November 23, 2014
Prop. 8 and the Misery of the Law
Posted on Jun 4, 2009
By Scott Tucker
To protest against an injustice in the privacy of your home or conscience amounts to no less (but also no more) than an act of faith. That counts for something in the balance of truth, but only a public protest can begin to change public opinion and, finally, the balance of power. When protest proceeds from voicing dissent to taking action, of course the moral and political stakes are raised. To say “We do not consent to this law” is a strong statement, but may well remain within the bounds of legal dissent. To say “We will not be governed by this law” is a much stronger statement, and can be proved only by action in the public realm.
Nonviolent civil disobedience has gained a measure of public respect, especially when the causes of disobedience become causes of general self-congratulation with the passage of time. Persons who once went to jail become icons on postage stamps. Persons who were once disturbers of the peace might also be safely dead and no longer able to speak for themselves. So others speak for them, often politicians who will risk nothing that might derail a smooth career.
Abraham Lincoln, who helped to conduct a civil war, thus becomes an icon of patriotic consensus. Martin Luther King Jr., who helped to conduct campaigns for civil equality in the spirit of Gandhi, thus becomes an icon of racial harmony. These icons and legends are not absolutely false. But consider how much gets left out of the national story we tell ourselves in public schools and in public elections. Lincoln and King shared certain convictions about the predatory power of corporations, but what teacher would dare teach about this remarkable consensus in the usual public school history class? Indeed, both Lincoln and King noted that war had offered great opportunities for private citizens to concentrate wealth and buy political power.
Near the close of the Civil War, President Lincoln made this confession in a private letter to William F. Elkins dated Nov. 21, 1864:
If career politicians would dare to recite those words in Congress, rather than the usual pledges of allegiance to war contractors and corporate donors, then we might begin a proper national debate about the “money power of the country” and the destruction of the republic.
Lincoln and King maintained starkly irreconcilable convictions about the use of armed force in resolving conflicts. Surely their views belong in public memory and public debate. Instead, the general public is trusted only with commemorative spectacles, high-minded civic religion and outright state propaganda. In this way we use our national icons to stamp impressionable minds with sky-high ideals but with only a vague impression of history.
Many career politicians in Congress will not dare to speak as plainly on these subjects because they have been bought and paid for by corporate lobbyists. In turn, these politicians dole out legislative bills and contracts that benefit the usual military, insurance and pharmaceutical giants. But Congress is not simply an annex of the stock exchange; it is also the front office of the ruling class. This becomes plainer during times of war. Once in a while the mercantile side of militarism causes a public scandal, but for the most part this is treated as radioactive material and so it is buried in underground vaults for the good of the public.
Assimilation of women, national minorities and gay people into the halls of Congress is surely one measure of social change. But the upper echelons of the corporate parties do not yet resemble a diversity training brochure, and the closet is still a functioning institution in Washington. The Green Party of the United States offers social democrats and other citizens a chance to vote for peace, economic democracy and ecological sanity in some local elections. But great obstacles are placed in the path of any Green candidate seeking high office, and Congress hardly represents the views of class-conscious workers and of democratic socialists.
Since politics neither begin nor end on election days, there remains great scope for political action beyond the electoral cycle. Historical accounts that emphasize the climb to wealth, power and influence of gay and lesbian individuals can safely be written by others. Here I will underscore only a few events which demonstrate the right to rebel. These are events in which community action proved decisive, but they cannot do full justice to the scale and diversity of community-based social movements over recent decades.
On Nov. 27, 1978, Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were gunned down by former Supervisor Dan White in San Francisco City Hall. The citizens of that city grieved and waited for justice in court. When White, a former policeman and a member of the city’s political old guard, received a lenient sentence on a manslaughter count, there was outrage and disbelief among many San Franciscans. Especially in the gay community, with its long experience of police abuse (and in a menacing national climate of growing right-wing backlash), some decided enough was enough. Cleve Jones, who had been one of Milk’s friends and political aides, told a gathered crowd, “Today, Dan White was essentially patted on the back. He was convicted of manslaughter—what you get for hit and run. We all know this violence has touched all of us. ... I was there that day at City Hall. I saw what the violence did. It was not manslaughter, it was murder.”
On the evening of May 21, 1979, the gay neighborhoods erupted in protests that are now known as the White Night Riots (much as the gay rebellion after police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Manhattan, became known as the Stonewall Riots). At City Hall, members of the crowd tore ornamental work from the wrought iron doors and used it to smash first-floor windows. Some gay people tried to hold back the crowd, but they, too, were beaten with nightsticks when cops arrived. A dozen police cruisers were smashed and torched. Police retaliated with a rampage at a gay bar, beating patrons inside and on the streets.
The next morning Supervisor Harry Britt, who had replaced Milk on the Board of Supervisors, faced reporters at a press conference. The reporters, expecting an official apology, were shocked when Britt said, “Harvey Milk’s people do not have anything to apologize for. Now the society is going to have to deal with us not as nice little fairies who have hairdressing salons, but as people capable of violence. We’re not going to put up with Dan Whites anymore.”
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