Michael Moore and Me

I read Michael Moore’s e-mail newsletter, and am psyched to learn that Mike’s coming to speak in Cambridge. Even with an event featuring the take-no-shit author of the best seller “Stupid White Men” and the movie “Roger and Me”. I still take my usual precautions. I call the church to find out about accessibility, and guess what? Parish Administrator Linda Baker urges me not to come.

So the day before his talk I e-mail Michael Moore, writing in the subject line: “I want you to escort me into the First Parish Church in Cambridge MA! Embrace disability rights!” Then, trying to be funny and all, like Mike, I write:

“No, Michael, I’m not blonde and beautiful, but I have a wonderful opportunity for you to embrace the cause of millions of Americans who are excluded and left behind every single day. Disabled people.

“I just spoke with Linda Baker from the First Parish Church in Cambridge, and she actively discouraged me from coming to your speaking engagement on Wednesday February 27. The only wheelchair accessible entrance to the church is at the back in a ‘dark and dangerous alley’, where ‘unsavory elements’ tend to gather after dark. Please rescue me from such a fate!

“I was assured that the church has been trying for years and years to make itself accessible, but you know how hard it is when architects leave you in the lurch and you have no sidewalk space for a ramp and your building is an historic monument. As a quivering, quavering quadriplegic, I am oh so frightened of any unsavory elements, and I know that you, too, try to avoid such societal detritus at all times.

“So, please, Michael, would you escort me into the church so that I can watch you speak, meanwhile making a point about disability access and the importance of all progressive people only holding events where EVERYONE can come?”

No response.

On the day of the event, I ask my partner, Kristin Schneider, to call the church and ask about accessibility. She gets the same, breathtaking, condescending routine. I can’t reach the church to find out whether the church is actually, officially, accessible or not. Thinking that Michael Moore may have been the victim of a church that bills itself as accessible, I first write a flyer asking that everyone demand the church to stop this outrageous discrimination.

But then, just as Kristin, my friend Jim and I are sitting down to our pre-activism meal, Linda Baker returns my call. The ramp, she tells me, was installed years ago for a one-time event, is too steep, has no handrails, and is not easy to get to. I tell her that Wordsworth says the church is accessible, with a pretty good ramp. Revealing a more human side, Linda tells me how she never says the church is accessible, that Wordsworth knows better, and that the store has been renting the space for years. She is clearly upset by being responsible for talking to wheelchair users about access that is no access, while renters think the situation is fine.

Linda’s off the hook. Quick, a new flyer:

This Is Not a Wheelchair Accessible Event!

Wordsworth has booked this venue with callous disregard for the access needs of disabled people. The church does not advertise itself as wheelchair accessible, because of a steep and dangerous ramp that does not have handrails. It is dangerous for any wheelchair user to try to enter this church. Wordsworth, the booking agency, and, ultimately, Michael Moore bear responsibility for this outrage. An inaccessible venue is the equivalent of a ‘Whites Only’ establishment. As progressives, you should be appalled. We disabled progressives expect to be welcomed at every public event, and should not have to point out the irony of such discrimination occurring during a discussion of empowerment and true democracy.

Please write or call:

Sanj Kharbanda, Wordsworth General Manager 30 Brattle St. Cambridge, MA 02138 617-354-5201

Please email Michael Moore at StupidWhiteMen@aol.com, and respectfully demand that all of his speaking sites be fully accessible. And please remember to demand that all progressive events advertise their accessibility, and take action if they aren’t fully compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act!

We make 200 copies, park in the handicapped spot right in front of the church and, after maneuvering some locked-up bicycles out of the way, drop my lift down on the quaint and historic (i.e., heaved and pitched) brick Cambridge sidewalk. There is no wheelchair access sign at the foot of church steps and the gate through the cemetery is locked. Kristin and Jim go hunting while I watch long legs bound past me up the steps. One couple pauses and tells me that there is no ramp and there is no access. After ten minutes or so, a friendly fellow opens the gate onto a dimly lit walkway with some scary puddles that I can’t see the bottoms of. The ramp is a bit on the frightening side, and I begin to have more respect for the content (if not the style) of Linda Baker’s message. It is an L-shaped, wooden ramp with no handrails, all slicked-up with unshoveled slush. We get in fine.

