Two weeks ago, Harvey Ross helped lead and organize an accessible march with Esther Anders and Otis Young, among others. Over 400 people attended, and Ross says he plans to help organize more rallies and events.
Originally from Chicago, Ross moved with his family as a teenager to Milwaukee. At 19, he was shot and made an incomplete quadriplegic. Since then, he has advocated for people with disabilities for more than twelve years and works at Independence First as IL coordinator. There, he teaches people with disabilities independent living skills.
After the march, OnMilwaukee caught up with Ross to talk about planning the accessible event, what the last month of protesting has meant to him and what's next.
OnMilwaukee: How did the Accessible March come about?
Harvey Ross: I always have tried to serve the community. With all of this police brutality and the marches here in Milwaukee, I was watching TV and looking at social media and saw there weren’t any people with disabilities, with no physical disabilities, I mean. So, me and three of my co-workers talked about this, and we decided to form an accessible march to protest against police brutality. This was for able-bodied African-Americans, but also for people with disabilities, whether it be that they have problems with mental health, physical disabilities or developmental disabilities.
So, we invited people with disabilities out. The march was on a flat surface, and we had interpreters that went along with us for the deaf community. We had medics and medical stations set up with cars just in case people needed help with that. The group that Frank Nitty was protesting with met up with us too and marched with us down by the lakefront. We set all of this in about three days.
What challenges did you have with organizing this and making sure protest was accessible for people with a variety of disabilities?
So, we had to make sure that there were flat surfaces, and it just so happens the weather was great. It was in the 70s with a nice breeze. We also needed to make sure that we would have enough cars to block off traffic. Even with that, there was actually this guy that literally tried to run over people as we were doing the protest. Security had to threaten to shoot him for him to stop. It was the most insane situation. I said to myself, "What are you doing? Not only do you see people out here marching out here peacefully, you see people out here with disabilities and you’re still gonna try to get through?" But he backed up after that.
We needed to make sure that there were medical staff and that there were a lot of people with water and snacks. We had to get interpreters that volunteered their time. And we had a deaf interpreter fly in from Maryland. Here name is Nunu Davis. That was great because that also showed a different part of the rally and who else is affected by these situations. She signed Black Lives Matter in sign language.
What are your reactions to these current waves of protests?
Well, I think they are good, but we’re in 2020. Who would have thought that in 2020, we’d be going through the same stuff we went through in the 1960s and beyond? We’re still doing the same thing. Everything in the world is moving forward – technology, etc. – but human beings are still stuck in the same conundrum, which is insane. A lot of people focused on the rioting and looting, and then people figured out it was mostly provocateurs doing that. If our government was doing its job, none of this would be happening.
How do you deal with the exhausting nature of advocacy and activism, even though change is slow?
To be honest, it is not easy. I wouldn’t tell anybody that. Me having a disability on top of that makes it harder. I can admit that, when I was an able-bodied person, I looked down on people who had disabilities, and I made fun of them. But then, once I journeyed to join the community, I came to see the bigger picture of all of it.
People get upset about people disrespecting the flag. But that flag doesn’t mean anything, because the flag is the people that are out here marching and protesting. They allow America to be what America is. That is my motivation so we can come together as a whole and get equality for everybody.
Are you frustrated that it took until these latest police killings for the majority of people to start caring?
Yes, because it took eight minutes and 46 seconds worth of video for people to understand. We’ve seen police shootings and killings. We’ve seen police kill Eric Garner. But it took until eight minutes and 46 seconds of watching cops kill a person, cops sitting around and watching, pedestrians telling them that they are killing this man, for something to happen. There’s no reason in the world things should be like that.
I have a friend whose brother was murdered inside a police officer’s house recently last month. He was just at my house before you called me, and he is still wondering whether his brother is gonna get any justice. You have a 911 call, and police officers show up at the scene, and they see a police officer choking my friend to death. If that was one of us, we would be sitting in jail.
How do you see your own identity, and what do you wish people understood about being a black man with a disability?
I would first like people to see me as a human being before anything else. I also want people to understand that this society likes to put labels on people because it helps create separation. But at the end of the day, I am no more than you and you are no more than me, but if we work together, the better the country will be.
Can you mention any future projects or protests that you have planned?
Right now, we are working on an art project to do a mural. We are contacting artists from different backgrounds to try to get that started. We also want to do another rally – not so much a march, so we don’t impede the other Black Lives Matter marches. I do hope that they will join us. This not to draw attention away from what they’re doing; it is to add more attention to it and to let able-bodied people know there’s another group of people affected.