(The op-ed doesn’t appear to be published online, so we’ve reprinted it in full on the next page.)
To be Worth the Effort, It’s Got to be Done Right
By Andy Thayer and Roger Fraser, Gay Liberation Network
In the wake of the new tide of energetic LGBT activists generated by the Prop 8 debacle, many are floating ideas for a national LGBT march on Washington. We think this is a good idea, but it’s got to be done right to be worth the expenditure of resources, especially in hard economic times like these.
Although a few commentators have ruled out all marches as ineffective, this is foolish, ahistorical and ignores the tremendous strides advanced by a few marches.
In particular, the single most effective march in U.S. history was the 1963 March on Washington organized by Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others. In its wake came a tidal wave of civil rights legislation. God knows that LGBT’s could use such a wave of national legislation, especially since we’ve seen almost NO such legislation pass Congress despite years of expensive lobbying by HRC and NGLTF.
There have been many failed marches since 1963. The question is, how can we duplicate the ’63 success? How do present efforts so far stack up against ’63?
For one thing, the 1963 march was meticulously organized. Organizers of the present march, however, failed to secure permits before announcing nationwide a march for the 2009 Columbus Day weekend in October. It turns out they failed to notice that other groups had already reserved the National Mall for the entire holiday weekend. In addition, Congress won’t even be in session on that weekend.
Worse yet, not only have the present organizers committed many of the same mistakes made by the organizers of the notoriously unsuccessful 2000 Millennium March, they have also added a fatal one of their own. The organizers of the Millennium March (HRC and the Metropolitan Community Church) maintained far too tight and top-down control, but they at least conducted an on-line poll to determine the principal demands of the march.
The handful of present veteran organizers, on the other hand, consulting no one but themselves, simply announced their demands when they announced the march’s time and place. This is no way to generate the enthusiasm and money necessary to bring hundreds of thousands to DC in the middle of a severe recession. (For example, stage and sound alone for a large national march run a minimum of $200,000).
So what should be done? For a start, similar to the earliest LGBT marches, open and well-publicized organizing meetings around the country will need to be held to generate maximum participation. Each meeting should formulate the demands of the national march and set up city-wide committees to generate local publicity, arrange transportation, and organize scholarships for those who otherwise could not afford to attend. Without this participatory democracy, it will be very difficult to sustain mass enthusiasm or generate the money necessary to put on a big event. (There is a possibility that a few wealthy benefactors will step up and contribute; but if past history is any guide, they will demand a disproportionate amount of undemocratic control in exchange for their largesse).
It is unlikely that the present organizers intend, or will have the time, to do any of the foregoing. But their most serious error is that they have so far ignored the critical political lesson that set the 1963 March on Washington apart from so many of its imitators.
The ’63 march made demands on power and threatened political retribution if those demands were not met.
While one of the main organizers of the present march hinted that the march would go easy on the Obama administration, that it would not be an “angry” march, Dr. King and others made demands on the Kennedy administration. The implicit threat was that the ’63 march would be a march against the White House if the Kennedy administration didn’t accede to its demands.
Kennedy had been desperate that summer to cement the two wings of the Democratic Party together (those representing northern big cities and the Dixiecrats), as well as to compete with the Soviet Union for the favor of newly independent Third World nations by concealing apartheid conditions in the southern states. The march, he knew, would be highly polarizing, and so his solution was to lean heavily on the organizers to call it off. The march organizers, to their eternal credit, stuck to their guns, continued with plans for the march, pulled it off, and thus forced the Kennedy administration to match its rhetoric with action by pushing for the first modern wave of civil rights legislation.
Following the inspiring example of the 1963 March on Washington, we must demand that Obama fulfill his pledges to the LGBT community: repeal DOMA, repeal Don’t Ask / Don’t Tell, legislate needle exchanges, and pass a strong, inclusive ENDA. We must demand he drop the Bushite “faith-based” funding and return to the time just a few years ago when he supported full equal marriage rights in the Illinois statehouse. And we must demand the president stop cozying up to anti-gay bigots, in the same way we would expect a politician to shun association with open white supremacists.
But make no mistake about it: Demands are stronger than requests because unlike hat-in-hand requests, demands, if genuine, have credible threats backing them up. We need to back our demands with the credible threat of sitting out en masse the 2010 Congressional mid-term elections if the congressional Democrats and Obama fail to get with the LGBT program.
This brings us to our last complaint against the present organizers: They’ve got the timing all wrong. They are calling for a march in the fall of this year when our political clout will be weak; it would be far more politically savvy to schedule the march for the spring or early fall of 2010, so that the threat of sitting out the mid-term elections carries real muscle.
