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Disability rights activists opposed to the Better Care Reconciliation Act stage a "die-in" at Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner's office.
Disability rights activists opposed to the Better Care Reconciliation Act stage a “die-in” at Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner’s office.
Image: DENVER ADAPT

Dawn Russell spent two nights camped out with nine other people in a small room in Sen. Cory Gardner’s office. On Thursday evening, after their 60-hour sit-in, Russell and her fellow activists were removed from the office and arrested. 

Russell was there because the Colorado Republican is one of the key swing votes who could either help pass or stop the GOP’s health care bill — and she is one very angry constituent. 

The Denver-based activist lives with cerebral palsy, a neurological condition that affects body movement and muscle coordination. She’s a veteran member of ADAPT, a grassroots community that organizes disability rights protests. They frequently stage protests against laws that would reduce funding for Medicaid, the federal health program that aids low-income people and those with disabilities.

The fight over the Better Care Reconciliation Act, which would cap Medicaid funding and reduce it by 35 percent over 20 years, is one of the highest-stakes battles of these activists’ lives. Experts argue that by capping the program’s spending, states will inevitably cut services and coverage to make up the difference. 

While Medicaid is required by law to pay for nursing home care, home attendants and services are optional benefits. If those are reduced in the wake of budgets cuts, Russell fears she’ll be forced to leave her home and move into an assisted living facility. She also worries that reduced coverage could be fatal for those who can’t get essential assistance and care. 

“This bill is so damning to us that none of any of the [disability rights] work matters with the passing and the gutting of our Medicaid long-term services and supports,” Russell said. 

Last week, Russell participated in protests at Sen. Mitch McConnell’s Washington, D.C., office with dozens of other ADAPT activists. Capitol police physically removed and arrested them. Images of the scene went viral, sending unprecedented traffic to the organization’s website.

When the site crashed and people couldn’t donate to the group’s legal defense fund, a GoFundMe fundraiser began collecting contributions. Since then, it’s netted $36,000 of a $50,000 goal. 

Mike Oxford, an ADAPT protester from Topeka, Kansas, helped organize the Capitol demonstration and was one of 61 people arrested. The group targeted McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, because of his behind-the-scenes efforts to keep the bill secret until the last moment and line up votes for its passage.  

“We wanted to send a strong signal to him, and that’s why we took over his office,” Oxford said. 

About 15 people crammed into McConnell’s office while the rest flooded the hallway outside. They chanted, “Don’t cut Medicaid, save the ACA,” and “Don’t cut Medicaid, save our liberty.” 

“We wanted to send a strong signal to him, and that’s why we took over his office.”

Then the group, including those who use wheelchairs and mobility devices, lay on the floor in an act of civil disobedience known as a “die in.” The gesture, Oxford said, is meant to be dramatic and show a “deeper commitment” to the cause at hand, particularly since lying down can increase pain and body spasms for some protesters. 

“It’s to dramatize and make the point that this is not just about budget numbers and statistics and ink on paper,” he said. “This is about real people, real communities around the country that we believe will suffer and die if they go through with this.”

Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, estimates that the Senate bill, including its cuts to Medicaid, could result in as many as 27,700 deaths by 2026.

When it became clear that the ADAPT protesters were not going to leave McConnell’s office, the Capitol police began removing them without force, and cleared the space within two hours, according to Oxford. 

There have been more than a few viral moments of resistance as liberal advocacy groups work to marshal public opposition to the Senate bill. Women dressed like Handmaid’s Tale characters showed up at the Capitol to protest the defunding of Planned Parenthood. Demonstrators formed a human chain around the Capitol, urged on by lawmakers like Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, Democrats from California and New Jersey, respectively. 

But disability rights activists like Oxford and Russell have given the public a visceral glimpse of why some people so passionately oppose the bill that they’d be willing to sleep in a senator’s office — and get arrested. Numerous ADAPT activists showed up this week at Republican senators’ offices in states such as Alaska, Florida, Indiana, Maine, Texas, and Pennsylvania. Some are staging sit-ins or die-ins, while others are demanding to talk with their representative. 

“We think by doing what we do and by turning perceived weakness and vulnerability into power, is also an important part of this messaging that … people with disabilities are powerful actors, we are part of the political community,” Oxford said. 

Prior to her arrest on Thursday, Russell said the group had no plans to leave Gardner’s office unless the senator announced that he would vote “no” on any bill that cut Medicaid services. 

“The top priority throughout this protest has been allowing these individuals to exercise their First Amendment rights in a safe environment,” Casey Contres, a Gardner spokesman, said in a statement published Thursday evening by The Denver Post. “In order to allow this, staff have slept in the office for two nights and assisted and aided these individuals with several matters to ensure they were comfortable and safe. Earlier this evening, Denver police asked the individuals to leave. When they declined to leave, the police were forced to remove them due to several factors, including serious concerns for their health and safety.”

The Colorado activists who occupied Gardner’s office live with various conditions, including muscular dystrophy, spinal cord injury, and developmental and learning disabilities. They spent the first night in the office sleeping on the floor. Air mattresses arrived the next day, and the group crammed them together to form a sleeping area while others slept in chairs and a wheelchair. 

Attendants helped the activists with daily tasks, such as getting dressed and bathed. Supporters delivered food, including Chinese takeout, tacos, doughnuts, breakfast burritos, and sandwiches. After someone made a request for sweatpants and underwear, they materialized like “magic,” Russell said.

Russell said the group met with Gardner’s state director to talk about their concerns. She also used a Facebook Live feed to speak directly to the social media audience, and presumably staffers watching remotely, to issue demands and express her despair over the legislation. 

Russell isn’t fond of McConnell, and she had no qualms about assessing his character and motivations on the live broadcast or to this reporter. Her commentary is characteristic of our deeply divided politics, and the medium of Facebook Live befits an age where dissent and demonstration must be digital.

Meanwhile, the civil disobedience strategies of ADAPT activists have worked — and gone viral. Members of the group have given interviews to Time, Rolling Stone, the Rachel Maddow Show, and The Hill, among others. Even if their future efforts don’t spread online at light speed, Russell said they won’t cease until they get the result they want. 

“These protests, they will not end,” she said. “We will keep them going across the country until … the bill is voted out.” 

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