Alex Blaze

GetEqual Claims an Online Petition Made the Military Bureaucracy Nervous

Filed By Alex Blaze | April 05, 2011 6:00 PM | comments

Filed in: The Movement
Tags: derek morado, Don't Ask Don't Tell, GetEqual, military

Last week a gay sailor, Derek Morado, was told he was going to face discharge under DADT because the law is still in effect. GetEqual and Americablog set up an online petition for him. He had a hearing in front of military officials and he wasn't discharged.

getequal1.jpgNow time for the nonprofits to get their due. GetEqual seems to claim in this email (attributed to Robin McGehee) late last week that their online petition is the reason the three-judge panel decided to retain Morado:

We did it!!

I just got off the phone with Petty Officer Derek Morado, the servicemember who was facing discharge today in California despite "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" having been repealed 100 days ago.

In short, I have great news to report -- by a vote of 3-0, Derek was recommended for retention. With your help, Derek gets to not only save his career, but walk prouder -- without the burden of discrimination on his shoulders.

This is good news for a few reasons -- it shows the power of grassroots efforts to apply pressure and the reality that, when we expose the truth and stand up for our dignity, we win. We don't know how many other servicemembers are facing discharge, but we will not rest until all Americans -- LGB and T -- are free to serve their country freely, openly, honestly, and without danger of discharge.

Continued after the jump.

Today was a victory, and we're grateful to Derek for lending his story and his voice to highlight the fact that servicemembers are still facing the discharge process, even 100 days after the law was repealed. We're also grateful to our friends at AMERICAblog Gay, who partnered with us to send Derek into the courtroom with the names of thousands of supporters who were unwilling to let this happen without pushing back.

And the main point:

Click here to donate to our work.

Americablog didn't go quite as far as to claim that the online petition convinced all three military officials to change their position, but Aravosis and Sudbay made some ambiguous claims that were clearly meant to be read as claiming victory:

Thank you to the thousands who signed our petition on behalf of Derek over the past 24 hours. We sent your names to Derek this morning right before he went into his hearing, so in a very real way you were there with him.

According to Derek, all three members of the hearing board voted to retain him in the military -- an incredible result.

Derek gets the lion's share of the credit for today's victory, but I really believe each and every one of you who joined AMERICAblog and GetEQUAL in this action played a role, and you should be proud.

Please share this success with your friends -- and encourage them to join us in our effective activism.

Click here to share on Facebook.

Click below to tweet this message:

Victory! Navy will not discharge sailor under DADT. Join our action ntwk & join the fight: tinyurl.com/684aghv @americablog

There isn't anything we can't accomplish if we work together. Thanks so much, and congratulations again,

I've posted about diet activism before, where people take an effective tactic of the past and find a pain-free way to implement it and promise that it's just as effective. It does have the effect of making people believe that they're doing something productive while not making them actually sacrifice any time or money or energy or take any risk. In the end, it makes it harder to get people to do things that actually matter since they think that the nothing they did actually helped.

I emailed McGehee back to ask if there was any proof that the judges in this case even saw the online petition (much less threw out the military's rules and acted on the basis of an online petition), and she did not have any. Instead, here's the response I got:

On top of our efforts to apply pressure, we were told by many reporters that an unnamed official within the Pentagon said that he knew that the community's actions were making people nervous and they were working to do what they could to make it go away. We don't have direct evidence that the Pentagon intervened, but we can pretty clearly say that adding pressure had a direct impact on this case not just getting swept under the rug with no consequences.

Finally, I know from conversations with Derek that the people supporting him through the petition, press help, and feeling the support from folks was very much appreciated by him and helped to steady him through an almost six hour process. That's not the sole impact we had, but it I'm glad for it.

An unnamed source? Who made a vague statement about "pressure" being applied? Who made a ridiculous statement about the Pentagon being "nervous" that people knew someone was going to be discharged under DADT, which is still law? Who GetEqual heard about second-hand? And now the rest of us third-hand? I suppose it's possible, although I'll also just say that I've been lied to, directly, by people working to shield their brand from even the slightest criticism, so take their statements with a grain of salt.

I also doubt the judges in this case were swayed by an online petition. GetEqual's response backed off from that claim and cited "pressure," as if the Pentagon has ever cared about being seen as a homophobic organization. Unlike a nonprofit or a corporation, the power of their brand really doesn't have much of an effect on whether we pay for their services. The military is a bureaucracy and we're required by law to pay their salaries.

