Dennis Billups: he helped lead a long, fiery sit-in – and changed disabled lives

“My mother used to tell us we had to be really good,” says Dennis Billups. “There were always two strikes against us – so you had to hit the third strike out of the park.” The “strikes” were being Black and being blind. And growing up in San Francisco in the 1960s and 70s, both were potential sources of open discrimination. “There were times when, even walking in our own neighbourhood, we would get: ‘You’re supposed to stay inside.’ ‘Don’t you have a dog?’ ‘Don’t you have a cane?’” At times this could turn physical. “Some neighbours would turn water on us and stuff like that.” Finding employment was also a challenge. “Being blind, they didn’t have to do too much except say: ‘We’re not going to hire you,’ or: ‘We don’t think you can do this.’ So it was a glass ceiling, more or less. I’m sure with my twin sister there was a lot more, being a woman, African American and blind as well, but she was a hell of a fighter.”

Billups is a fighter, too, albeit one whose principal weapons are determination, congeniality, optimism – and a mellifluous voice. Now in his late 60s, speaking on Zoom from the San Francisco public library, he still radiates an infectious positivity that helped him as a young man when he played a key role in a lesser-known battle for civil rights.

In the 70s, as the civil rights struggle against racial inequality had borne some results, a second, less conspicuous battle was still being waged – against disability discrimination. The decade was a turning point, a time when many of the rights and provisions that people with disabilities have gained were won. In April 1977, this call for equality came to a head with the 504 Sit-In, when more than 120 people with disabilities – Billups among them – took the radical decision to occupy the San Francisco offices of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW), where they remained for a staggering 24 days.

The sit-in took its name from section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which stipulated that no individual with a disability could be excluded or discriminated against by federal-funded entities such as schools and government offices. Bringing in section 504 would mean putting into place concrete provisions that could change the lives of people with disabilities – such as access for the blind and wheelchair-users on streets, on public transport and in buildings, along with disabled bathrooms and interpretation for the deaf.

The Nixon and Ford administrations both failed to implement it, citing the cost among other excuses. In 1977, Jimmy Carter’s incoming administration also tried to water it down and remove many of the provisions. They even invoked the phrase “separate but equal” – once used to justify racial segregation, pre-civil rights. After years of campaigning and legal battles, the disabled community finally lost patience.

Billups was then a 24-year-old student and was urged to go along to the demonstration by his sister, Deborah, among others. “She said: ‘Just go there and do something, I know you can,’” he recalls. “‘They need your loud voice.’” He set off with no idea he would be living in the HEW building for weeks. “I just told my mother that I’m going to a demonstration, I’ll see you later, maybe for dinner … When I got off the bus across the street, I’m hearing all these people cheering and talking about different things, ‘What do we want?’, you know, all of that stuff. And I’m saying: ‘OK, sounds good. What are we going to do?’” After standing in the HEW lobby for a few hours, Billups got tired, he says. “So I sat down in the middle of the floor. Then I started chanting, different kinds of old chants, We Shall Overcome and We Shall Not Be Moved, and it caught on from there.”

The government, however, refused to budge; the protesters, led by longtime campaigners Judy Heumann, Kitty Cone and Mary Jane Owen, met this stubbornness with their own determination and there was a standoff. But occupation had its challenges. On top of the usual logistics of bed and board, the disabled protesters had specific care and medical needs. Added to which, some of the activists went on hunger strike. Then the government cut off the hot water and phone lines; the protesters got round the latter by communicating in sign language from the fourth-floor windows to the street.

Billups has been referred to as the “spiritual leader” of the sit-in. Of this role, he says: “I was just making sure that we had our minds together to keep going forward and don’t look back. And to sing as often as we could, and to make sure that we checked on each and every other person around us, so that we could have that sense of unity. I went around the building, sometimes all night, doing cheering, doing counselling, doing listening, doing debating, that kind of stuff. I had to keep people up. I think that’s what I saw as my greatest gift: that I brought in the universal aspect with the meditation and spiritualism that kept a lot of stuff together.”

The sit-in received plenty of outside support – from the San Francisco mayor, George Moscone, to politicians, churches, charities, gay and lesbian groups, unions, community groups and, not least, from the Black Panthers, who provided free hot meals throughout the sit-in, in a similar spirit to the community breakfast programmes they ran at the time. There were few other people of colour involved in the protest, although one of them was Bradley Lomax, a Panther and wheelchair-user. When the Panthers invited Billups to join them, he accepted.

