by David Croyle
A rally protesting the inaccessibility at the Kittanning Post Office turned violent yesterday shortly after 3PM when several customers chose to push through the human barricade of protesters that had the post office shut down.
The seven steps from the sidewalk to the landing in front of the post office has been a target for the past four years of disability groups urging the postal service to comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The Kittanning post office allegedly received $200,000 to renovate the structure. It included a new roof, new windows, air conditioning system, and sandblasting and re-pointing of brickwork on the outside of the building, including the steps.
Protesters arrived shortly after 1PM. Organizers Bill Tatters with the Disabilities Investigative Group (DIG) in Armstrong County and Victoria Campbell with the Three Rivers Center for Independent Living (TRCIL) in Pittsburgh went into the post office and attempted to speak with Kittanning Postmaster Dan Devey. Devey refused to come out of his office and held a conversation with them through an open doorway. He said he had talked with Campbell in the past and refused to continue a conversation or to come out to address the 30 protestors gathered in front of the post office.
Campbell and Tatters returned and protestors weaved a large chain between the rails of the post office steps. Protestors then sat at the top of the steps and parked disabled persons in wheel chairs at the bottom of the steps in an attempt to turn away customers attempting to do business at the post office.
Most of the postal patrons acknowledged the efforts of the protestors and drove away, choosing to either wait until another day or do business at another post office. However, it was shortly after 3PM when a family drove up in a car and attempted to enter the post office.
A girl described as approximately in her late teens with several large packages ignored the chain and the protestors and, with a deliberate action, began to make her way up the stairs. Campbell stood in front of the doors and told her she could not enter. At that point, another woman identified as her grandmother bolted from the vehicle and began to push her way through the crowd to the doorway, physically pushing against Campbell, who is only five feet talk, and threatening to knock her to the ground. Other family members also came to participate in the altercation and gained entrance into the post office.
Kittanning Police were called by the family; however, no arrests were made. Chief Ed Cassese said there is a question concerning the jurisdiction of Kittanning’s police department since the post office is considered a federal building.
“This is federal property,” Cassese said. “I have no jurisdiction on these steps. As far as federal statutes go, this is a federal building. Starting up those steps, that is federal property. I do not have the jurisdiction to take care of that situation. It becomes federal.”
Until the decision is made, Cassese said he was not releasing the names of the individuals involved in the altercation.
Campbell denied striking the grandmother. “I have plenty of witnesses that can testify that I did not lay a hand on her,” Campbell said. “She clearly threatened me and pushed me. They are welcome to do whatever they feel they need to do.”
Campbell said this reaction has not been a normal experience in her years of advocating for disabled Americans. “They are the type of element that wants in the spotlight. We gave her the opportunity and she took it. We just asked them to leave, that’s all. The grandmother got belligerent and pushed me, and threatened to knock me out. So we let them in. I did not want the situation to escalate under any circumstances. That defeats our purpose here. I wanted it to be a peaceful demonstration. We assured Chief Cassese that it would be. We had our arms out. In no way could we have touched her.”
When asked for comment, family members declined to discuss the matter, only alluding to a potential lawsuit.
When asked if she was coming back for another round of protests, Campbell replied, “Absolutely.”
The protest followed an early celebration in Kittanning’s Riverfront Park commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. County commissioners applauded the group’s efforts and read a proclamation honoring their work advocating for disabled persons in Armstrong County.