By Robyn Banks
Last week’s Conservative Party conference in Birmingham was met with sizeable protests, as you’d expect given the party’s actions in its eight years in power. Groups such as the People’s Assembly opened the weekend with their usual rally and march against the continued austerity measures being implemented across the country, to the detriment of many in society. I was lucky enough to witness and be involved in one of the most powerful protests, on the final day of the conference, when Disabled People Against the Cuts (DPAC) led action against the continued rollout of the failing universal credit system and the ongoing cuts to benefits by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP).
DPAC are one of the only direct action groups led exclusively by its disabled members. Set up in 2010 as a response to the then-new Tory cuts to disability benefits, they have led protests and direct action across the country in the years since to fight for the rights of disabled people as they are systematically undermined by this government. They have taken action at every Tory conference in that time, and this conference was no different.
The day started with a march towards the conference centre the Tories were holed up in. We made our presence known with a wall of noise as we approached the ‘entrance’ of the conference centre (a turnstile surrounded by fencing), where we continued chanting. After a conversation about what other forms of action were available, the group split to create two different areas of protest elsewhere in Birmingham.
One group focused on talking to party members and delegates leaving the conference, whilst holding banners demonstrating the effect that Tory policies have had on disabled people. These included Vince Laws’ now infamous ‘Dead People Don’t Claim’ banner, and others bearing slogans such as ‘DWP Deaths Make Me Sick’, or featuring the names of disabled people who died after they had their benefits stopped. Here protesters asked those who exited if they knew about the 120,000 deaths that have occurred due to austerity cuts, and if they cared about that figure. Unsurprisingly, they were mostly met with silence and averted eyes. However, shockingly, some delegates retorted with snarky comments, asking if ‘they had a job’, or proclaiming that no, they didn’t care about the deaths of thousands. These vindictive, sadistic responses were unexpected even to many of the long-term anti-austerity activists present, and reveal the uncaring cruelty that is at the heart of the modern Conservative Party.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the conference centre near Birmingham New Street station, other DPAC activists took part in a street blockade of the local tram system. Laying in the street or sitting in their chairs, the activists made it visually impossible to walk past and not feel something about the situation that they found themselves in. The blockade was in place for well over an hour, causing disruption to the local infrastructure and making an impact on those delegates who had avoided the conference centre itself. This visual statement was very powerful, and clearly drew the attention of both the conference-goers and the general public. It showed the sheer power that disabled people have, despite government attempts to strip them of their agency.
Later on, activists caught a glimpse of the biggest prize of all – Theresa May herself. The group waited for her as she left her hotel and pounced as she sped away in her car, moving purposefully towards it as the police escorted her up the road. Although the encounter was brief and Mrs May was probably content to ignore the protestors just as she has systematically ignored the dignity of disabled people in this country for years, the group were greeted afterwards by members of the public who congratulated them on the action. Many also expressed concern and outright anger once it was explained why the action had taken place. Around the same time other members of the group spotted Esther McVey as she left the conference centre. She too disregarded the protestors’ questions and our shouts of ‘murderer’, showing no emotion as she walked silently away, presumably to continue to peddle her view that the concerns of the disabled are only ‘fake news’.
Thanks to actions like these, not a single Tory conference goes by without party members being forced to acknowledge, even if only briefly, the ugly truths of their policies. Eight years into their administration, we can assume that many Tories have gotten used to writing off marches and rallies, however many thousands of people take part. It is much harder for them to ignore confrontations with the people on the frontlines of austerity, living defiant in the face of cuts that have cost many their lives. These DPAC actions may not have had the numbers of the People’s Assembly rally, but they had a more direct impact than any march ever could.
Featured image credit: Hilary Koe
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