Everyone loves a good protest. I adore them all, from the grand level of chaining yourself to a building to the less high-maintenance, where you can pop home for your tea. Right now, when it comes to chanting about injustice, there is no lack of inspiration. People are angry. Even those used to the comfort of lethargy find themselves caring – about too few jobs, too much greed, and an attack on the welfare they already hold.
This week has seen anger turn to occupation. The Occupy Wall Street movement having gone global, hundreds of tents and demonstrators currently swamp London’s financial district. It would be easy to overlook the fact that this weekend sees another protest: disabled people marching against the coalition slashing vital funding.
With the welfare reform bill set to make its way back to the Commons in December, this Saturday the Hardest Hit campaign is holding simultaneous demonstrations across the country. It may not have the glamour of taking on a global financial system but it does have a bunch of cripples campaigning for the right to be treated as human.
The two demonstrations are not dissimilar. They are at their core a search for fairness, an objection to the dichotomy of the greedy and the needy. For the hardest hit though, the protest is personal. The unfairness that leads to this weekend’s march is not an over-arching societal threat but a targeted attack. It is specific, levelled at them, the group whose welfare can be sacrificed to help fix the government’s accounts.
The term “hardest hit” is a loaded one – who suffers most is not a competition. It is used because it is true – disabled people are amongst the hardest hit by the cuts and as individuals who are already disadvantaged, will be the ones to feel them most deeply. The cuts that will do the most damage are the ones directed at people most in need of assistance. Still, this has proved too complex for the coalition to understand – or more likely, they’ve just failed to care.
Despite Osborne’s claim that he will place the greatest burden on those with the broadest shoulders, he is ploughing on with three core cuts levelled at the disabled: 20% of the budget for disability living allowance; mobility payments for those living in residential care; and payments of contributory employment allowance for those struggling to get back to work. For hundreds of thousands of people – already at risk as the group most likely to be without savings or education – it will mean being pushed into poverty. For some, deprived of the funding for basic transport, it will mean being trapped in their own home. Billions of pounds will be saved and all it will cost is some people’s ability to live their lives.
As the cuts began to hit at the start of the year, I wrote of the injustice in having to claw back what – even in times of austerity – are basic entitlements. Stating the need for benefits is the modern equivalent to the begging letter, but when the disabled are threatened, it is an act that is necessary. They march because the coalition’s cuts march on by the day: the latest is a proposal to cut off support from those on incapacity benefit if they challenge the ruling that they are fit to work. They march because of a culture that sees them as workshy leeches, while the mainstream media is confident in running headlines such as “Sick benefit: 75% are faking it” when a look at the facts says the figure is less than 1%.
This weekend will see few grand ideas. No one will take on capitalism itself or stop all wars, but protesters will try to protect the basic right to have what anyone would call a life. The Occupy protests offer a valued voice of dissent, but we should be careful they don’t drown out the hardest hit who need to be heard.
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