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AMC Theater Tosses Bishop William Barber for Bringing Disability Chair to See “The Color Purple”

StoryJanuary 04, 2024
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Civil rights leader Bishop William Barber joins us to discuss his calls for more awareness and justice for disabled people after he was kicked out of a Greenville, North Carolina, AMC movie theater last week when he went to see The Color Purple with his 90-year-old mother. Barber was threatened with trespassing and police forcibly removed him from the theater when the manager refused to allow him to use a specialized chair he carries to assist with an arthritic condition. “There was no attempt to accommodate,” Barber says of the theater’s discrimination on the basis of disability and the danger of its staff’s decision to call the police. “You cannot keep [people with disabilities] from enjoying what the rest of the public enjoys simply because they have some form of a disability.” He describes his meeting with the AMC CEO, discusses how the Americans with Disabilities Act is linked to the struggle for the Civil Rights Act, and says he plans to continue the fight for justice.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

We end today’s show with civil rights leader Bishop William Barber, who’s calling for more awareness and justice for disabled people, following his ouster from a Greenville, North Carolina, movie on Christmas week. He said AMC staff confronted him over his use of a specialized chair he carries with him and needs to use due to an arthritic condition he’s had for decades.

The reverend was attending a screening, the premiere of The Color Purple, with his 90-year-old mother the day after Christmas. The new musical adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel had the second-biggest Christmas Day opening of all time. Some of the original 1985 film was shot in North Carolina. The new film features the North Carolina actor Fantasia Barrino-Taylor as Celie, reprising the role she played on Broadway.

Bishop Barber says the staff refused to allow him to use his chair in the theater’s disabled section. Instead, they called the police to have him removed. Two officers arrived, escorted him out of the movie theater as the trailers played. Bishop Barber shared with us a video of the incident. This is a part of it.

POLICE OFFICER: I’m going to take you out.

BISHOP WILLIAM BARBER II: I cannot go out in good conscience.

POLICE OFFICER: OK. I’m going to tell you I’m going to remove you from the property, and I’m going to take you out, and I’ll charge you in my car. That’s fine.

BISHOP WILLIAM BARBER II: If you want to take me out and leave the property, then I’ll do that.

POLICE OFFICER: Yep, that’s what I want to do.

BISHOP WILLIAM BARBER II: I do it all the time.

UNIDENTIFIED: He’s been on Broadway.

BISHOP WILLIAM BARBER II: I do it all the time.

UNIDENTIFIED: It’s unfair.

BISHOP WILLIAM BARBER II: I’ve been on Broadway. Come on, y’all. I’ve been on Broadway. I’ve been in the White House with this chair. They’ve called an officer of the law.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, that was Bishop Barber being escorted out of the theater last Tuesday, the day after Christmas. He says his removal was a violation of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.

AMC theater released a statement that the company apologized to Barber and his family, and AMC chairman and CEO Adam Aron met with Barber this week. We’ll ask him about that meeting in a minute, but first I want to turn to Bishop Barber’s press conference from Friday, when he shared with the world what happened to him when he took his 90-year-old mother to see the The Color Purple.

BISHOP WILLIAM BARBER II: This week was going to be our time of reminiscing, knowing, Bishop Lowe, that this would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You know, a movie doesn’t stay in the theater forever. It has a season, and then other movies come along. It won’t be in the theater next Christmas. This was a once-in-a-lifetime thing.

The original plan was to see the movie on Christmas Day, but then we chose the matinée. And truthfully, I knew it would be so many people there. And I know, you know, she’s slower now. I’m slow. So I asked her would she mind doing matinée, not in the evening, when most people come, but 1:00, you know, 2:00, in the day, 3:00.

On Saturday, this coming Saturday, we’re having a major celebration of her birthday, even though she was born in November. And on Saturday in Piney Woods, a place most of you in the media may or may not know about, it’s one of the few free communities, communities that was always with free Black folk, mulatto, Black and Native Americans in eastern North Carolina. And on that day, we’re going to sing. And she said she wanted anybody in the community to come free — free food, free music. And the governor has decided to give her the Order of the Long Leaf Pine for her years of service in this state.

So this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. This week was planned out: see the movie this week, this time, enjoy the reminiscing, and then, on Saturday, to have this big gathering at home, outside, under tent. May I have a tissue? And then I had to get back on the road, because I’ve got to preach on Sunday evening for a national Watch Night service in Winston-Salem. Excuse me.

But our plans were interrupted when the managers of the AMC theater here in Greenville chose to call the police rather than accommodate my visible disability. For more than 30 years now, I’ve suffered from a form of arthritis that’s rare but one of the most dangerous forms, debilitating forms, called ankylosing spondylitis. Most of you in here, I’ve never talked to you about it. All you just see me doing is pushing on through. I walk now with two canes. I have to carry a high chair with me everywhere I go, because my hip is fused, part of my neck and spine, and I cannot bend to sit in a low chair, nor rise from a low position.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we are joined by Bishop Barber. He’s joining us today from Indianapolis, Indiana, because he always is on the road, president and senior lecturer at Repairers of the Breach, founding director of the Center for Public Theology and Public Policy at Yale Divinity School.

