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“This Is Not the Time to Sit Back”: Protesters Launch Last-Ditch Effort to Save the ACA

We must dial up the pressure on the Senate now to save the ACA and Medicaid from cuts or dismantling.

Demonstrators rally outside of Sen. John McCain's Tucson office on July 26, 2017. (Photo courtesy of Lauren Klinkhammer)

Since election night 2016, the streets of the US have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this ongoing “Interviews for Resistance” series, experienced organizers, troublemakers and thinkers share their insights on what works, what doesn’t, what has changed and what is still the same. Today’s interview is the 59th in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.

As the Senate moves forward in an attempt to pass some sort of repeal of the Affordable Care Act, activists from around the country have managed to swing enough votes to defeat two major proposals already. But there’s more coming, and both in Washington, DC, and in states around the country where Republican Senators are based — including John McCain, who came to DC this week straight from cancer treatment to vote in favor of taking health care away from his constituents — protesters are coming together for a last-ditch effort to save the ACA and Medicaid from cuts or dismantling.

I spoke with two of those people, starting with Anastasia Bacigalupo, a member of ADAPT who is the executive director for Westside Center for Independent Living in Los Angeles, California.

Sarah Jaffe: We are talking Wednesday evening, as you just got back from the police station in Washington, DC, for paying your fine for having been arrested. Tell us about that.

Anastasia Bacigalupo: Well, right now the disability rights movement, we are fighting for the lives of our sisters and brothers and ourselves, to maintain the Affordable Care Act as it is currently. The fight is getting really real, for lack of a better word. Our lives are on the line, so we are really pushing it. We were at a protest yesterday in the atrium of the Hart Building, trying to send a message to senators that any repeal is unacceptable. Reducing and modifying the Affordable Care Act is not acceptable, and that bill will kill many people.

As of Wednesday, the Senate has voted to proceed on debate but has voted down the bills that came up for debate. Can you tell us a little bit about where it looks like the Senate is going next?

The Senate has put itself in this really awkward position with trying to force this debate, and now they can’t garner the support. That is really, I want to say, thanks to all the protests across the country. The whole reason that they had to have a whole session [Tuesday] night, the reason why they are still trying to push something forward this week is because of the impact of protests that my colleagues and myself have been participating in nationwide. I think the message is getting across.

I think what is going to end up happening is they are going to try to do some modified changes. I don’t know how much Senator Ted Cruz’s watered-down version is getting traction, but so far there is some focus on a stripped-down, low-cost insurance plan making carriers also provide coverage that complies with the federal standards. We don’t want to see any changes, of course, because we understand how this has impact on real people’s lives and that is why we were out there [on Tuesday]. That is why we are going to continue to protest.

Tell us about what the plans are for the next couple of days. I know there was a sit-in over the weekend. What is going on down there Thursday and in the next couple of days?

Today [July 26, 2017] is the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. What we have been doing today is reflecting on the day and reflecting on how the composition of Congress is so different. A lot of the leaders that were present when the ADA was enacted are no longer with us, no longer serving in public office. So, today has been a real day of reflection and planning. I haven’t spoken to anyone directly that is on the planning arm of ADAPT, but my understanding is there is only so much we can do here in DC. Senators in those states that are voting in favor of repealing, ending the Affordable Care Act, people are being told to go back to those states. I, myself, am a resident of California, but I felt called to service to protest in Arizona and I spent quality time in Sen. Jeff Flake’s office a few weeks ago.

Really, the effort is to educate the communities of those Senators to make sure it really resonates with them that this handful of individuals [is] making decisions that will have incredibly negative implications on the lives of many people. Not just adults with disabilities: children with disabilities, people who are in recovery, people who are trying to lead the most independent of lives but need these supports to be successful. Those supports will fall away like a house of cards if these Senators are not educated and don’t understand the gravity of what is before them.

Since you have been in Arizona, I can’t talk about this without talking about John McCain making his triumphant return to vote against health care for people.

Yes. Pretty wild. It has been a really mind-blowing experience. I can’t speak for the entire disability rights community, but there was a hope, a feeling, that he was going to come back and vote against it. I can’t really wrap my head around it. There is a lot of feelings of betrayal in the community right now. That he had an opportunity, that he is a person with a disability, that to a certain extent, we expect him to represent people with disabilities, but obviously that wasn’t the case. He is going to resign soon, so there is going to be a major effort in Arizona to make sure that people with disabilities, their rights are respected. The ADAPT chapter there will be very active in making sure that occurs.

