditions, the benefits system or service provision, but Block Telephon was the first direct political intervention into the mainstream and against pillars of our oppression.
Brenda, my partner at the time, Dominic our six year old, and Lucy who was a friend’s daughter, travelled down in my car from Birmingham to London. Lucy was a young teenager and came to assist Brenda with Dominic. Our friendship with Alan Holdsworth and Barbara Lisicki meant that we were aware from the beginning about the protest and we mobilized other members of the Birmingham Disability Rights Group to attend along with the group’s banner. There are photos of the banner and me sporting a flat cap. It was a bright summer’s day, the journey down was fairly uneventful, but as soon as we arrived near the ITV complex, the excitement began to mount.
As a fairly seasoned activist, I was used to participating in protests, but this particular protest was different on many levels. Many of the people there were taking part in their first encounter; the protest was not about injustice faced by ‘people out there, somewhere’, South Africa or Chile, but it was about “us” and it was personal as well as political. Another difference was that among the first-time protesters were leading figures from right across the Movement ranging from the disabled scholars through to actors, poets, and singers. With this eclectic mix of people being present, I found myself wandering around trying to see who I could spot and chat with.
On that day, a slow fuse was lit, people begun to arrive and mingle; in hushed voices people discussed the strategy. This was no ordinary protest, the mood was unlike anything I had experienced before; those who gathered had a collective sense of purpose, a conviction and determination. That day the ITV building was our Jericho and as people arrived in numbers, we started to line-up facing its walls, ready and willing to bring them down with voices that had been for too long, silenced and ignored. Along with Mark, a fellow worker with BDRG, I attached our banner to a fence beside other banners from organisations and campaign bodies. As far as I can remember, the day had distinct elements to it, although they all blur into one these days. I do recall disabled scholar activist, Mike Oliver, addressing us and listening to speeches then songs from Mike Higgins and Alan Holdsworth aka Jonny Crescendo.
Another memory I have is lining up along the road opposite ITV and chanting slogans such as: “Rights not Charity” and “Piss on Pity”. During this activity, a slick black limo emerged from the building and as it got level with me and the other protesters, the back side window was lowered to enable a well-known actor from EastEnders to look me straight in the eyes and yell: “Why don’t you just **** off!” Yes, a very charitable act indeed. We were also buoyed at this time by whispers that a small number of us had managed to get inside and were disrupting proceedings.
One remaining powerful image I have is of hundreds of disabled people marching with their allies to the entrance. At the end of the march there was the first really significant symbolic piece of direct action performed by disabled people; an attempt to storm the building. This action almost caught the police and security off guard, but they quickly threw a cordon around the entrances. Despite some pushing and shoving, the gesture was done peacefully. I still have a few personal photographs of this incident.
Returning to the question of the distance between then and now; with the fading memories, I take comfort from seeing the photographs and TV footage still available. In my gaze however there is, along with pride, a deep sense of loss too; a loss not only of the Movement with its energy, but also in relation to those individuals who made up our Movement and who are sadly no longer among us.
Bob Williams-Findlay 18/09/20