By Anne C. Woodlen
Arleen and I are activists on behalf of people who are poor, sick or elderly, of whom we are two. We tackle big problems, take on entire social systems and file federal complaints, but we rarely accomplish anything big. We set out to take down elephants and succeed in squashing ants. Arleen continually throws kudos my way for squashing ants, so here’s a story for you, Arleen.
I was wheeling downtown in my power wheelchair to attend an arts and crafts festival in order to publicize one of Arleen’s pet projects—public art, a place where poor folk can study, do, display and market art work.
I come to an intersection where a charcoal gray Honda mini-van is blocking the pedestrian crosswalk. I ask the driver to move. She’s a middle-aged, light-skinned African-American woman with medium-length curly hair. She refuses to move her vehicle out of the crosswalk and orders me to go around her.
I point out that she is also blocking the curb-cut. Even if I go around her, I will not be able to get out of the street. She slams into reverse, backs up, and sticks her head out the window and says, “Bitch!”
I’m right in front of her vehicle, and I freeze. I just sit there, stone cold. I am obeying the traffic regulations; she is violating them, and she’s cussing me? I ask myself if this is a hate crime. It is certainly hate, but does it rise to the level of crime?
I sit there, blocking her forward movement, and do absolutely nothing. She says, “I can sit here as long as you can, bitch!” So I sit. I don’t say a word, just sit, engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience. She repeatedly calls me a bitch. Periodically, I call out to the vehicles going around us and ask someone to phone 911. I copy down her license plate number: Iowa 793 JBT.
After we have sat through several light changes, she yells, “I can go around you but you’ll still be a bitch!” Then she calls to the driver behind her, saying that if he will back up then she can go around me. He does and she does. She goes around me and turns right.
I wheel off in search of the city police officer whose neighborhood office is a couple blocks away. As I wheel away from the sight of the hateful woman, I start crying. When I get to the officer’s office, it is locked. I inadvertently left home without my cell phone. Where am I to go? What am I to do?
The incident occurred at an intersection that is bounded on several sides by the State University of New York’s Upstate Medical Center and New York State’s Hutchings Psychiatric Center. The woman was wearing something resembling a scrub shirt, and had a lanyard around her neck, typical of the sort worn by state employees to carry their identification cards. This woman, who has no regard for the traffic laws, or a disabled person, or common courtesy, is almost certainly a government employee, quite probably charged with the care of sick people.
As I wheel around the Hutchings campus in tears and dismay, I see a woman whom I recognize from a long time ago. She is receiving services from Hutchings, that is, she’s a patient. We talk. She asks what’s wrong. I tell her what happened and ask if she has a cell phone. She says yes, and helps me call 911. She offers to walk back with me to the corner where the police will meet me. It is a rare thing for people to offer supportive accompaniment; I gladly accept.
As we travel, she notes that it probably will be a long wait for the police to show up. I agree, adding that when I told the 911 call-taker that I was on the Hutchings campus, I heard the change in his tone of voice. My friend and I are both quite realistic. The police generally assume that any call involving mental health in any way—even physical proximity to a mental health facility—is invalid. The fact that the police department’s neighborhood office is in a vacant building on the state psychiatric center campus does not increase the caller’s validity.
So we get to the corner and, in a few short minutes, the police car arrives and a young male officer approaches. It turns out that somebody did call 911 when I was in the intersection and he’s been driving around hunting for me. His driving around did not include the Hutchings campus. God forbid a police officer should go there.
So I tell him my story and he asks me what I want him to do.
I ask him what he can do.
“Nothing,” is his basic answer. He says he cannot issue any traffic tickets for the hate-filled woman blocking the pedestrian walk and the curb-cut because he didn’t see it happen. He can’t ticket things he didn’t see because then people from all over would be calling for tickets. Being cussed out is not a hate crime. Using bad language is not any crime. He could give her an appearance ticket, but the District Attorney’s Office would not prosecute because it’s too unimportant. Furthermore, he adds, I blocked her vehicle; I am as much at fault as she is.
The policeman says all he can do is talk to the hate-filled woman. I ask him to do that. He takes the license plate number and goes back to his car. He returns promptly and tells me that he ran the number and it’s not valid. He implies that I wrote the number down wrong. I was sitting eighteen inches from her bumper; I didn’t get it wrong, but the officer tells me there’s nothing he can do and goes back to his car.
I turn my back, crying again, and my friend and I talk. I’m doing the right thing, a stranger’s doing the wrong thing and swears at me, and there’s nothing I can do about it? We talk about hopelessness and powerlessness and the utter futility of trying to hold people accountable for bad acts. I don’t know which makes me feel worse—the woman’s ugliness or the police system that says, “So what?” Life in a wheelchair is hard; women who work in health care and police officers who answer citizen calls should be making it better, not worse.
Then I turn back toward the police car and cry out—the woman has appeared and is leaning in the police car window, talking to the policeman! I wheel over, calling out to her. She turns, walks down the street and disappears. The policeman comes over and says, first, that the woman’s story was the same as mine; she admitted to everything I said she did. Then he says that she didn’t want to talk to me, and that he wouldn’t give me her name.
Now my frustration has escalated to anger and the policeman and I are both raising our voices, so I break off contact and wheel away. Nothing good will come of any further interaction with this young man. My friend and I commiserate. Clearly, she thinks there is nothing more that can be done. The system has beaten us again. She continues on her path to the gym, where she’d been headed when she stopped to help me.
I wheel back to the intersection where the incident took place, then I methodically begin to search the area parking lots. Fifteen minutes later, I find the gray Honda. Its license plate is Iowa 793 JBT; I didn’t get it wrong. The nearest building—on the street where the woman disappeared—is Hutchings’ Adult Outpatient Clinic.
I wheel down to Hutchings’ administration building, go to the director’s office, and a secretary writes down my complaint. She takes note of the many times I was called a bitch. At one point she says, “Are you sure the car was in this parking lot?”
“Yes,” I say.
“Oh,” she says sadly. “I was hoping it wasn’t our employee.” It is your employee, I am thinking. You have on staff some nurse or aide who treats people this way. Is this how she’s treating your patients with mental illness? You need to know so you can do something about it.
Then the secretary’s boss walks in and I tell my story again. When I get to the part where the employee said, “I can go around you but you’ll still be a bitch,” the boss winces. She takes me downstairs to the Security Department where an officer turns his surveillance camera on the parking lot in question. I identify the car. The officer sends a patrol car to check the vehicle. The patrol officer reports the parking lot tag number on the car. The internal officer looks it up in the file, then tells the complaint boss it belongs to Dr. Beverly Smith, psychiatrist.
There is a long silence.
The complaint boss says she will take it up with the director and call me back tomorrow.
I go home and check the Internet. Beverly D. Smith graduated from medical school at the University of Iowa in 2001. She became licensed to practice medicine in New York State on January 16, 2009. Today is July 24, 2009.
I file a complaint against her vehicle license with the Iowa Department of Motor Vehicles and a complaint against her medical license with the New York State Office of Professional Medical Conduct.
An activist is a person who hews to an internal moral compass and, when something is wrong, will not accept “no” for an answer. We may not be able to change the world, but we squish ants wherever we find them.
Beverly Smith: SQUISH!