Bishop Barber, welcome back to Democracy Now!, under these terrible circumstances in all ways. You just met with the head of AMC, the largest movie chain in the world. Can you talk more about what happened? Here, you’re about to celebrate your mother’s 90th birthday, and the managers come and call the armed police and security guard to haul you out because you’ve got a chair you’ve sat in everywhere from the White House to a prison cell to accommodate your disability?

BISHOP WILLIAM BARBER II: Yes, Amy. You know, it’s quite absurd and tragic, not just for me, but what continues to happen to persons with disability. You know, the ADA came about because people refused to move and were arrested, and all kinds of things happened to them. Three officers, one security guard and two police with guns — and the police actually treated me better than the managers.

You know, I’m not ashamed of having a disability. In the Bible, Moses had a disability. Paul had a disability. Jesus was acquainted with sorrow. Down through history, God has used a lot of people with disabilities, from Fanny Crosby, who was blind but wrote hymns, and Isaac Watts, who wrote “Joy to the World” but had pain all of his life, Roosevelt, who had polio, and Wilma Rudolph, who had polio, and John Kennedy, who was ailing, Fannie Lou Hamer. The list goes on and on.

But I’m ashamed of going to a place in my own hometown and basically being stopped at the door and being told that my chair — not where I placed it. In fact, I’ve been in the same theaters before. As you noted, from the Vatican to the White House to prisons with this chair. But the chair was not going to be allowed because it was a fire hazard, when it’s not, where you place it. I always choose theaters that have the handicap cutout areas where you put wheelchairs or any other — it’s a specially cutout area where they put no other chairs there. And then being told by the person, “Well, go get a doctor’s note and come back,” as though getting a doctor’s note — if it was a violation of a fire hazard, why would a doctor’s note change that? Or being told, “We know who you are, but you’re still not going to come in here with this chair.” And then to be — for them to call the police, and because I debated them. And I had my right to challenge them. That there was this loud, boisterous, big Black man, I guess, and that I was trespassing, and they wanted me arrested for trespassing. And then, when the officers came, to suggest that to move me or to arrest me, they’d have to empty the theater, which is why I went on and went out, because I wasn’t going to disrupt everybody else’s day.

But I think about all the other people in the world, people who don’t get up and try to enjoy public accommodations because of their fear. And the law says you have to reasonably accommodate — you have to try to accommodate. There was no attempt to accommodate. There was an attempt to say, “No, period, end of story. You’re not coming in,” and in my own hometown. Of all the things we have to be fighting in this town — war, antisemitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, the fight for voting rights, the fight for living wages, the fight for healthcare — that these two managers would choose to fight me, to fight somebody who has a visible disability, and say no to me going in and watching a movie that’s about triumph and family — which is why my mother really wanted to see it on that day. She’s 90. I don’t know how much longer she’ll be with me, with us. But, you know, and her question was simply this, and with tears: Why? And, you know, she fought for openness and fought for civil rights. Why is it that two persons — and it doesn’t matter what color they are, you know.

We were even told, “Well, you should have called in advance.” First of all, the law does not say that. You don’t have to call in advance. But the fact of the matter is, we did. We had purchased seats in advance and made sure that there was a handicap cutout area. And yet we were treated like this.

It was quite absurd, quite tragic. And that’s why we have to fight. And it’s not about me. It’s about the millions and millions of people, some who never come out because they’re afraid something like this might happen to them.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Bishop Barber, if you could give us a little history lesson on the American Disabilities Act, its origins and what it’s made possible for people across the country?

BISHOP WILLIAM BARBER II: Well, you know, it actually tracks the Civil Rights Act of ’64. You know, it flows out of that same legal theory: equal protection under the law. And it was bipartisan. Senator Tom Harkin actually introduced it. And interestingly, George Bush Sr. signed it, I mean, yeah, in the 1990s.

And basically, you know, people had to sit down in restaurants, had to refuse to move. They had to bring whatever they used to be mobile, whatever they used to accommodate — be accommodated. And they were arrested, and sometimes beaten and kicked out and spit on, all kinds of things. But they refused to give up. They basically said, “We are not going to be denied.”

And what the law says is a public business — and theaters are included in that — you know, anything that’s public, you have to accommodate reasonably people. You cannot keep them from enjoying what the rest of the public enjoys, simply because they have some form of a disability, you know.

And there have been some tragic stories. Some years ago, a young man with Down syndrome was actually arrested and killed at a theater. He was asphyxiated and suffocated, all because people did not want to recognize his disability and treat him fairly.

AMY GOODMAN: Bishop Barber, why did you decide to leave with the police? Can you talk about what they threatened to do, this day, the holiday? I mean, The Color Purple blew other movies out of the waters, opened on Christmas Day, was filmed where you were, in North Carolina, in the state of North Carolina. They were going to clear out the theater if you insisted on staying?

BISHOP WILLIAM BARBER II: Exactly. The managers were insisting that. You know, Sister Oprah did a tremendous job for this movie, Fantasia and Oprah serving on panels that she’s convened. But, yes, the police — see, the manager said, “We want” — they said trespassing. And the police had to get involved because they made that call and made that accusation.

