Advocate for Disabled Women's Rights and Health Issues

Takeover of San Francisco's Federal Building


Which was how long?


Well, the regs were signed on the fourth of May. That's the official date, so I don't know if that--so about thirty days, twenty, thirty days.


So we all went in on the fourth of April to meet with the local regional secretary for HEW--local regional administrator. The head office is up on the fourth floor of the United Nations Plaza.


In San Francisco.


In San Francisco, right. The United Nations Plaza in San Francisco. It's a beautiful old federal building. It was a wonderful building later because the FBI had a nightmare dealing with us because there were no like ceilings, there were no air ducts, there were no--I mean, it was an old plaster and mortar building. Within a day or two there were 150 people with disabilities and families with people with disabilities living inside the building.

A whole bunch of things happened very quickly. One is that the regional director went home for the day and essentially never came back, so we took over his offices. We took over his three offices: his office, the secretary's office--I never really knew--I'm not a good person to ask about what happened to him.

I remember things like we had some of the people calling the local McDonald's and saying, "Hi, we have a group of disabled people here, would you like to feed us?" And they were like, "Oh, sure," and sent over food for a couple of days, until they saw the news and realized that this was a demonstration, this was an occupation of a federal building.

Somebody went out and scrounged an old refrigerator box, and taped it to the director's air conditioning machine to create a refrigerator for people that had medications that needed to be refrigerated. The building went into a shut-down mode--the FBI showed up after a few days and shut the building down. They allowed the employees in, but everybody had to come and go--so we couldn't come and go because we wouldn't have been allowed back in.

So there were 150 of us inside the building and we're not able to leave the building, but we could wander within the building. The first week was really when they put the thumbscrews on. They figured, "Oh, this is a group of disabled people, they're going to leave in a couple of days," so they didn't give us any access to the media and didn't allow us to do anything. They thought they'd get rid of us. The media did a blackout on us for a few days. Everybody was in the blackout mode--you know, ignore them, they'll go away, it's no big deal.


What they didn't realize was because of the diversity of people with disabilities, we had lots of communications channels. We were up on the fourth floor and the phones were cut off, so we couldn't call out, people couldn't call in, and people couldn't get information. We just went to the windows because every day the people in the disabled community--there a whole bunch of people that didn't want to live in the building and that wanted to be involved--that came every day. So every day there was a demonstration. It was a beautiful building and there was a giant quarter-acre plaza right in front of the building and every day there was a demonstration outside. There were protesters and there were speeches and there were microphones.

What would happen is we would be on the fourth floor and we would sign the news of what was happening in sign language to the people downstairs. Then an interpreter downstairs would tell the media what was going on up in the building and that's how we avoided the communication blockade of the FBI and the nondisabled people thinking that we couldn't figure out how to survive.

The second big issue that we had was food. We could only carry in so much food and there wasn't a cafeteria in the building or if there was, we didn't have access to it. They figured they would starve us out, which is actually what they did in a couple of other of the cities. One of the people with us was a black man who was part of the Black Panthers and he called up the Panthers and said, "I'm here in this demonstration." So the Panthers turned on the news and saw that we were occupying a federal building, which they thought was really nifty. They thought that anybody that challenged the federal government's domain over their lives and were fighting for self-sufficiency and rights were cool people. And they had one guy in there and so they showed up.

They were running a soup kitchen at that point for their black community in East Oakland and they showed up every single night and brought us dinner, for the entire demonstration they showed up. The FBI was like, "What the hell are you doing?" They answered, "Listen, we're the Panthers. You want to starve these people out, fine, we'll go tell the media that that's what you're doing, and we'll show up with our guns to match your guns and we'll talk about, you know, about who's going to talk to who about the food. Otherwise, just let us feed these people and we won't give you any trouble"--and that's basically what they did.


I think the secret history of the 504 sit-in--that almost nobody talks about it--is that we never, ever would have made it without the Black Panthers. The Black Panthers fed us dinner--and they fed 150 people of which only one was a Panther--every single night for the whole demonstration. We never would have survived without them. There's not even a fantasy that we would have survived without them. They kept us physically alive.

