Radio — Disability justice, pandemic mutual aid, and fighting to defund the police

Sarah Jama is a young organizer in Hamilton, Ontario who has been involved in a wide range of different kinds of grassroots work – prominently including struggles against anti-Black racism, working for disability justice, and a whole range of other things. Scott Neigh interviews her about the trajectory of her organizing, particularly her work co-founding the Disability Justice Network of Ontario, and her involvement right now in both a large-scale mutual aid project responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and in the current uprising against anti-Black racism and police brutality.

Jama had a few experiences of going to protests and trying to speak back to power as a high school student, but it was really in university that she started to understand oppression in systemic ways and immersed herself in grassroots politics. She got involved, she said, in as many student groups as she could. She was active in student union politics. She participated in Palestinian solidarity work and played a major role in founding the university’s first student-run service by and for people with disabilities. And in her final year, she was the president of the McMaster Womanists.

One of the first off-campus actions she was involved in planning was a low-key vigil in a local park in the aftermath of some of 2015’s high-profile killings of Black people by police. The vastly disproportionate response by local police to this action pushed her to start thinking in new ways about what needs to happen to make systemic change.

Around this time, she got more involved in electoral politics, which gave her a deeper understanding of how mainstream insitutions work and how they can be pressured to create change. She interned in the office of a city councillor, co-chaired a successful municipal election campaign, and played a major role in a successful campaign for a federal seat.

Even in the middle of that, however, she remained involved in more grassroots activities too. A major piece of her work was co-founding the Disability Justice Network of Ontario. Disability justice is a political framework that originated with US-based arts collective Sins Invalid. As they articulated it, disability justice seeks to go beyond single-issue and accessibility-focused disability politics and instead offers an intersectional, anti-capitalist, and transformational vision for collective liberation. The Disability Justice Network of Ontario is particularly focused on building capacity, including collective political capacity, among youth with disabilities, particularly who are racialized and queer.

Most recently, Jama has brought her understanding of disability justice to her involvement in local grassroots responses to two great crises of the moment.

Soon after the magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic became apparent, the Disability Justice Network and the Hamilton Student Mobilization Network started a mutual aid project called CareMongering Hamilton. Mutual aid is the practice of ordinary people collectively supporting and caring for one other, often when mainstream systems can’t or won’t, and often as part of larger efforts to push for change. From an initial, ad hoc, Facebook-based process, the sheer scale of the need plus the risks around infection mean that these days the group’s main focus is a more centralized and systematized distribution of food kits to people who need them.

Jama differentiates its work from mainstream emergency food systems by pointing to their refusal to surveil and police recipients, their focus on not just meeting needs but building relationships and community through actively involving people, and their elaboration of a set of principles – including the disability justice framwork, prison abolitionist politics, and more – that both inform how the work happens and that are regularly part of communication within the project.

In the middle of the pandemic, we have of course seen a massive, continent-wide uprising against police brutality and anti-Black racism. Her city has seen a number of public actions so far organized by different people and using different approaches, but the group of young organizers that Jama is part of decided that their first action would draw on existing experiences of local organizing around anti-Black racism and policing to articulate a set of concrete demands focused on defunding the police, removing police from educational instutions, and adequately resourcing communities. They are in the middle of working with others in their community and across the province to put together a sustained campaign to win these demands.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out our website here. You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

Image: GoToVan / Wikimedia

Theme music: “It Is the Hour (Get Up)” by Snowflake, via CCMixter

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