Thursday, March 2, 2017

Reaction from Guest at Congressional Address: "We all left feeling expendable and disposable."

Jeannine Chartier, Executive and Artistic Director, VSA Arts Rhode Island
Jeannine Chartier had a unique vantage point for President Trump's address to Congress on Tuesday night. As a guest of Congressman David Cicilline (D-RI), the disability advocate and director of VSA Arts Rhode Island watched in the gallery with other invited guests. She shared some reflections with me yesterday as she waited to board her flight back to Rhode Island.

What was it like to watch the speech in person?
It was an honor to be invited by Congressman Cicilline, and he graciously pushed my wheelchair through the long and winding underground "accessible" pathway over to the Capitol. It was an incredible experience, even if it was sometimes horrifying to hear the president's vision for our country.

Who were you seated with?
I was with other guests who had been invited by Democratic members of Congress, and our seating was scattered throughout many Republican guests. Mixed into my corner of the gallery: a woman who told me she had had a heart transplant, women wearing headscarves, several Native Americans in traditional dress, and people of difference races, ethnicities, and sexual orientation -- some wearing buttons promoting causes or simply #resist.

What was it like to be sitting with such a diverse group while President Trump presented his policy proposals?
During much of the speech, we sat stoic while enthusiastic Republicans leaped to their feet applauding his calls to dismantle laws regarding the Dakota Access Pipeline, EPA, health care, and education, while ignoring the rights of minorities (race, gender,  LGBTQ, etc.). While the speech started out on a positive note acknowledging disapproval of anti-Semitism and racism, his words still ultimately seemed to promote stigma and fear, and I feel we all left feeling expendable and disposable.

The president did acknowledge Rare Disease Day.
Yes, the individuals and their stories in the later part of the speech -- a parade of "victims" overcoming hardships. It just seemed to be exploitation and pandering, and completely disconnected from his previous speeches and actions. Sorry if I sound cynical or jaded, but the young woman in the wheelchair and how she was referenced reminded me of the old Jerry Lewis telethon days. No disrespect to the individuals, but his stated plans to dismantle policies and regulations that protect many of us who are minorities to have access to education and health care will only increase our struggles.

What other moments stand out?
A few come to mind. The shock and groan that went out from our side of the aisle about VOICE (Victims Of Immigration Crime Enforcement) was palpable. I don't know if that translated on TV, because the cheers from Republicans may have overwhelmed it, but it was obviously scary to a LOT of people in the room -- people looked at each other in eyes-wide-open shock. And my side of the room couldn't contain WTF laughter over the line, "The time for trivial fights is over." Did he really say that? Oh Lordy...and he pointed to Democrats like they are the ones tweeting at 3:00am.

Are you happy you went?
Yes. It was exhausting physically, but more so emotionally – it was a long speech full of disturbing rhetoric outlining a dark path we are heading down in this Trump presidency. It was a powerful reminder that there's so much to fight for -- and fight against. But I keep reminding myself, it's a marathon and not a sprint.
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