Today the history books trivialize the 1963 march as a day of soaring rhetoric. But we’ve seen great speeches before and since. What made that day historic is that King and Rustin made demands on the White House, backed them up with a credible threat, and thus got the goods in the form of sweeping civil rights legislation. If rights is what LGBT’s want, we should attempt to emulate King’s and Rustin’s strategic prowess on that day.
Editor: We offer this column gratis for your print or web publication. Please email us a URL if you decide to run it. If you want to tag on short bios of the authors, here is some text you can use (feel free to edit for length):
Andy Thayer is co-founder of the Gay Liberation Network (www.GayLiberation.net), an LGBT direct action group which has been a local leader in gay rights, anti-police brutality and anti-war organizing, and was co-organizer of Chicago’s big November 15th Join the Impact protest. Andy was national co-organizer of the recent anti-Prop 8 “Day of Decision” protests and was Assistant National Protest Organizer for the successful Stop Dr. Laura campaign against hate radio hostess Dr. Laura Schlessinger. On May 16th he was among 30 LGBT activists arrested in the 4th annual Pride demonstration in Moscow, Russia.
Roger Fraser is also a long-time activist in the Gay Liberation Network and has decades of peace and justice organizing to his credit.
I would argue that no march has been successful. Saying that the 1963 march made a huge impact would be misleading. The reason that movement was successful was to fold. MLK was not afraid to go into areas where he knew he was unwelcome. I think more people remember him for his marches on Birmingham than his marches on Washington. Also, there was a huge grass roots movement as evidenced by people like Rosa Parks. To top it all off, MLK was gunned down after giving his most famous speech providing a martyr for the cause. On the other hand, the gay rights movement isn’t about grass roots (in community movements) and the larger organizations have done very little in the way of grass roots organization outside of larger more gay friendly areas. If you really want to make a statement with a march, don’t march on DC, march on North Carolina or Kansas at the centers of bigotry. When you go to Washington the majority of the country will basically think, “So what, who cares!” When you march on the home of Fred Phelps, every single person in the country is going to stand up and take notice one way or the other.
The Gay Numbers
Again it is about priorities. They have the wrong ones. As the first poster wrote- it would be one thing if they had built a national gay civilr ights effort. A march alone without that effort is a waste of time. It gets people together for 1 day rather than for the days, months and years that maybe necessary.
@The Gay Numbers: I don’t want to provide the wrong idea. I’m in favor of the march as long as its not going to cost a lot (we are in a recession and we need to think about any financial capital that is being expended by an organization). I don’t see the harm of a march. However, the same people that march better be willing to come home and get involved in their own local communities to promote change. Being recognized on the national level is important, but the change comes from the districts themselves. The United States congress has no duty to the United States. The congressmen and senators have a duty to the people of their districts that elected them, and that is where we need to hit.
I agree wholeheartedly that activists need to focus on our individual local legislators.
When jointheimpact focused the January protest on alerting Obama that we were going to hold him to his promise to help repeal DoMA I was confused. Obama can’t repeal DoMA-congress has to do that, if every Queerty-reader contacted their individual congresspersons asking for the repeal of DoMA & DADT- that would be HUGE!
And I’ll be at the march. We can do both
@Curtis Morrison: We should not ask. We need to DEMAND that these two laws be repealed and make it clear to our elected representatives that we WILL do everything legally within our power to ensure that they WILL be replaced with representatives who will meet these demands.
Even better – elect representatives who will subscribe to the Dallas Principles.
I would love to start with Shelly Moore Capito – my congressperson who voted AGAINST the Matthew Shepherd Act. I voted for her opponent last election.
@andy_d: Andy!I’m glad you brought this up. I’m an idealist myself. In the Milk Movie,however, Harvey could make demands of a San Francisco mayor because the gay and gay-friendly population was so large there.
In Kentucky, we’ve already demanded that Representative John Yarmuth and Senator Mitch McConnell introduce the bill to repeal D.o.M.A. (with demonstrations even!) Yarmuth, who is a liberal Democrat, said NO. Mitch McConnell, Republican and the Senate Minority leader never even acknowledged us. What am I getting at?
We just can’t make demands and expect the world to magically begin spinning around us. We must work to persuade our heterosexual neighbors that we “mean them no harm,” because without them as allies, we will remain a minority with authority too inadequate to make demands.
@galefan2004: Who gave you this idea that you are supposed to encourage saving money in a recession? During a recession, things that encourage spending — such as large events, parades, and marches — are GOOD for the economy and local businesses. They help, not hurt, the economy.
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