I'm looking around for anyone who actually knows why Morado was retained, but the proceedings were closed to the public and there's little information available for the press. My guess is that, since DADT discharges can't happen at the unit level anymore, not since the new regulations from Robert Gates were handed down last October, there wasn't approval from high enough of a level for this discharge. Here's how Stars & Stripes put it:

During the hearing at Lemore Naval Air Station in California, defense attorneys called four witnesses to testify to Petty Officer 2nd Class Derek Morado's good conduct and character, according to the advocacy group GetEQUAL. The prosecution called none.

Attorneys also argued that given the imminent repeal of the 17-year-old policy, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus would be unlikely to approve the discharge. Defense Secretary Robert Gates directed in October that all discharges had to be expressly approved by the secretary of the service and the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. Nobody has been discharged since then.

The Fresno Bee got a similar statement from a US Navy source:

However, no members of the Navy will be discharged under "don't ask, don't tell" without approval of the secretary of the Navy, Lt. Myers Vasquez, a Navy spokesman at the Pentagon, said Wednesday.

Then again, I really don't know for sure. But the nameless friend of a friend who works at the Pentagon who says the generals were nervous about an online petition sets off my bullshit detector. The very public policy change that has substantially decreased DADT discharges to the point where the military is claiming that they've stopped, on the other hand, seems more likely.

Anyway, this isn't new in the nonprofit world to claim credit for things that one didn't do. We call conservatives stupid when they fall for it. We call HRC out when they do it. And it isn't any better if an organization that we like does it.


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So in other words, no one has been discharged under DADT for several weeks (months) and GetEqual is taking the credit for this one case?

I like GetEqual (though their local Indianapolis chapter has grown quiet lately) but this sounds quite absurd.

My bullshit meter is pegged on this one.

As a retired member of the US Navy and having been around those proceedings I can tell you that a petition wouldn’t sway the officers on the board. In fact, any such petition would have no standing or merit to even be brought forth as part of the proceedings.
Saying that the Pentagon brought pressure on them to find one way or another? Once again, no.
If a petition was submitted and/or the Pentagon told them to judge the person as ‘innocent’ that would not happen at all. IF they were told to find the person ‘guilty’? They would be guilty no matter what.

This is just a sign that the military is starting to adhere to the new reality.

This is just another group claiming that they have done something and then asking for money. This is why I don’t give money to groups.

I'm just the one in the back with the green eyeshade trying to make sure the numbers add up, so I have no special knowledge, but it seems to me GetEqual was helpful to the guy. Are you saying you wish they weren't there for him, or that they should just shut up about being helpful? I don't read the email as saying that GetEqual made the military do anything, just that we all working together can make a difference. I call that empowering. If you want to get all technical and argue about whether the email claims all credit to the all-powerful GetEqual, go for it. I think that helping the guy was the right thing to do, he appreciated it, and GetEqual should stand up and say, hey, Y'all, sisterhood is powerful.

There's nothing in Alex's email that suggests he wishes they weren't there for Derek, or that they should just shut up. As I read it, he's asking why GetEqual gets to claim this as a victory brought on largely by its efforts.

I think it would be one thing if GetEqual had stopped at saying that Derek was helped and emboldened by the signatures. But that, of course, wouldn't give them a way to ask for and justify asking for funding.

It's quite another thing to say:

"This is good news for a few reasons -- it shows the power of grassroots efforts to apply pressure and the reality that, when we expose the truth and stand up for our dignity, we win."

We can parse this a million ways and argue about every single word in isolation, but there can be no doubt that the *cumulative* effect is to say: we did this, and you should give us money so we can keep doing it. And Alex is asking some perfectly reasonable questions about "pressure" and mysterious sources.

I also think Alex makes a very important point in writing: "The very public policy change that has substantially decreased DADT discharges to the point where the military is claiming that they've stopped, on the other hand, seems more likely." In other words, the recommendation for retention may well have come about because the policy cannot be enforced. It's a bit unseemly for GE to jump in and take credit for that which it cannot prove its responsibility.

I think the point is that they pulled an HRC move. They've claimed credit for something that they didn't do. It wasn't Get Equal's win; it was the Navy's technically.

Kathy Padilla | April 6, 2011 9:45 AM

Exactly. It's as if those red bars turned a bit yellow.

Jill - respectfully - you're the Board Chair. You're not just some bookkeeper tabulating expenses. While you certainly can't be aware of every action taken by the org - ultimate responsibility for the direction of the org resides in you more than any single person. This is something to be celebrated. And something of a burden, I'm sure.

One of the main reasons any non-profit organization does an online petition is list creation.

They are terribly ineffective on the hill- because of the reasons Alex describes.