I just want to say that yesterday, while we were being detained by Capitol Police, Senator Tammy Duckworth came down. She is a person with a disability who serves our country, first in the military, but now as a Congresswoman. I think that what has to happen is Democrats in Congress have to work together, band together. I can’t explain [McCain’s] vote. I know he has, in the past, been a supporter. I have heard some grumblings here and there that people thought his vote was intentional to force the debate. I am not sure that I know enough about how everything went down to believe that. But, generally, the feeling is betrayal.

What can people do, particularly if the call right now is for people to go back to the states? What can people do who haven’t been able to get to DC, who maybe haven’t taken part in the protest, but to make sure that this isn’t over?

That is a great question. Actually, on Facebook, that question has been bantered around a lot. If you live in a state where your senator is voting against the Affordable Care Act, now is the time to acquaint yourself with that senator. I would recommend showing up to every single event that senator has in the community: they have an open house, they cut a ribbon, they smash a bottle over a boat. Whatever they are doing, show up. Show up with signs. Request to meet with the senator.

Not everybody is comfortable with getting arrested, and that is OK. You don’t have to get arrested to be a voice, to share your story. You can be out in the community and educate people. I think there are other groups you can also join besides ADAPT. I know MoveOn is very active. Various other Democratic groups are also very active. There are ways in which everyone can get involved in this. Senators really do listen to their constituents. It really makes a difference. Our blessing, being Californians, is that Senator Harris and Senator Feinstein are champions of disability rights and the disability community. We have a lucky circumstance, but even for us, we have friends, we have relatives in [other] states. You should be reaching out to those friends and relatives. Heck, it is summertime, take a trip and visit them. Talk to them about how to be active civically. Talk to them about how to talk about these issues.

The worst thing is thinking that these elected officials are in ivory towers. They got elected by your votes. They got elected by your friends’ votes, by your family members’ votes. Those votes are important. They have importance. I would say that if you live in a state where your Senator has voted the wrong way, you need to start engaging. If you can’t make it because of your circumstance, if you can’t get to those events, you can send a letter every day. You can send a postcard every day. You can send emails. There are so many things people can do. If you have an iPhone, you can record yourself speaking and send it as an attachment. There is just so much that can be done.

How can people keep up with you?

Well, I am on Facebook and people are welcome to be my friend. I would love to be their friend. We are all in this together. I really believe in community. I was invited to be a part of this, invited to be a part of ADAPT. It is an honor for me. It is an honor for me to exercise my freedom of expression and my right to assemble. I am happy to share my experiences with anybody.


Next, I spoke with Arizona resident Lauren Klinkhammer from an impromptu rally outside of Sen. John McCain’s office in Tucson.

Sarah Jaffe: Right now, as we are talking, it is Wednesday evening and you are at a rally at Senator McCain’s office in Tucson. Correct?

Lauren Klinkhammer: I am.

Tell us how this rally came together. You were saying before that it is not common for there to be 150 people on the street in Tucson in the evening.

No. We are a small town and it is sprawling out in Arizona. We don’t have a lot of city centers. It is sort of all over. So, this is a surprise. I am really impressed that this many people came out, because Arizona is sort of a quiet place. It is pretty amazing. It is touching, because even though it is people that are not wanting the ACA repealed, they have American flags…. Serious messages, but with American flags.

Do you think it was the particulars of Senator McCain’s situation, coming back while he is fighting cancer, that is drawing people out like this tonight?

There have been all kinds of sides. Some people are really angry. I guess it just depends on what your point of view is. Some people are angry that he has done this. Some people feel, “How could he vote for the motion to go forward, when he himself is dealing with health care issues?” We had bus drivers beeping before. It is funny. These truck drivers — we are kind of near the highway, so people are beeping because they are excited. They agree. Most people agree.

Like I said, a lot of people have different opinions, even if they are against repealing the bill. Some people feel violated he made this decision. They see it as, “He is sick. He should be there for us.” Some people see it as an opening to the discussion. It just depends. People are trying to be respectful and to give him a chance.

I was very upset. I went and made a sign and I got here and didn’t even know what I was going to do. Then, someone told me about his speech…. I have been going around the city — and this is affecting me directly — I am talking to people and almost everyone I talk to really is not for repealing Obamacare. They want it fixed. They don’t want it repealed.

There are a lot of things within [the Obamacare] bill that save money, help people, and protect the vulnerable, that before this were grey areas that were missed and ignored. There are some smart things in there that people are worried about getting missed, because it took them a long time to write it. These bills that are being presented and written aren’t there.

