May First – a special day for a multitude of reasons
May Day is recognized around the world as a celebration of international workers’ solidarity. This event, which eventually produced the momentum for the eight-hour day and the other basic rights of workers (under attack again today) began in Chicago, sparked by the deaths of the Haymarket Martyrs, scapegoated victims of agents provocateurs. Their courage is personified by the last words of August Spies, before he was hanged: ““The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.”
It’s also Beltane – the change of the season, a celebration of the sun, of rebirth, of growth, the return of life – hope.
And May 1, 1965, was William Thanet French’s birthday. His too brief life reflected both the courage and vision of the Haymarket Martyrs and the hope and joie de vivre of Beltane.
Imagine this: For one day – just 24 hours – you have taken a medicine that makes reading incredibly difficult. You read, at best, at about a third grade level. Your math skills are similarly degraded. Another pill creates the physical and speech impairments that mimic a mild stroke, not quite identifiable as an illness but noticeable enough to mark you as “different.” Despite these challenges, you are plunged into a situation where you have two choices: perform the tasks of a normal adult with consistent competency or lose your autonomy – perhaps forever. Imagine trying, failing, trying again – and again. Think about how easy it would be to give up in despair, turn your life over to those who tell you that you likely won’t ever acquire the skills this culture insists are the most important attributes of an independent citizen. Try to balance your bank account, plan your budget, read the fine print on an agreement for a cell phone, negotiate social interactions, shop for your food, cook it, pay for your insurance. Don’t drop a ball – make one significant error and, like a goalie in a National Hockey League game, your error will be announced by the equivalent of a glaring light, and 40,000 people standing up and screaming at you. You lose – everything. Most importantly, don’t get sick. Not seriously sick, not ever, because the moment you can no longer care for yourself, you may find everything you fought for destroyed. Your independence, your freedom – gone. Your right to choose where you live, what you eat, vanished. You will be cared for by poorly trained, minimum wage workers who may or may not be particularly concerned about your well being – their supervisors, after all, have little concern for them.
Twenty four hours. Try it. Imagine it. Will lived it for about 400,000 hours. During those years of fighting, he encountered and vanquished some remarkably powerful enemies – the expensive private schools in Texas that left him abused and with PTSD, the public school system in Tucson that instilled in him a hatred of the word “special” in all it’s manifestation, and the Ray Graham Association, who spent years trying to ensure he never achieve his goals in order that they could continue to profit by his dependence. He fought the pharmaceutical company Bristol Myers Squibb, who enrolled him in a double blind placebo trial for their melanoma drug Ipilimumab, randomized him into the placebo wing (by all indications), ensuring his stage III melanoma advanced to stage IV, and then refused him access to the actual drug under their compassionate use program when it proved effective but was just short of FDA approval (It’s now approved, marketed as Yervoy, and cost $30,000 per infusion).
All of the institutions that exploited Will tried, unsuccessfully, to strangle his voice. He kept speaking out, kept fighting. He never faltered, never once considered laying down his weapons and surrendering. No retreat, no surrender, and we fight on for him.