While LGBT people argue fiercely over pros and cons of marriage, and decry the money spent by those who oppose their views, a lot more money is about to be poured out in a torrent. Those LGBT dollars will have to pay bail, lawyer fees, court costs, lost time from work. There will be lost jobs, lost careers, lost homes, bankrupt businesses, maybe even lives and families destroyed. Maybe even some brand-new LGBT marriages destroyed when one spouse winds up behind bars. Today a prison or jail sentence can come at a lethal financial and economic cost.
I'm talking about the 100 protesters who were arrested in San Francisco Tuesday, and the hundreds more who will be arrested tonight and tomorrow and onwards in Los Angeles and a hundred other cities. For some of them -- those who may shortly be shocked to find themselves facing a stiff sentence when they thought they'd spend a few days behind bars -- life as they know it may now be over. All because of recent changes in U.S. state laws that affect peaceful protest.
From time to time, over the past decade, Americans' diminishing freedom to protest peacefully has actually been covered in the independent media. I've often written about it myself, including a recent item for TBP . Anybody who really wants to know what has been happening out there can do their homework on Google. A lot of ugly stories about real-life convictions of peaceful protesters are out there to find, if you look for them.
But somehow, the news that "Toto, we're not in the Sixties any more" hasn't really penetrated our community's national sensibilities. As a result, many of our people gathering to protest the California Supreme Court's decision are still living in that old-timey myth about civil disobedience. They're confident that it's the still best and most wonderful way to get their viewpoint in front of news anchors and legislators -- even the President.
Desperate Defenders of the Status Quo
Back in the Sixties and Seventies, some hard-core leftists did go to prison for a long time as punishment for their "revolutionary" street activism. But probably the vast majority of arrestees during those years were booked and then released...or they got off with a few token days in jail and a light fine.
Then, starting sometime in the 1980s, there were conservatives who were desperate to stop any further liberal changes in American society. They launched a quiet movement to stiffen state criminal codes. Their aim: to protect the old status quo's -- to make sure that no era of widespread protest and change could ever happen again. The new philosophy was that any protester was to be considered "violent," even if he or she didn't actually do anything violent -- and some law- enforcement people became willing to perjure themselves in order to justify their arrests of so-called "violent protesters." The new laws had more things to charge arrestees with, and longer sentences and bigger fines to hit them with.
With time, this new trend in law enforcement succeeded in equating "protest" with domestic terrorism. The major news media went slavishly along. As a result, Americans who believe everything they hear on TV now believe that any protester is a potential terrorist.
In California, for instance, you could now get up to a year in jail for a single misdemeanor -- like blocking a driveway or sidewalk. And if "conspiracy" could be proven (meaning that you talked about your upcoming street action to a buddy), you might be looking at felony charges. "Felony conspiracy" meant several years in prison, and possibly losing your right to vote.
Trying to Change State Laws
This blog of mine is not the place to go into the whole history, and all the gory details, of what was done to our "right to peacefully assemble" (supposedly guaranteed by the First Amendment). But it's something that has worried me for years.
In California in 2002, a group of us organized Just Dissent. We were a small task force of activists and civil-rights lawyers that attempted to get the state criminal code amended, so that the penalties for civil disobedience might be put back into the "token" category, where they used to be.
The bill we wrote, SB 1796, was actually passed by the CA legislature. But it was vetoed by Governor Gray Davis. In short, we were given an object lesson in politics, watching a Democratic figure in high office buckle obediently to conservative forces who opposed certain kinds of change in California.
Ironically, the LGBT people and allies now being arrested in California are under the boot heel of laws that Just Dissent tried to get changed in 2002.
And I'll bet my bottom dollar that sometime in the next day or so, they will be labelled "domestic terrorists" -- as will other LGBT arrestees across the country. All we need, to be utterly defeated, is for our marriage movement to be labelled "domestic terrorism."
Am I opposed to Prop 8? Absolutely.
Do I think that classic civil disobedience arrests are a good way to fight it? Absolutely not.
A Better Strategy for Today
I feel the same anger that everybody else feels, about the barefaced denial of a basic right -- about the denial of equality under the law. But anger is the wrong reason, and the wrong frame of mind, for laying out the best strategy. Right now,, we have to make the right moves -- the smartest moves possible. In my view, sacrificing hundreds of LGBT lives in this way is NOT a smart move.
Classic civil disobedience may have worked for activists in the Fifties and Sixties...but that was before the laws were changed so drastically.
So tonight I'm in shock as I watch the TV news and see these hundreds of Californians -- people of good will, flinging themselves under the rolling freight train of right-wing "eminent domain." They've convinced themselves that this is a good way to help bring that train of social death to a halt. But this kind of self-sacrifice is not going to stop the speeding train. It's only going to get a lot of people hurt. And meanwhile a lot of our financial resources -- money that could be spent on strategies that are more effective but less legally risky -- will have to be spent on trying to keep hundreds of our people out of prison.
For more information, the concerned reader can check out a website maintained by the L.A. Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild (an organization that supported Just Dissent) that has some good advice to give on law as it affects protest.
How ironic that the opponents of same-sex marriage had no problem amending California law to keep a minority group of citizens from marrying! Yet -- so far -- it has been impossible to change California state law in order to protect a basic civil liberty that belongs to every single American citizen.