By the time that we were blocking the elevators, it was too late for security to close them off. People were rushing into the main lobby, holding open the back doors for wheelchair users as they rolled into their places. I heard the man at the front desk yell, and another security guard turned around the corner trying to stop the influx of people. Within a couple of minutes, about 30 people were in the building, most of them in wheelchairs, all chanting loudly about Medicaid. The front doors were blocked by protestors, and I found a spot in the middle, perched between elevators, to watch the cops come on the scene. Within about ten minutes, ten arrived and dispersed the crowd at different spots around the room. They listened to the chants with awkward stares, almost all of them wearing bicycle hats. This was going to be interesting.
I first found out about the protest through my work. As a young Ohioan with a disability, I was automatically interested. I’ve had personal meetings with Senator Portman’s staff before about the issue, but this was something different. I also understood the urgency. The Better Care Reconciliation Act is a different kind of beast that would harm Ohioans (the poor, the disabled, and women) in a State that is already becoming the center of the American Opioid crisis.
The protest itself was to be run by the National Chapter of ADAPT, an organization best known for their more radical efforts in the fight for disability. The organization itself is a cause for debate amongst many, but also has thousands of supporters and has become a valuable resource during the age of Trumpism. I knew enough about them to feel confident that I knew exactly what I was walking into.
Either way, this was a cause that could wake me up at 7 a.m. on a Friday morning.
The protest started around 9 a.m., and, although there was police present, was peaceful in the morning. I found out that somehow a couple of other activists had found their way up into Portman’s actual office the night before and had spent the night there. As for us, we weren’t able to get up into the office, so we settled for the main lobby instead. People clumped together in the back and lined most of the walls. For a couple of hours, I stood next to a couple of cops and made small talk. I walked one through my contemplation of whether or not I was going to Postmate myself Chipotle (which I did, by the way). As the hours went on, other people joined in the protest, and the police left. Apparently, according to an officer, the protesters in elevators were the real issue, but there was also nothing else they could do. Once they left, people settled down for lunch and told stories of what Medicaid/care actually meant to them. By the time it was 2 p.m., things seemed calm. Protesters were being peaceful, singing chants and songs, and talking amongst each other. I knew the police would have to come back eventually, but everything seemed under control. Protesters were even collecting each others garbage. There was a couple with a baby sitting right next to me; nothing that needed to be controlled.
That’s when I chose to leave the scene for a couple of hours. If they were still there around 6 or 7, I said, I would come back and help out. But by the time I’d gotten home, the tone of the protests had changed. Apparently, protesters had somehow managed to take another staircase or elevator, and the situation had changed. An employee was trying to get out, and she wasn’t able to get out of the building. Another person texted me and told me that they had left as well.
Soon afterward, the Columbus Police Department told protesters that there was someone in the building having an emergency, although that’s up for debate. As soon as protesters complied, the police took advantage of the situation and literally began dragging people out of the building.
By this time, I was at home, watching everything unfold from Facebook Live. People being thrown across the room dragged out of chairs and thrown on the ground. One woman, in particular, was thrown flat on her face in the middle of the crowd. Police were over aggressive, and people were screaming in the background. Finally, after they had dragged everyone outside, they put them all in a circle on the ground and zip-tied people behind their backs. One man, who was deaf, was separated from the group without an interpreter and put in a police car. In the end, two wheelchairs were left behind at the scene — meaning that people were forced into cars without their mobility. According to reports, 15 people were arrested.
I am absolutely disgusted by the Columbus Police. I am absolutely disgusted by Rob Portman, for choosing to jail the disabled rather than listen to them. I do understand that protests like this are stuck between a rock and a hard place. The building Portman’s Senate office is located in is a private building, and technically protesters were on private property. However, maybe senators shouldn’t be allowed to have offices on private property. They are senators, after all. More on point, though, this was an act of unwarranted aggression by police. There was no need to drag people out of the building— and certainly not like that. Even those complied with the officer’s demands were told that they could never come back again or they would be arrested. It was unneeded violence and aggression toward people with disabilities.
But hey, good job Rob Portman. You got what you wanted. Congratulations on the nice, empty lobby.