However, they are very, very effective at increasing an orgs list- which is very handy for donor development. It also looks nice when a funder comes to be able to say that you increased your membership by xxx thousand in a year. Petitions are a great way to do that.

Get Equal is just using a well-known tactic that the likes of HRC and others have been using for years.

Heather Cronk | April 6, 2011 9:59 AM

Hey, folks -- I just wanted to weigh in here, because we really saw this as a win and wanted to share it with the community. Derek reached out to us out of desperation, and conversations with him indicated that he was pretty doomed to see a ruling for separation from the Navy...his lawyer had the same view.

We mobilized our list (it was not a list-builder...in fact, there were no more additions to our email list than usual) because we were appalled that this guy was going through the trauma of having to defend himself for 18 months...and after DADT had been repealed. And we pulled AmericaBlog Gay in because we knew they had a community of people who would also be appalled.

There was, seriously, no alterior motive here. The fact that Alex misrepresents our follow-up email as a fundraiser is deceptive -- we use an email template that has hyperlinked text that goes to our donate page, but we also have links to our Facebook and Twitter communities. There was no fundraising "pitch" here at all.

As to the effectiveness of GetEQUAL's work, I talked to A LOT of reporters throughout the day of Derek's boards. It took almost SIX HOURS for him to go through the process -- and there were multiple reporters the day before and the day of the boards who were calling the base, calling the Pentagon, and calling the Navy. Based on those conversations, it sounded to us like the fact that this story had gone public was embarrassing to everyone involved -- except Derek, who got a burst of energy from seeing so many people sign on to support him after such a grueling and dehumanizing experience.

This story got traction because reporters were appalled, as well -- every single person I talked to said, "I thought this policy was done!" It was a great opportunity to do some education -- that the policy has been repealed, but integration hasn't been implemented and we have no assurances of the timeline.

I was proud that we got a win -- and I was proud of the fact that we built an authentic relationship with Derek in order to draw attention to his story, and the fact that folks' careers are still hanging in the balance. Based on all of those conversations, I can honestly say that we had a positive impact on this case...one of the panelists on the boards had even seen one of the articles in the paper that morning!

If you choose not to believe this run-down, that's fine...we can agree to disagree. But I just wanted to give some additional background in case it's helpful...

Heather- I don't have a problem with a petition. But you've been in non-profit development long enough to know one of petitions major benefits is building an org's list. I don't see that as a bad thing. You need that. Get Equal needs to grow. You need more people in the field - list development is not a bad thing. But acknowledge it for what it is.

Heather Cronk | April 6, 2011 10:24 AM

Yep. Agreed. I'm just saying that this particular online action wasn't geared toward list-building. It was, honestly, geared toward supporting this sailor, drawing attention to his case, embarrassing all segments of the military that have celebrated DADT's repeal, letting the community know that this policy isn't "done," and getting a win for Derek.

I wouldn't have been upset if it had also grown our list, but it didn't and that wasn't our goal.

Oh ye of little faith. Firstly, if the Pentagon didn't communicate with the judges, I'll eat my hat. Second, saying that only HRC sends emails connecting victories with their actions is ridiculous. I get emails from a dozen organization after victories, and unlike GetEqual, they don't just put a link to the donate button, they beg for money shamelessly. Sorry, folks, this is our nonprofit advocacy environment. I think it's a mistake to condemn GetEqual for the heinous crime of saying the online petition had an effect. Nowhere did it say that was the sole cause.

I've never really thought very highly of online petitions, since they're often:
- not very persuasive to the legislators in question (especially since many of them are not very 'net active anyway)
- guilty of culling signatures from way beyond the jurisdictions they're meant to influence (and are therefore seen as skewed by "outsiders")
- very poor in turnout when you consider that they're usually open to participation from billions of people across the international community
- rushed to the masses before checking their facts (such as change.org's attack on Susan Stanton, who isn't exactly a saint, but also isn't quite what she's being portrayed as: http://www.myhusbandbetty.com/2011/04/03/homophobic-sue-stanton/ )
- looking for the quick knee-jerk response using the same sensationalist spin that encourages prejudgment and stepping outside ethical consistency
- creating hysteria where there isn't any, such as the ongoing petitions that inaccurately conflate all sex work, polyamory and now just about anything associated with womens' rights to choose with "human trafficking"
- lulling people into complacency by allowing people to click a button and think they've done something significant when far more is needed.

That said, every online petition site -- care2, change.org, Avaaz, whatever -- accepts any movement on any issue in their favour as validation of their efforts, so I hardly see GetEqual's claim to be unique.

Critique-worthy, perhaps, as they all are, but not unique.