If there's an overriding theme to Taking on the System, my latest book, it's that we no longer have to sit around and wait for the gatekeepers to tell us what to do. We can engage in the world around us at our own discretion, focusing on the things we want to focus on, and no one can keep us out. The era of the gatekeeper is over (or at least dying), since their permission is no longer necessary.
A subtext of that overriding theme is that we are bypassing the gatekeepers precisely because they've done such a poor job of providing people what they want. In TOS, I use examples from the music industry, among others, to illustrate that point. When the gatekeepers provide a shitty product, people will organize to bypass those gatekeepers and end up doing a better job of it. Closer to home, we've seen how YearlyKos/Netroots Nation has put together better conferences than the so-called "experts", and while Netroots Nation may now be professionalizing (if "paying our volunteers" qualifies as "professionalizing"), it's amazing what a bunch of volunteers with little experience in event management pulled off the first couple of years of the conference's existence.
Technology and shifts in culture are empowering people to do the jobs that the gatekeepers once kept for themselves, and are doing a better job of it.
I'm reminded of that tenet as I watch the anti-Prop 8 protests spread throughout the country.
You will notice that the website of the biggest gay rights group in the country has one single mention - it's a blog about a celebrity, of course - of the massive protests that occurred for marriage equality across the country yesterday. (A letter from Joe Solmonese tells us to be nice.) You will also notice that a handful of young non-professionals were able to organize in a few days what HRC has been incapable of doing in months or years. You will know from brutal experience that in the two decades of serious struggle for marriage equality, the Human Rights Campaign has been mostly absent, and when present, often passive or reactive. Here's a simple statistic that might help shake us out of complacency: HRC claims to have spent $3.4 million on No On 8. The Mormon church was able to spend over $20 million, by appealing to its members. Why are non-gay Mormons more capable of organizing and fund-raising on a gay rights measure than the biggest national gay rights group? I mean: they claim (absurdly, but bear with me) 725,000 supporters and members. In the summer, the major problem for No On 8 was insufficient early funding. If HRC had led, they could have thrown their money weight behind it. If every supporter had given $20 - chump change for the biggest ever battle yet for civil rights - they could have delivered $14 million overnight. So why didn't they?
Because as a gatekeeper, the Human Rights Campaign sucks. Sullivan calls for the organization to be abandoned and defunded. But something worse is happening -- it is being rendered irrelevant by current events, and with irrelevance, it will shrivel up and die on its own. Paul Hogarth has just one example, of many I've heard, of how grassroots activists are running circles around the supposed gay "leadership".
Public outrage at Prop 8’s passage has not just been a few angry protests in the Castro, or righteous indignation at churches. People who never thought of themselves as "activists" have suddenly been spurred into action – and they’re using the same tools the Obama campaign used to win the presidency. For example, my friend Trent started a Facebook group called "Californians Ready to Repeal Prop 8." He expected a few hundred people to join, but in less than a week the group had over 200,000 members. Efforts are afoot to collect signatures for a statewide proposition – in 2010, or sooner if we have a special election.
This viral activism is in stark contrast to the "No on 8" campaign – where people relied on political leaders who failed us in waging a statewide effort. My first involvement with "No on 8" was in July, right after the San Francisco Pride parade. The campaign had just collected thousands of postcards at Pride, and our task was to call these people and recruit them to volunteer. But a lot of people come to SF Pride from across the state, and all the volunteer activities were in San Francisco. It was a lot to ask someone who lives in Monterey or Santa Rosa to come table at a Farmer’s Market in San Francisco for a day.
I asked the campaign why they couldn’t just get people to do "No on 8" activities in their own communities. They didn’t have to wait until the campaign could afford to open offices in other parts of the state. Online groups like MoveOn have perfected the model of using the Internet to connect like-minded activists to each other – and get them to meet in "offline" locations to push their political cause. My suggestion was ignored. Now we see spontaneous efforts – organized online via social networks, without any "leaders" – to lay the groundwork for a future Proposition campaign to restore marriage equality.
The anti-Prop 8 campaign was an exercise in frustration. What we're seeing now, straight out of Taking on the Ssytem, is brilliant. And the movement is spreading far beyond California's borders.
These nationwide protests are a watershed moment of sorts -- the moment when the gay community realized that it had the power to fight for change on its own, and didn't require any of it's so-called, self-appointed "leaders" to give them permission to engage. This isn't the first time a community has made that realization (and TOS is full of such examples), but it never fails to inspire me.
But what about the tactics -- the use of street protests themselves? It's no secret that I have a general disdain for the street act, but in my book, I don't call for their elimination -- I say they must be "reinvented". And indeed, the chapter "Reinvent the Street Protest" is full of great examples of .... street protests. I focus on the Jenna 6 protests, the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine, and the pro-immigration protests of a few years ago. The key to an effective protest effort is to have a clear message (no "free Mumia" bullshit), clear, achievable goal, and to make that protest effort part of a broader multimedia campaign. The protest can't be the goal in and of itself, rather, it's a tool in a broader toolbox.
In this case, these protests have served as a wakeup call to equality-minded people all over the country. It is an empowering act. But rather than people feeling they've done their part by marching for a few hours, I'm willing to bet that, just like here in California, the seeds were planted for further organizing all over the country. There is nothing more dangerous for the status quo (the "system") than people suddenly feeling empowered.
California will have marriage equality back soon enough -- either this week if the Supreme Court takes action, or the next time we have an election in the state (either 2010 or next year if a special election is called).
But I suspect history will show that the defeat of Prop 8, rather than halt momentum toward marriage equality (as I once feared), will prove the spark that launches the movement nationwide.
And none of that will be thanks to the so-called leaders at the establishment gay rights groups. The Human Rights Campaign can continue its star-studded black-tie galas that accomplish shit, while real grassroots activists notch real gains on the ground.