COLUMBIA — Karin Davis peeked through the curtains of a window in her apartment near Douglass Park.
The paratransit bus was scheduled to pick her up at 5:50 p.m. to take her to the May 6 City Council meeting, but it's often early, she said.
When the bus arrived, Davis, 65, began the exhausting process of leaving her apartment. She struggled to hang a tote bag to the back of her motorized wheelchair, which she’s used since breast cancer ravaged her body 15 years ago. She had trouble maneuvering around her furniture and her cat's toys. She was panting by the time she closed her apartment's door with her grabber and locked it.
Then she steered down two concrete ramps to the parking lot, where a paratransit employee was waiting with the wheelchair lift ready.
The ride cost Davis $4, there and back. That's no small amount for her. With disability and Social Security providing her only income, she lives in a Columbia Housing Authority apartment on Pendleton Street and depends on Medicaid and Medicare to pay her medical bills.
It was a lot of trouble just for the three minutes of speaking time available to Columbia residents at council meetings, but Davis felt she had to protest the recent decision to spend $227,000 on an armored vehicle for the Columbia Police Department.
"It just doesn't smell right," she said.
The strength to speak out
The disability that makes it so hard for Davis to practice her activism is what got her involved in the first place. A decade ago, she served as president of the residents' association at Paquin Tower, a housing complex for people with disabilities. In an effort to bring the community together, she started a monthly newsletter, the Paquin Beat, recruiting fellow residents as reporters.
"People were getting into cliques — one disability not talking to another disability — so I started the newsletter to promote unity," Davis said.
Rosie Umstattd, who worked in the the tower and has used a wheelchair since getting polio at age 3, remembers how the newsletter energized the community.
"That was a big deal because it really opened some doors for other residents," Umstattd said. "It let them see that they could do something more than sit on their butts all day."
Poor health forced Davis to set aside her activism two years ago. After her intestine pushed itself through her abdominal wall into her stomach, an ambulance took her to University Hospital, where doctors stuck a breathing tube down her throat and performed emergency surgery. She thinks she came close to death.
Now that she's regained some strength, she's becoming involved again. Last year, she sat outside city hall to protest enhanced enterprise zones and made phone calls for U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill's campaign until it became too taxing for her. Lately, she's been attending meetings of the Columbia Disabilities Advocacy Network.
"I am always proud because for a woman of her age, she's so full of life," Umstattd said. "Her disability creeps up on her and saps her energy from time to time, as it does all of us, but her brain is just as young as it's always been."
Davis credits her friend Tyree Byndom, a Douglass Park activist, with helping her become more involved. With his help, she plans to offer classes teaching local kids to make art with sidewalk chalk.
"She's told me about some of her trials and what she's dealt with," Byndom said. "It's rare to have that resilience. She's made me a better person."
Before the council meeting, Davis became agitated — "ticked off," in her words — talking about the armored vehicle. She thinks it will be used as a "tool of intimidation" against the black community.
Davis is white, but she's lived in black neighborhoods since she was 19, when her family threw her out for having a child with a black man.
"That was not accepted in those days, so basically I was put out of the house with my dress on my back, my pocketbook and my baby and my stomach, and I had to make it from there," she said.
Spending time in both communities has given Davis a passion for healing racial divisions. She used several analogies to show her belief that all people are connected, describing us as mushrooms that share a network of roots, and a stew made delicious by its variety of ingredients.
She planned to give her speech to the council "off the cuff," but she had some ideas about the points she wanted to make. She would offer other ways to spend the money that would help the black community, especially its youth: Plant flowers in Douglass Park to discourage people from committing crimes there; fund art, music and sports programs at public schools to give kids constructive things to do; help the kids find jobs.
She wasn't nervous about appearing in front of the council. Her only worry was that she would break out in tears.
Her 24-year-old grandson is one of the "lost boys" she wanted to tell the council about. He's served time in prison for dealing drugs — "the ones that make you look like you're 30 when you're 20," she said. She hasn't seen him in years because she's worried that if he comes for a visit, he'll be caught with drugs and get her kicked out of the apartment complex.
A half-hour into the council meeting, Mayor Bob McDavid asked if any members of the public had comments. Davis steered her wheelchair to the podium.
"My name is Karin Davis, and I want to talk about the armored vehicle," she said, her voice raspy after almost 50 years of heavy smoking.
McDavid politely told her the comments had to pertain to the topic the council was discussing: the closure of a well on Oak View Drive. She would have to wait until the end of the meeting for her three minutes at the lectern. Davis apologized and retreated into the audience.
Now she became concerned. It was 7:27 p.m., and the paratransit van was coming to pick her up at 9. There were 54 more items on the agenda. Would she get to speak?
After a 50-minute discussion of Columbia Water and Light's annual renewable energy report, it became unlikely. But she stayed.
Finally, at 8:50, she pulled her wheelchair into the aisle and left. The paratransit van awaited her outside in the warm, breezy night.
On the ride home, Davis was irritated and disappointed, both with the council and with herself. She confessed that she stayed out of the armored vehicle debate until it was too late, counting on more prominent community members to do the fighting. It was only after she heard that the council voted to buy it that she felt an obligation to speak out.
Still, she felt there should have been more time for public debate on the vehicle, which was discussed at the March 4, March 18 and April 1 council meetings.
"I'm irritated because the public didn't get a chance to speak. It's like they hurried it through before people got all wound up about it," Davis said.
The meeting wasn't a total loss. She ran into some old friends there. She was glad she went.
"They weren't going to change their mind just because I went up there to speak so eloquently," Davis said, laughing.
Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.