The protesters were not sitting around, either. There were meetings, discussions and even a public hearing. There was also singing, fun and games, not to mention more intimate encounters in a disused elevator. “Wasn’t involved in a lot of those,” Billups laughs. “But some couples stayed together after. I got married myself soon after, but she wasn’t in the building. Well, except for once …”

Finally, on 28 April, the protesters won and section 504 was signed into law. The events, and the movement that led up to it, were captured in an Oscar-nominated documentary, Crip Camp, produced by the Obamas. In the archive footage, Billups is a constant presence, marching, leading the singing, talking to the press and sporting some extremely fashionable 70s attire.

Billups evidently had internal resources of his own to draw upon, despite an unimaginably difficult start in life. His father was a longshoreman and his mother a community worker. He and his sister were born prematurely, and each weighed 2lb 2oz (960g). “You’re talking about the size of a handkerchief,” he says. “They didn’t think we were going to live. So in order to keep us alive, they gave us pure oxygen in the incubators, and the oxygen burned up the corneas in our eyes. We were called ‘the miracle babies’, because we actually lived and a lot of babies did not make it – and because we were Black and had what they called ‘the rich man’s treatment’.”

While his sister went to a specialist, live-in school for the blind, which also taught life skills such as cooking, Billups went to a public school among sighted children. Despite the lack of provisions for the blind in wider society, he had a “regular school experience”, he says. He was bright and studious and enjoyed singing in the choir. “My mother was pretty stern about making sure that we didn’t stay in the house,” he says, “that we got along with people and that we were able to do for ourselves. So we had to have a fiery spirit. They made sure that we were blind people who spoke up for ourselves.”

Raised a Catholic, Billups nevertheless developed a broad interest in Asian spiritualism. “I’ve been studying meditation since I was nine years old,” he says. He read whatever he could find in braille: Krishnamurti, Paramahansa Yogananda, Hare Krishna. After the 504 Sit-In, Billups continued his studies in psychology, sociology and African American studies at college. “Because I grew up with a mother who was community-oriented, and she always helped people, so I wanted to get into more of the social aspect … to help other disabled persons,” he says.

Billups’ communication skills led him to Silicon Valley, where he worked as a telephone operator and information specialist, working on the front desk for computer-chip companies throughout the dotcom era for 15 years. At the time, disabled people working in regular office environments were relatively novel, as was a blind man commuting by train, but perhaps thanks to the gains of the 504 movement, it became a learning opportunity for both him and his sighted colleagues.

But the bursting of the dotcom bubble meant the early 00s were a difficult time. Along with increasing automation, it eventually put him out of a job. His wife, Laura, became ill and died in 2010. His sister died a few weeks later. Then, in 2014, Billups was evicted from his home of 20 years. “I couldn’t find the papers that my wife had left for me,” he says. The mortgage company had sent him warning letters in print, not braille, so he was unable to read them and act in time, although the deeper problem, in his view, is the rampant gentrification of San Francisco, which has forced out African Americans and people with disabilities.

This stirred Billups into full-time activism. “You got to reinvent yourself,” he says. “Nobody’s really talking about disability rights or anything else like that. They’re all talking about: ‘You got to eat tomorrow’, ‘You got to make some money’, ‘You got to get a better education’, that kind of stuff.”

Shortly before his eviction, Billups had been contacted by the Paul K Longmore Institute on Disability, an organisation based at San Francisco State University dedicated to disability history and theory. They had been looking for him for five years, he says, to hear about the 504 Sit-In. “Everybody they talked to said: ‘Talk to Dennis.’” He has since done speaking engagements with the Longmore Institute, and participated in Patient No More, a virtual exhibition on the 504 Sit-In. He also contributed to the Crip Camp documentary, which brought him into contact with its co-producer Barack Obama. “He said to me: ‘When I first saw you, you really caught my eye because of all the stuff that you were doing and how you spoke.’ He was impressed by my energy.” Most people are, it seems.

The fact that it took 46 years for Crip Camp to tell the story of the 504 Sit-In speaks of the challenges the disabled community has continued to face. There is still much to be done, Billups says, and he has no plans to stop. His activism is concentrated on “better homes, better ways to communicate, better computers for the blind, stuff like that”. He is also planning on writing a memoir.

“I’m just trying to branch out and grow as a human being,” he says. “Talking about more spirituality. Especially now, when we have so much going on in our society. We have people passing of Covid and other stuff like that. And you have to maintain your concentration … Your mind and spirit’s got to be clear. It’s got to be balanced, and it’s got to be more peaceful. You can still fight, but you have to have reserves enough to have the power to be on a different level and try to raise humanity to a different standard. I realised being blind, I see a lot of stuff that other people do not. And my thing is to make sure that, in some way, I can radiate the glory of the Lord and the glory of the universe to everybody I meet.”

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