Disabled activists have again brought traffic chaos to central London by chaining their wheelchairs across busy pedestrian crossings in protest at government cuts and welfare reforms.
The focus of the two-hour protest in Trafalgar Square was on the demand for the government to scrap its controversial new Welfare Reform Act, which includes plans for heavy cuts to disability benefits.
It was the second such protest this year in London’s tourist heartland by the campaign group Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), with support again from the mainstream anti-cuts movement UK Uncut, following a similar action in late January at Oxford Circus.
The protest started at about 2pm yesterday (Wednesday) in Leicester Square, with activists marching along Charing Cross Road towards Trafalgar Square.
Lines of wheelchair-users then blocked two of the main roads at the southern end of Trafalgar Square by chaining themselves to pedestrian crossings, a tactic also used successfully in the Oxford Circus protest.
Within minutes, buses, cars and taxis were backed up along all the roads in and out of Trafalgar Square.
Although police officers soon moved in to cut the chains, they made no attempt to physically move wheelchairs from the road, and many of the protesters continued to block the roads for two hours.
John McArdle, a founding member of Black Triangle, who travelled from Scotland for the protest with three other members of the campaign group, said: “Disabled people do not like to inconvenience the citizens of London, but we had to get out on the streets of London and let the people know what is happening in their name.”
Linda Burnip, a member of DPAC’s steering group, said protests would continue until the government listened to their demands.
Adam Lotun, another DPAC member, and one of the wheelchair-users blocking the roads, warned that protests were likely during the Olympic and Paralympic Games, although Burnip said they would be unlikely to disrupt sports fans attending London 2012 events.
Lotun admitted there was a chance the public could turn against protesters if they disrupted London 2012, but added: “There is a risk, but we have to make a stand. We have been ignored and we are treated as second-class citizens.”
Mark Harrison, chief executive of Norfolk Coalition of Disabled People (NCODP), who also took part in the protest, warned that disabled people would only feel the worst of the impact of the cuts over the next couple of years.
He said: “My main message to the government is: ‘You are in trouble. This is just the beginning of the fight.’”
He said the presence of NCODP and other disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) at the protest showed that they were “the voice of disabled people and are out there leading the fight against this government and attacks on their human rights”, even though the future of DPOs like NCODP were at risk.
He said: “While companies like Atos and A4E make millions in profit off the back of disabled people, disabled people are suffering and DPOs are going to the wall.”
He insisted that it was realistic to fight for the Welfare Reform Act to be scrapped, and compared the campaign to the successful battle against the poll tax more than 20 years ago.
Another of the wheelchair-users who blocked the roads, Sue Elsegood, from Greenwich, said she was protesting because she was “really concerned about the cuts to disabled people’s benefits and services, particularly the Independent Living Fund”.
She added: “I think [the protest] is about disabled people having their voices heard and saying they won’t accept this kind of treatment.
“If enough people speak out, the government will have to listen. There are people committing suicide about this issue.”
Another wheelchair-user, Maz, from Sussex, said disabled people were “petrified” by the planned cuts, with some killing themselves because of cuts or the fear of cuts to their support, while others had died while waiting for their appeals against being found “fit for work” by assessors working for Atos.
He said: “People fear that they are going to lose their independence, their homes, their carers.”
19 April 2012