Here’s What Lt. Dan Choi + Robin McGehee Did Completely Right. And What Went Horribly Wrong

With Lt. Dan Choi still in jail, reportedly without a phone call, and five activists arrested at the San Francisco office of Nancy Pelosi, the coin is still spinning in the air as to whether today’s bi-coastal demonstrations were a success. Let’s break everything down, shall we?

Choi and Cap. Jim Pietrangelo chained themselves to the White House fence and were arrested; Get Equal’s Robin McGehee was taken in custody (and has since been released with a $35 fine) beforehand; and Get Equal’s members in San Francisco and D.C., who stormed Pelosi’s office, face their own criminal actions. Is this what organizers expected to happen? Well they certainly anticipated it: Part of their ultimatum was their promise not to leave until their demands were met or they were arrested. In all three situations, the latter scenario won out.

But today’s events were remarkable. Not just because of the publicity storm, but because America’s LGBT community was finally given tangible evidence that there is more to activism than donating to the Human Rights Campaign.

So what went well today? And what went terribly wrong?

Kathy Griffin‘s star power was exploited, then dumped. The real reason the Human Rights Campaign got anyone to care about its little rally in D.C. — in front of City Hall, no less, and not the White House or the Capitol Building — was because Kathy Griffin was a part of it. The gays love her, and so does the media. But it wasn’t a one-way transaction. Kathy was there to film the “issues episode” of her upcoming season of My Life on the D-List. Her cameras were rolling, and HRC was on board with giving Bravo full control over the event. Which meant that when Dan Choi took the stage after Kathy, he had the audience’s attention, and perhaps Bravo’s camera guys. But to reserve the element of surprise, he didn’t coordinate his White House handcuffing with her or Solmonese prior to joining Griffin on stage. Which means that when he left the HRC rally, Kathy was ostensibly confused as to whether this was part of the official plan. She opted to stay behind, with HRC’s Joe Solmonese, to take pictures and get more B-roll. Instead, she missed the real action at the White House, and so did her cameras. Alas, that might mean no footage of Choi’s efforts on Bravo.

The media wasn’t notified ahead of time. Much of the Twitter gabbing during Choi’s arrest centered on the lack of coverage from CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News as the rally as happening in real time. Why weren’t any of them reporting on Choi’s protest? Because they weren’t notified about it ahead of time. Cable news operates this way: If there is no video, there is no story. Sure, Wolf Blitzer can insert a “this just in” as he relays what he hears in his IFB, but unless they’ve got tape or a live feed, producers will not put it on the air. That’s how it works. And without advanced notice, they had zero time to coordinate the ordeal of getting a satellite truck in position, and a cameraman and reporter on the scene. Unfortunately, for events that are supposed to generate attention, not notifying the media represents a major oversight.

But they had a great two-pronged approach. First came the shock: Choi marching to the White House fence. Then the awe: Within hours everybody was notified that Get Equal was taking to Pelosi’s offices in SF and DC. If journalists were just getting wind of the first melee, they now had a secondary story to jump on.

They hijacked HRC’s rally. Normally we wouldn’t commend a group for taking over another organization’s event. That’s just rude, and it’s like, plan your own shindig, jerks. But HRC wastes millions of its donors’ dollars every year, so if anyone is going to make a HRC rally effective, it’ll be a third party. One with balls. Like Get Equal. From this HRC statement, it appears Choi wasn’t even supposed to speak at all, and instead, through a relationship with Solmonese, secured a chance to take the mic at the last minute: “There’s been some confusion about Lt. Dan Choi’s role in the rally. As Joe Solmonese was walking to the stage, Lt. Choi asked Joe if he could have a speaking role. Joe explained that it wasn’t his sole decision to make on the spot given that there was already an established program that included Kathy Griffin, other organization and veterans. After Choi then spoke with Kathy Griffin, she agreed to bring him up on stage and speak to the crowd during her remarks. Lt. Choi in his speech called on the crowd to march on the White House. Joe Solmonese along with Eric Alva and others felt it was important to stay and engage those at the rally in ways they can continue building the pressure needed for repeal. This does nothing to diminish the actions taken by Lt. Choi and others. This is the nature of social change and everyone has a role to play.” (Robin McGehee reportedly asked Joe Solmonese if she could take part in the rally, but was rebuffed; it was Kathy and Bravo’s rally, she was supposedly told.) But what was supposed to be a camera op for HRC and Bravo became the mere launching pad for Choi’s stunt. Nobody will remember the HRC rally for anything other than Choi taking it over. They got Kanye’d.

And made HRC look weak. Not that the org needs any help with that. “Today more than 1000 people showed up at a rally – 500 of which signed up to become more involved in the fight to repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,'” reads a separate statement from HRC. “Joe Solmonese along with Eric Alva and others felt it was important to stay and engage those at the rally in ways they can continue building the pressure needed for repeal. This does nothing to diminish the actions taken by Lt. Choi and others. This is the nature of social change and everyone has a role to play.” Sad, sad Solmonese. Nobody, except maybe his octogenarian donors, is even pretending this organization commands respect any more. Invited by Choi to join him in marching to the White House, Solmonese and Griffin, relays Americablog, “looked over at Dan when he asked them, for the second time, to come with him to the White House (mind you, they had no idea that he was planning to handcuff himself), and they just stared back at him. They were not helping engage the rally about how to build pressure – the rally was over, they were already off the stage, behind it actually, getting ready to leave behind a secure rope line to separate them from the crowd.” These are the memories that will be burned into the minds of attendees and anyone reading the coverage: Solmonese and Griffin stayed behind to do jackshit, and once again let other, more mobile and courageous heroes do the necessary dirty work.

They didn’t have a post-demonstration plan. It sounds like Get Equal and Choi expected he would be quickly released from custody, but that isn’t happening. Denied bail and a phone call, Choi has been muted — a problematic situation in the immediate aftermath of today’s events in this 24-hour news cycle. That leaves the demonstrations’ most public face offline, and instead Kathy Griffin is the one doing the talking. And controlling the debate. Here she is on tonight’s Joy Behar, making the jokes:

[flv: 650 400]

(No, we don’t know why there’s an “eatme” bug on the video.)

Instead, it should’ve been Dan Choi — on Rachel Maddow. To her credit, Maddow did hit today’s events, including the DADT hearings in the Senate, where former NATO Commander Gen. John Sheehan argued Dutch troops failed to stop genocide in the 1995 Bosnian war because of its fag soldiers.

They’ve ignited momentum. It’s one thing to tweet about the need for calling your lawmakers to push them on DADT and ENDA. It’s another thing entirely to give those keyboard types something tangible to rally around. Choi, McGehee, and Get Equal today did just that — something fifteen black tie galas put on by the Human Rights Campaign could never accomplish. Today’s activists stirred up intrigue and desire. But so too did the National Equality March, which both McGehee and her Get Equal partner Kip Williams were involved with. The momentum from the march has, arguably, already fizzled; its umbrella group Equality Across America exists in name only. But now that it’s burst on to the scene just days after its official unveiling, Get Equal has much work to do to keep the wheels turning. In the short-term, it’s working: There were rallies in Los Angeles and San Diego on Thursday; New York City will host one in Times Square at noon in front of the Army recruiting center on Friday. And one thing is clear: Not only does HRC not want to help them, they don’t want HRC’s help.

[photo via]