I just met with a staffer at McCain’s office, who was very, very nice. I went out there and I said, “You know what, if you guys are going to be doing this Vote-A-Rama, I am a disabled person. I have been middle class. I want to be available to your researcher or whoever it is that advises McCain.”

Now, I am just trying to be a bridge. Whatever it is we are going to do, let’s do something that actually helps the American public to the best we can without causing too much harm. I am worried. At least they met with me. They are not going to really let me volunteer for legislation, which makes me sad. I haven’t gotten in to meet with the governor. I haven’t been able to get to have an appointment with Sen. Flake’s office. They did take some of my notes, but it takes some time. I really am scared that [they are] doing a Vote-A-Rama … a lot of the legislation that was pre-prepared doesn’t help people.

Tell us about your story. How did you get involved in this fight? You said you had been to DC.

You are going to laugh, because literally it has been three weeks now. Three weeks ago, I was having a day where I was feeling better and someone from my doctor’s office was going to an event that was put on by 10 different organizations in Arizona. They were videotaping an open house so they could send it out to our leaders. They asked me to go and I was like, “OK. They have a van going up to Phoenix. Why not? I will go.” On the way up, they were like, “How would you like to go to DC?” and I was like, “Sure. I will go.” So, I took time off and then I went.

When I got out there, I didn’t really know what we would be doing. I thought I would just be speaking on the Mall or maybe speaking to a group of people or maybe having a meeting, because everything was so quick…. The next thing I know, I am among about 150 people that are doing civil disobedience in kind of the way that Martin Luther King did. Health care workers, sick people, brothers and sisters of people that will die if this bill passes, willing to be arrested so that our governors and our senators and our representatives could realize that if a nurse practitioner or a Harvard student or a patient dying of AIDS is willing to be arrested for the first time in their life for the good of humanity, maybe it is important enough to listen.

We are chanting and I am like, “Oh my goodness.” There are cameras. I had no idea there would be cameras. I am pretty private usually. It ended up being way bigger than I thought. I just thought I would be going and giving my story and coming home. Then, a week after we were there, it felt great because it went from predicting to kill 24 million people to only 18 million people.

It is depressing that that is a cheerful moment.

Yes … I am very concerned about the safety of children and adults and elderly people. Basically, all humans in America. I am very concerned.

They need people to go back out to DC. I wish I could. I don’t have the money. I feel bad asking my work again for the third week in a row, “Could you please let me have off again so I can go up to DC last minute and be around these radicals?” But, hey, you know what? It is to help them. Honestly, regardless of their party, my co-workers, my friends, random people have been supporting me. People have been buying me ice cream. People have been just super supportive. You know what else? They have been Republican, Independent, Green Party, Libertarian. This is not a popular bill. This is everybody. I have had a lot of support locally, and Arizona is a very conservative place.

I can’t be arrested because I have health issues and other things. I kind of got involved without meaning to. But, at this point, I just want to help. I have told both offices and the governor’s office that since I have been in the middle class and now I am a disabled citizen, I feel that I have had enough experiences in my life that I could be able to offer nuances as they are deciding a vote.

On the 31st, there are going to be lots of groups of people in DC congregating and protesting this and we need people. We need people from all 50 states to go. Especially certain states, like Virginia, Arkansas, Ohio, Colorado, Nevada, Arizona, Alaska. There are certain states where their senators have been moderate and we really need them to continue calling their senator and we need people to caravan out to DC, literally, before Monday and we need them to go out there and we need them to participate and we need them to pull a Martin Luther King and stand up.

We need people in the religious community. We need people who are celebrities, people who have influence. We need to have people that are entrepreneurs. You get my drift. We need people to go to Washington. Get in your car, get in your plane, get in your bus, go put your thumb out and go out there. Put your money toward it, too. Volunteer. Go to the local rallies. Pick up your telephone and call all of your senators. Call senators from other states.

Literally, this is not the time to sit back and say, “It is not going to happen” because it is. Motion to continue? Nobody predicted it would happen. Nobody thought McCain was going to fly out there. He went out there. This is not the time to sit back. Health care is at risk. Peoples’ health is the most important thing in your life. Money doesn’t die with you. You die. So, we need health care. People need to realize this is real, this is everybody, this is all of us, and we need to get out there and do stuff. So, whatever people can do, they need to do the maximum and they need to do it yesterday.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.