American Sign Language at Occupy ICE

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Air date: 
Mon, 10/01/2018 - 9:00am to 10:00am
American Sign Language interpreter Andrew Tolman interviewed by Desiree Hellegers



In the first of a two-part segment, Desiree Hellegers interviews American Sign Language interpreter Andrew Tolman about the nationally ground-breaking work of providing sustained access for deaf and hard of hearing activists involved in OccupyICE Portland. A transcript of today's interview can be found below. The second part of this interview, with deaf activist and former candidate for Portland City Council, Philip J. Wolfe, will run on October 15.

You can listen to this inverview by using the play button below the written transcript.

The segment begins with Andrew Tolman speaking:


AT): [The] Deaf Community showed up at Occupy and at the Abolish I.C.E. protest before there was any interpretation worked out. They sort of brought us to the field and it was beautiful to see how the community of Portland and the culture of Portland responded from each of its separate - you know - different smaller communities; we really banded together and created something amazing. So the camp saw that there was a Deaf presence at the protest and reached out on Facebook and I just happened to see it get shared and responded and also had about eight or nine other amazing interpreters who ended up responding to that call over the course of the next few weeks. There are so many times that the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Community are doubly or tripley affected by issues that we all talk about very often and... and when we fight those issues, the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Community is not involved in that fight back. So they are left out of the problem, and they're left out of the solution, and to see the way that everyone at Occupy I.C.E. - and, since the camp, the entire Abolish I.C.E. movement here in Portland has been... I mean people should take notes, really from them, it was unreal. It's still to this day - to today, literally today - the way that they still want to interact with the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Community, make sure information is getting out... when the campsite moved officially to City Hall they made the very first announcement video of it officially accessible. People that saw it had the opportunity to see it in whichever language they wanted to and not have to depend on a friend transcribing it for them, but to see it in ASL. That’s a specific call that rarely comes out. And that call got to come out at every stage of the Occupation and it was incredible to see.


(DH): So it raises questions about how Portland's access, which was extraordinary, might have compared to other Occupied I.C.E. Camps around the country, but more to the point the way in which it contrasts to access within the city and within other public spaces including broadcast journalism, because I know that you mentioned the dynamics of actually being cut out of the frame...


(AT): *laughs* yeah


(DH): ...while you were providing ASL translation.


(AT): Yeah when we… we’ve interrupted interviews and said ‘Hey you're cutting us out’. I have personally showed up to places where I wasn't hired on but me - and, and there are, and I'm not the only interpreter and I'm also inspired by the Deaf people who go and do this themselves - but I just will show up to an event and say ‘This information needs to be out there. If someone's going to be making an announcement, it's going to be on film, it should be interpreted’. And if not interpreted, at least given through a Deaf person. Which I would much rather you know, in... in the perfect world we could have Deaf people in the media giving the news in ASL more than just a few that exist. I don't want to take away from The Daily Moth Sign One News. There are  already agencies like this that exist, that travel the world that give that information in ASL, but they're not mainstream. And if we had just one media, one channel - you know - in Portland give that and create a standard, they would see the instant result. You know, we talk about in business, like, your “R.O.I.” - your return on investment, I mean it would be instantaneous and everyone else would have no other choice but to follow suit. But it just takes that trust and that heart of wanting to include people, and doing something like this, where KBOO has been interviewing people from all different perspectives from the Occupy camp and have also been including the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing community and wanting to talk about how important that inclusion is from, you know, an interpreter perspective. and what that meant for us… and, and what our roll in that was. To highlight every perspective of that is unprecedented. And, everything we've done is been revolutionary everything has been total anarchy, anti-system, anti-money and capitalism, and we just make it happen and it's, it's incredible.


(DH): Amazing. that the city with all its resources, fails to provide, and, you know institutional bodies that are doing media, fail to provide that access. Even, when you're on site and trying to provide it, to cut you out of the frame.


(AT): I mean this the fact that the City Council holds its public forums every Wednesday and does not have Sign Language Interpreters there regardless of a request is ridiculous. It's not that they don't have the money for it, it's that it’s not a priority. And if people want to use that as a campaign platform then they need to live up to that as I soon as they are elected. And we have yet to see that from anybody. We've seen a lot of lip service. We saw a lot of it during the City Council campaign recently that happened when Philip J Wolfe was running, but not only just Philip, many many Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Portlanders have been showing up to these events, who’ve been showing up to City Council who have been trying to get their voice heard and are not given the opportunity to do it. Let’s, let’s really like, hold these people accountable. And, you know especially now: we have two amazing women running for City Council, Joanne Hardesty is one of them who - and I mention her specifically because she showed up to the Deaf Forum that, again, was a historic moment. Run by Deaf people in the community, started by Deaf people made completely, completely accessible with live captioning, Deaf Certified Interpreters through hearing interpreters, other language services, physical mobility access. They brought the money together. They made it happen. They brought the resources [chuckles] and were under budget and it was incredibly successful. People from other states - from Washington - showed up, people who couldn't even vote showed up to make that happen. And she stood there and said ‘I'm going to serve you I'm going to represent you’ and has yet to make that a priority in her campaign. And I don't see these people saying ‘Oh there's no Sign Language Interpreter at this Forum, I'm... I'm not going to’, you know, ‘be here until you make it accessible’ not one single person has done that. These are your voters too, these are your people. These... you know Mayor Wheeler and Commissioner Eudaly, and Fritz, and Fish have all spoken a lot on this and I think that in 2018 many different groups are sick of lip service and are ready for action. And if Occupy can do it with no money and no resources, and you know, you want to call people, you know, “homeless” and “garbage” and “revo…” and, and “anarchist”, “those dirty Antifa people” and whatever they try to label us as, but we were more successful at providing access and information, and empowering communities than they have been in the, you know, in the entirety of their work so…


