Today in Journalism: Arnieville

Back in May, I wrote about the rampant slashing of the sections of California’s budget pertaining to disability services. abby jean has also written about how California structures social assistance programs and their funding.  These are issues seen not just in California, but across the United States, where states are struggling to come up with ways to provide services while facing falling revenues and funding shortfalls in every direction. The most vulnerable populations in many states are the first to face cuts, and some of those people have decided to fight back.

Which brings us to Arnieville1. In June, disability rights activists occupied a traffic island in Berkeley to fight budget cuts. The Arnieville protests continued off and on throughout the summer and protesters led demonstrations in other areas of the state as well, leading to things like arrests in Sacramento.

Arnieville put disability rights issues front and center. People passing by couldn’t help but notice a large encampment of people with disabilities, and their numerous signs, protesting policy and budget cuts. It was a very in your face protest, and it makes sense that such a thing would take place in Berkeley, a city long known for its active disability community and disability rights activism.

Yet, if you rely on mainstream media for your news, you wouldn’t know about Arnieville. A search on the website of the San Francisco Chronicle, one of the largest Bay Area newspapers, for ‘Arnieville’ returns no results. Likewise with the Press Democrat, a smaller regional paper that still manages to find time to cover other local news. The Los Angeles Times, an award-winning California newspaper with a long history of investigative journalism and coverage of both disability issues and the California budget, also has absolutely no coverage of Arnieville.

If you don’t follow the disability community in the Bay Area closely, you probably wouldn’t know about Arnieville. Unless you happened to read independent media like IndyBay, The San Francisco Bay View, The Berkeley Daily Planet, or New American Media. Coverage in the East Bay Express, SF Weekly, and San Francisco Bay Guardian, three farily large independent media outlets? Nil. Zero results. Coverage on radio and television news is a little more difficult to track as I can’t search through months of broadcasts as conveniently as I can through months of print media, but I suspect coverage has been relatively minimal, if not nonexistent, with the exception of KPFA in Berkeley.

Arnieville is news. People with disabilities camping out in a traffic island to protest budget cuts, to demand independence from institutionalisation, to challenge social policy, is news. Yet, most of California’s media is completely ignoring the Arnieville protest, let alone its implications. This is typical. Disability issues are rarely covered in the media and when they are, it’s usually in a very patronising, frustrating kind of way.  An article on budget cuts, for example, might focus on interviewing parents of children with disabilities instead of interviewing the children themselves, or interviewing adults with disabilities.

Activists from other movements are profiled in the news in California. Protests demanding everything from clean energy to better accountability in police brutality cases are covered, extensively, as they should be. Because protest is one of many legitimate forms of communication with the government, and newspapers have an obligation, and a mission, to report on issues of interest to citizens. Disability rights is an issue of interest to many California citizens, not just people with disabilities, yet, the media seems very disinterested in covering it.

What about Arnieville isn’t newsworthy? The Los Angeles Times had no problems covering a tent city in Sacramento in March of 2009. A whole series of articles was run, including profiles of members of the encampment and a number of very strongly written editorials about social responsibility, budget crises, and public shaming. But a disability rights protest in the form of an encampment on public land? Not even a stray word.

One of the reasons our lack of visibility in the media makes me angry is that the general population is often unaware of the issues that affect us, and of the long history associated with many of those issues. It’s extremely hard to fight social attitudes when the media either ignores us or reinforces its social attitudes with its coverage, instead of debunking those attitudes through news stories. Arnieville conflicts with a lot of beliefs about people with disabilities, and I suspect that’s part of the reason why it hasn’t been covered in the media, because it threatens established social attitudes.

To cover Arnieville might suggest that the protesters have a legitimate grief and have something important to say. It might even hint that some people with disabilities are not happy with the current state of social services. That people with disabilities do not want to be institutionalised and have the capacity to live independently. That people with disabilities have a right to live, have a right to participate in governance, have a right to voice their objections to policy that harms them. These are scary, scary things to many nondisabled people, which is why they are being swept under the carpet.

  1. A reference to encampments established during the Great Depression by people who lost everything, nicknamed ‘Hoovervilles’ after President Herbert Hoover, blamed for the policies that led to the catastrophic economic collapse; in this case, the camps are named for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California.

2 Comments

  1. The only reason I had even heard of this was because Wheelchair Dancer mentioned it. I notice the same thing with protests in my neighbourhood. There was a protest to try and bring attention to a disability-specific issue. It garnered a photo in the free daily, and nothing anywhere else that I heard of.

  2. I had not heard of this, at all. I mean, obviously (as someone from Ontario) I am not reading much Bay Area news, but still.

    Thank you for bringing it to my attention.