Police Arrest Wheelchair-Bound Demonstrators in Capitol Protest
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Police arrested disabled demonstrators who chanted slogans and chained their wheelchairs together in the Capitol on Tuesday in a protest demanding quick passage of a bill guaranteeing their civil rights.
The arrests came after deliberate acts of civil disobedience by the demonstrators and a confrontation in the Capitol’s cavernous Rotunda with House Speaker Thomas S. Foley and Minority Leader Robert H. Michel.
Police said 104 people were arrested.
Removing the demonstrators and loading them into vans took police about two hours. Those who could walk were handcuffed, and some in wheelchairs were strapped into their seats by police, many of whom wore surgical gloves.
Those arrested were charged with two misdemeanors, unlawful entry and demonstrating within the Capitol, said police spokesman G.T. Nevitt. Both carry maximum sentences of six months in jail.
In addition, those convicted could be fined $100 for unlawful entry and $500 for demonstrating in the Capitol.
The arrests marked the second day of dramatic lobbying by people with disabilities, who are seeking passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. On Monday, some 60 people crawled out of their wheelchairs and up the West steps of the Capitol to underline their demands.
The Senate passed the bill last year but the measure has bogged down in the House despite widespread predictions of ultimate approval.
While the demonstration was in progress, the House Energy and Commerce Committee approved the bill 40-3 at a meeting in another building. But the measure still must go to two other committees before reaching the full House.
Demonstrators gathered in the center of the Rotunda and began to chant slogans, including some from the civil rights movement of the 1960s. They also chanted ″ADA Now″ and ″Access Now,″ referring to their demand for access to transportation and other accomodations.
″Access is a civil right,″ the last protester, who identified herself only as Gail Love, shouted as she was taken out.
Police used large snipping tools to break chains that some of the demonstrators had used to bind their wheelchairs together.
Before the arrests, Foley assured demonstrators that he and other congressional leaders were pushing the bill. His words were met with skepticism.
″It is a priority for passage in this session of the Congress,″ the Washington Democrat shouted over catcalls. ″I am absolutely satisfied it will reach the floor, we will have a conference with the Senate and it will become law.″
″Will it be on the floor in 24 hours? No,″ Foley added. A chorus of boos greeted the remark.
A sponsor of the bill, Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., also spoke to the group and urged them to be patient. ″Sixty days is not too long″ to wait, he said. He was met by shouts of, ″We’ve waited too long already.″
The bill would outlaw discrimination based on physical or mental disability in employment, access to buildings, use of the telephone system, use of public and private transportation and in other uses. It would require ramps or other means of access in all new buildings used by the general public, including private businesses and offices.
The Capitol building has ramps for wheelchair access to two of its entrances and ramps and elevators inside.
During the midday confrontation in the Rotunda, Foley sought to assure the disabled that House leaders ″want to see that this bill has the greatest possible support and will reach the president’s desk in a way that he can sign it.″
Michel, an Illinois Republican, told the crowd he had broached the issue earlier today in a meeting with President Bush at the White House. He called ″unreasonable″ the demand by some of the protesters for passage in 24 hours. Some other protesters said they were seeking passage by May 1.