AMY GOODMAN: They’re going to charge you trespassing?

BISHOP WILLIAM BARBER II: Charged me with trespassing, exactly, after I paid to be there. And they said that because I debated them. They describe debating — and, sure, I debate strong and hard when you’re trying to take rights. I mean, that’s what I do. And so, if you are upset or angry or violent, then somehow that’s what made them so bothered that they wanted me out. They wanted me arrested for trespassing.

Now, the police literally kind of let me know they didn’t even want to be there. But what they said is, “If you don’t leave, we’re being told we have to clear this theater in order to arrest you.” So I said, “I cannot leave in good conscience. If you take out, I’ll go with you. I’m not going to resist arrest or this.” But what the police did, when they got me out, they left. They didn’t even try to stay. They said, “OK, we don’t really want to be here.”

Now, we were sitting on the outside, and a TV news station came, and we were talking to them. This manager came out with another security guard with a gun, saying we had to leave. I couldn’t even stay and wait on my mother to come out. I had to leave her in the theater with an attendee. And a young girl, who also has a disability — she has had epilepsy — and her mother, they wouldn’t let me stay there. And then, when we were leaving, the lady waved, like a taunting wave, as though she had won.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Bishop — 

BISHOP WILLIAM BARBER II: And I want to say, Amy, that —

AMY GOODMAN: Bishop Barber, you met with the AMC CEO, Adam Aron. He came to Greenville to meet with you. What were your demands of him?

BISHOP WILLIAM BARBER II: Well, I can’t say everything, but I can tell you we did not come to a resolution. We had a beginning conversation, and we agreed that some things need to be changed. He gave an apology. But, as I said, apology is about action, because this is not about me personally. It’s about me, but it’s about bigger than me, because if you will touch me, who else will you touch? Who else will be affected negatively? We agreed to a second meeting. Hopefully, we can really get down to the kinds of solution that needs to be happen that can be quantified and concretized and measured. This is very serious business. It’s very serious business. It is about the law. It is about our fundamental rights. I was glad that he came. I’m somewhat encouraged about him coming. But that was an initial conversation.

And while I agreed to confidentiality, you know, even my sense is that he received some distorted facts that I had to correct him. For instance, one of the things is very, very clear. When I finally went into the theater, I was stopped. They weren’t even going to let me go in the theater to even access where I could sit or what could be accommodated. When I finally went, I deliberately chose what I’ve chosen hundreds of other times, a cutout area that says “handicapped,” that’s designed for a chair, wheelchair, and was in a position to make sure that it wasn’t bothering nobody, wasn’t in the aisle. I have sense enough to know you can’t sit something in the aisle. But I set that chair where I’ve set it at Broadway and in other theaters. And it was when I got inside that then they brought the police. So, part of the day, the other day, was clarifying for him really clear, because, you know, his people have talked to him and distorted the record.

But we’ve got, hopefully, another conversation, and we’ll see after that one, you know, where we are on this. But we cannot let this go, because it’s too important to too many people. As I say, I think about the people who just every day say, “I would go, yeah, but I’ll just stay home. I’ll just stay home.”

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Reverend Barber, we just have a second, but if you could talk about how you’ve used your own experience, your own health issues, to draw attention to the lack of adequate healthcare for a lot of Americans?

BISHOP WILLIAM BARBER II: Well, you know, you have a certain empathy when you have it. I think every day, I have healthcare, but what about people suffering from ankylosing that don’t, 87 million people in this country who are either uninsured or underinsured? You know, I have some resources to even buy a chair or to see the doctor, but what about the more than 100-plus million people who are poor and low-wealth? You know, poverty is the fourth-leading cause of death right now in this country. What about persons like that, that don’t have an opportunity?

I think your pain in life is supposed to make you more committed to standing with others, to serve with them and to challenging systems of injustice, that pain should bring a certain empathy, a certain sympathy and a certain kind of courage. You know, any time, any day I want to quit or just stop, I look at people who are even in worse situations than me, and I say, you know, “You cannot stop simply because you have a challenge.” And the fact of the matter is, historically, some of the people with the greatest challenges — and one of our greatest presidents in this country had polio. Today he probably couldn’t get elected, because people would be more focused on his chair than his heart and his mind. And that’s tragic. You know, one of our greatest civil rights leaders, Fannie Lou Hamer, some people today wouldn’t want her, because she had a serious disability named polio. But thank God that she turned her pain into some kind of power. Didn’t mean it didn’t hurt and it wasn’t frustrating, but —

AMY GOODMAN: Bishop Barber, we have to break now, but we’re going to continue our discussion with you. And I just want to ask: Did you ever get to see The Color Purple?


AMY GOODMAN: Bishop William Barber, president and senior lecturer at Repairers of the Breach, founding director of the Center for Public Theology and Public Policy at Yale Divinity School. In our post-show at democracynow.org, we’re going to ask you about your piece, “Evangelical Appeal to Moral Case for Cease-fire” in Gaza.

That does it for our show. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

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