The first week was the toughest. It was funny because I think the feds figured, "Oh, they'll fight, or people will get cranky and get tired of sleeping on the floor, and get tired of sleeping in their sleeping bags and, you know, there are all these disabled people and da-de-da." What they really underestimated was our determination. We were high. We were ecstatic. There were 150 of us: some people were blind and some people were deaf, some people were retarded and there were all these nondisabled people and we were like--a lot of us who were disabled as kids had gone to crippled kids camp--we thought it was camp! [laughter] We didn't care. You know, we survived surgery! We survived hospitals! This was nothing! We had choices here. We could go to that inaccessible bathroom, or that inaccessible bathroom. We could go down the halls by ourselves, we were with our friends, I mean, they were never going to get us out of there!

Then they kept thinking, "Okay, well, there are leaders and we'll just wait for the leaders to screw up."

What they didn't realize was we, as a community, didn't function by leaders. You asked me earlier about CIL's administration--we didn't function that way. We functioned by kind of community consensus: when everybody was kind of ready to move, we moved. If a leader-type person said, I want to go off in this direction, and they could get enough people to go with them, then people followed; and if they didn't, then they said, "Well, that's not an idea whose time is now." But that leadership could come from anybody in the community. Hale could say, "Let's go fight about buses," and if enough people wanted to fight, we all followed Hale. Judy could say, "Let's go fight about 504." If enough people wanted to fight, we followed Judy. And if I said, "Let's go fight Planned Parenthood," people followed me. I mean, it wasn't like there was one leader.

The feds were looking for a model, a traditional power structure model of one leader, preferably a man. What they found instead was a bunch of women--because women were primarily--there were a couple of men, but it was like two men

and six women who were primarily the leaders of the 504 sit-in --just kind of talking to the community and hanging out and helping us all.

We would have meetings where we would make decisions as groups: Okay, the feds are saying this to us, do we want to do this? Or the feds are saying things like, There's a bomb in the building, you have to get out! We're like, "Yes, right, okay, fine." Or, "It's really dangerous for you to be here." "Yes, okay, fine." But they'd tell Judy or Ed, and Judy or Ed would tell us, and we'd all go, "Okay, fine, we're just going to hang out here."

It took about--I'd say ten days. The first ten days were really, really rough. There was almost--the Panthers were feeding us dinner, but we're sleeping on the floor, there were no shower facilities whatsoever. Nothing, nothing was happening, but we were having demonstrations outside, the media was starting to cover us, the local media was starting to cover us and the national media was beginning to get interested because all of the other demonstrations had folded at this point, and we were doing okay.

We were really doing okay. We were laughing, joking, and having fun. I was practicing my sign language, you know. [laughs] I was trying to interpret the news very badly one night. I remember somebody got out a little TV--

By about ten days in we were doing things like walking into employees' offices with people when they showed up for work in the morning. And when people called in for information on whatever department--I forget what all the different HEW departments were in that regional office--we picked up the phone when it rang and would say, "Hello, 504 sit-in," before handing the phone over to the employees. So we were impacting a lot of aspects of the building and the business. So cutting off the phones hadn't worked. Cutting off communication with the outside world hadn't worked. Denying us access to bathing and stuff hadn't worked. The disabled people knew they were going to be in for the long haul, and had brought plenty of medications and stuff. We were using the air conditioner to create a little fridge and we set up a little first aid station, so basically people were doing okay. We were camped out and we were in for the long haul. We realized about five days in that they couldn't beat us.

Also, each time another city folded, each time somebody else got thrown out or starved out or convinced out of their city's 504 demonstration, we got more determined that we

weren't going to give in. And about ten days in, the tide started to turn.

About this text
Courtesy of Regional Oral History Office, University of California, Berkeley,
Title: Corbett O'Toole
By:  Denise Sherer Jacobson
Date: 1998
Contributing Institution: Regional Oral History Office, University of California, Berkeley,
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