Entering into the front of the church (one of the great perks of using run down, dangerous ramps is that they often put you right into the action), I run into a helpful looking guy who tells me that I can sit anywhere. When I discover that he is from Wordsworth, I tell him that this is an inaccessible venue. “It is about as accessible as they come”, he says, and a church committee has been working on the issue for a few years. I say that real priorities get taken care of (who was that powerful person who occasioned the single-use ramp?), other issues get referred to a committee. He nods understandingly. I compliment him on his niceness but say that we’re handing out flyers condemning Wordsworth. I forget to tell him that there is a fully accessible church less than 100 yards away.

I sit by a piano, 20 feet from the podium. Kristin and Jim fan out through the church, passing out our little flyers. One audience member says to Kristin, “but was anyone unable to come who wanted to?” Another asks, “Is this really true?” Jim puts a flyer on the podium so that Michael Moore will run into it, but it, and the one Kristin plops there later, is immediately removed by people I assume to be from Wordsworth.

I look around the audience, fantasizing that a rustle of appallment will develop any second. The friendly Wordsworth guy takes the podium, and I wonder whether he’ll address that little matter of civil rights. He promos Wordsworth and launches into a MM bio.

Michael comes out, and gives a rousingly funny one-hour speech on the depredations of the stupid White men running our country. I have Kristin all poised to raise her bright red-gloved hand so I can ask the first question. I say “This church is not legally accessible and actively discourages wheelchair users from coming to events here. Would you commit tonight to only speaking in fully accessible venues?” There is some short-lived applause in the church, but it doesn’t sound sincere enough. I’m suspicious of this kind of crowd.

Michael stuns us by shifting from his irreverent, take-no-prisoners self into a polite middle-classish apologizer: “I’m sorry, I didn’t know that”. Buying time, he asks me for more information about how the church discourages people. I tell him some stuff. Audience members participate, one shouting (cynically, or was it hopefully?)”They’re putting in an elevator in 5 years”.

Mike doesn’t make any jokes about “unsavory elements” or anything like that, but calls out to the crowd for a volunteer to call or write to Wordsworth (the representative of which is sitting 10 feet to his right). Then, with mock solemnity, he puts his hand over his heart and says “I shall never set foot in this church again”. General laughter. I call out, “Will you talk to your booking agency?” Kristin says he said yes, but I didn’t hear anything. Just as I finish speaking, someone calls out, “Next question!”

He answers some more questions, at one point detailing to us the hilarious story of how he won an Elks-club-sponsored speech contest by railing against the club’s “Caucasians only” membership policy. I’m thinking about you-know-what.

The Wordsworth guy cuts Mike off, and invites everyone back to the store for a book signing. He and Mike walk out the back together. As audience members go past me, a few take a look, but no one says anything — mostly a relief. The crowd heads off to the store, which is, of course, utterly and absolutely inaccessible! As for me, slushing down the ramp with the church guy trying to brace my chair but actually just sliding away, pivoting my chair with my footrests out in mid-air, is kinda scary.

A few days later, Mike writes in his Tour Diary that the Boston event “is packed, people are turned away. The crowds in Boston are always great. This one doesn’t disappoint”. I think we know what kind of “people” he was talking about – those who tried to come up the stairs. The crowd might have been great for Michael, but the sheep factor seemed awful high for me.

It’s always so disappointing to discover that another progressive is completely clueless about disability rights. Imagine, sometime in the past, a national, big-time White male labor organizer detailing the struggles of white workers to a roomful of whites and a light-skinned Black, who tells him that he has been booked into a whites-only club. He apologizes, calls for a volunteer to write the club, mock-solemnly promises never to set foot in the club again, and then, after basking in the ensuing general hilarity, repairs to the local, whites-only, union hall. You can be sure things like this happened then, just as they continue to happen now.

Michael Moore has now been told about the need to speak only in fully accessible venues. He is now on a speaking tour across the country. Progressive people in other cities need to monitor him, and if necessary, protest out in front of an inaccessible, or not fully accessible, site. Click here for his tour dates.