(DH): With very Limited resources…


(AT): Oh, my gosh. I mean, we made it happen with tarps and planks and, and a team of people on... on iPhones, just messaging each other. Facebook messaging each other ‘Can you show up’? ‘Can you do this’? ‘YUP!’ ‘We’ve got it.’ I mean, we were there every single day until the last maybe week. And we had people who went out of town, just, you know, became busy. We're also professional Interpreters in the community so we all have to work. And we try to be there from the morning to the night sometimes. Being willing to stay until 2 in the morning standing against the police tape with guns in our faces - this is not something Interpreter programs teach us to do. This is just something that was asked of us and we all responded. And I feel like other Occupations can do the same. Other revolutions can do the same. I mean having a Deaf Black Lives Matter leader would be incredible. And they already exist, just give them the spotlight. Let them do an interview! Women who are, who are champions of the #MeToo movement who are also Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing need to be heard and need to be given a platform. Survivors, and victims, in families [that have experienced] police brutality - we see it again, and again, and again that Deaf people are murdered by police because they are thought to be non-compliant, and really they just can't hear. And it's sickening to think that those people have to suffer with that alone and are not given access to the healing, and to the groups, and to the revolutions that are changing lives everyday. You know, that's... that's the next step is allowing those communities to fight back and to heal and to do it themselves and I don't want to be the Interpreter for these forever. I want to see the Deaf people be out there and getting to talk to themselves about it. I want the Deaf people to to bring me on because the hearing people don't understand it and when hearing people realize that they don't know ASL and when those messages are put into English that's when we realize how much we've been missing. Like that's real, real inclusion and Occupy did that, the city could be doing that. We have every, every resource available for that.


(DH): You really feel like this access issue and Occupy is changing other dimensions of Portland organizing?


(AT): To use a tangible example, Teressa Raiford is running for Mayor in 2020 and I know for a fact that her campaign is trying to prioritize networking with Sign Language Interpreter agencies to make pieces of her campaign accessible as she moves forward into that, and that's something that probably would not have happened 5 years ago... 10 years ago… It's not that that any of these racial equity problems are new, it's not that any of LGBTQ problems are new, and it's not that the lack of accommodations is new. It's that we are at a point where it should be common sense and it's not, and people are fed up with it. Now you're hearing it because now there's interpreters in more places.


(DH): Yeah, you were talking about the experience of providing interpretation. iIt's a very physical act right…


(AT): Mmhmm


(DH): front of a bunch of heavily-armed DHS officers primarily, right? Would have been less Portland Police then, then DHS.


(AT): Yeah.


(DH): Yeah, and how was that?


(AT): I mean… Terrifying. It is forces... because interpreters have to remain neutral, because we're to judiciously provide communication access without any of our own personal opinion marring the, the transition of language through our bodies... it's scary enough when you are protesting and you have armed officers, and not even armed police officers, but the Department of Homeland Security is armed and in your face. Whether or not the interpreters there in that moment agree with the movement itself, we are hired on to speak and say whatever comes out.


(DH) And in this case, there's no money, right?  You’re doing this as a volunteer, so…


(AT): Right, and we’re doing it for free and so we're standing pro-bono out in the streets interpreting, looking officers dead in the eye. And we had interpreters who joined our team who had just graduated, you know, months before Occupy started. No “101” for that. [Laughs] There were times when I was standing right next to people who are arrested violently while, while live streaming myself and providing access to the information that was happening in that moment. There was actually... and I forget his name right now but there are... I believe it was Justin-- he was at Occupy Portland years ago and provided Sign Language Interpretation for some of the meetings and was arrested, and was injured just for, for being there providing interpretation. So that was a dynamic that we had to deal with the whole time, was we could be arrested and charged at any time and you can't just say ‘I'm just the Sign Language Interpreter’, because on the front lines usually that doesn't matter. And our involvement there was at every vigil, every escalation, every de-escalation, every meeting. We were there over nights during when they would blast music at the camp and people couldn't sleep. We were interpreting for people who hadn't slept well for days and weeks, who hadn't eaten well for days and weeks, and there's a lot of emotion that we’re also channeling. You know, like I mentioned before, it's not just English on your hands but you are a channeling that person's intent and their emotion and their inflection and... and their their goal for that statement. Where they're going with their point. There's a lot that we have to build in a whole other language and be doing that back and forth back and forth for hours. It was unreal and terrifying and required a lot of in the moment compartmentalizing and a lot of… a lot of discussion about some deep vicarious trauma that still…


(DH): Yeah, tell… Do you want to talk more about that, like?  from having witnessed the violence that was unleashed? because there was a tremendous amount of police violence and targeting…


(AT): There was a ton, a ton--


(DH): … of very disciplined non-violent protesters.


(AT): Absolutely. Every single incident of police brutality at the Occupy I.C.E. Movement and while we are in the Occupation was unwarranted. They committed psychological and physical warfare on us. For me personally, there were nights literally where officers followed me to my car. [I’m] providing a service and they don't care. Then have to kind of, come home and the, and the nine of us take care of “Hey how did you feel about having that Officer today”, “Hey you saw that you got pepper bombed today while you were trying to interpret are you okay.”


(DH): Are there laws in place that inoculate you for your involvement?


(AT): *Laughs* I would say no, and that might be my ignorance. I know that I mentioned the gentleman earlier from Occupy Portland, but otherwise nothing like this has ever happened before.


(DH): You’ve been listening to an Interview with Andrew Tolman about American Sign Language Interpretation at Portland Occupy I.C.E. encampment and with the ongoing movement to Abolish I.C.E. This has been Desiree Hellegers for The Old Mole Variety Hour.


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