The 504 Sit In

I’ve talked a tiny bit about this subject before in the server, but never that in-depth, so here goes: The 504 Sit In. Since it’s also Black History month in the US, I’m gonna talk about it mostly in the context of the Black Panthers’ involvement, but that means this is gonna be HELLA long so STRAP IN.

If you know me at all, you know one of my biggest soapboxes aside from disability-related stuff is about intersectionality both in general and specifically in the context of feminism. The 504 Sit-In is a perfect example of why intersectionality matters.

So for some background: On April 5, 1977, thousands of disabled people gathered in various cities in protest to push for disability rights and demand the passing of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Prior to the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act was the closest thing to disability rights legislation in the United States, but lawmakers were dragging their feet on passing Section 504, which simply offers civil rights to disabled people.

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 included the little-noticed Section 504, which was based on the 1964 Civil Rights Act and mandated integration of people with disabilities into mainstream institutions. But the language was broad, only noting that “no qualified individual with a disability should, only by reason of his or her disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

Here’s a photo from one of the protests:

A crowd in wheelchairs with protest signs in front of the capital building

Pickets happened at the regional offices of the federal Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Philadelphia, New York, and Seattle, as well as the HEW headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Most of the protests ended that day as planned. The San Francisco protest did not. After marching past the security guards at the local HEW office without resistance, over 100 protesters unpacked their knapsacks and began what became known as the 504 Sit-In. The landmark takeover remains the longest non-violent occupation of a U.S. federal building in history. Though there is some disagreement about the exact length of the protest, it is often cited as 26 days. (Some protesters stayed in the building a few days after the larger group dispersed.)

Here’s a flyer advertising one of the protests:

Flyer with the heading Demonstration to demand signing of 504 regulations

Here’s a photo from inside the entrance way of the building they occupied:

Several people in wheelchairs inside a large glass door, with security next to the door

Protesting is hard for able-bodied people, but for disabled people, it’s even more difficult. Several protestors needed aids and helpers of various kinds, but that didn’t stop them.

Over the course of so many weeks with rudimentary accommodations inside an office building, protesters compromised their health to achieve their goals, explains Dr. Catherine Kudlick, professor of history and director of the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability at San Francisco State University. “Some lived with toll of that for years,” she says.

504 Sit-In participant, author, and disability rights advocate Corbett Joan O’Toole

notes that people with disabilities—as well as people who are also part of other marginalized populations such as the LGBT community—are accustomed to the type of cooperative interdependence that was necessary for 504. The 100-plus occupiers and their attendants made the building their own almost immediately, draping a window air conditioning unit with a plastic tarp to create a makeshift refrigerator for medications and using the pay phones to communicate with loved ones and news media on the outside until the FBI cut the lines. There were daily consensus-driven committee meetings about everything from media strategy to how to respond to a bomb scare false alarm, in the event the FBI employed tactics to evacuate the building. “Disabled people are incredibly resourceful,” O’Toole says. “That is a commonly misunderstood and overlooked part of our history, and it led to the success of 504.”

Yes, you read the above message properly. The FBI cut the phone lines in an attempt to end the protest. That still didn’t put an end to the protest. There were hundreds of disabled protestors who held daily rallies outside of the buildings, so to communicate with family members, news outlets, and the general outside world, d/Deaf protestors who could sign would relay messages back and forth by signing to other d/Deaf people outside. In keeping with the cooperative spirit on the inside, women would take turns washing each other’s hair in the sinks. d/Deaf protesters would help tired aids and helpers care for physically disabled protestors. Food was rationed between people from all walks of life and all different kinds of disabilities.

As the protest went on, it garnered enough media attention that The Salvation Army provided blankets and cot mattresses, and local churches delivered food. Here’s a photo of one of the protestors sleeping on one of the cots:

Two people sleeping on a thin foam mattress at the bottom of a large staircase, next to a wheelchair

The protest would likely have failed without the help of the Black Panthers. Beginning in the first week of the protest and lasting through the end of the protest, Oakland’s Black Panther Party cooked and brought hot meals like meatloaf, fried chicken, rolls, and salad across the bay every single day.

“They [the Black Panther Party] understood what it meant to support a revolutionary movement that wasn’t just on the street with weapons,” O’Toole says, pointing to the Party’s groundbreaking Free Breakfast for Children initiative, which eventually served a reported 20,000 low-income children and influenced federal guidelines for free breakfast and lunch programs still vital in the nation’s public schools.
The support of the Panthers also spoke to the intersectionality of the protest. Bradley Lomax, a Panther with Multiple Sclerosis, joined the 504 Sit-In on day one, along with his attendant Chuck Jackson, who also assisted others throughout the occupation. The late Kitty Cone, one of the sit-in’s co-organizers, once said, “I don’t think we would have had as active participation by the Panthers without Brad.”

This is a photo of Brad and his brother Glenn:

Brad and Glenn Lomax

Out of approximately 120 protestors, 14 with disabilities and 8 attendants “were eventually selected to go to Washington D.C. to attempt to force a meeting. Even that was a unanimous, consensus-driven decision borne out of many days of discussions.” Brad was one of the people selected.

The group’s solidarity wasn’t apparent to the FBI agents guarding the San Francisco building, who mistakenly believed that with 22 gone, they could force the remaining protesters to disperse by generating dissent and instigating false bomb scares. O’Toole says the opposite was true. Once the D.C. contingent had gone, the San Francisco occupiers were wholly focused on one task: holding the building. Without a sustained sit-in drawing daily news reports, they would have little leverage compelling Califano to sign the regulations.

Once in D.C., protesters relied on another coalition partner, a machinists union, which funded a few U-Hauls, the only vehicles with ramps and enough room to park multiple protesters’ wheelchairs. Arriving to meet with Califano, the group sang the protest hymn “We Shall Overcome” and forced a dramatic congressional hearing. One of the occupation co-organizers, Judy Heumann, gave a poignant, emotional address to the assembled representatives and reporters:

“I can tell you that every time you raise issues of ‘separate but equal,’ the outrage of disabled individuals across this country is going to continue. It is going to be ignited. There will be more takeovers of buildings until finally maybe you begin to understand our position. We will no longer allow the government to oppress disabled individuals. We want the law enforced.”

The regulations were finally signed on April 28, 1977.