I’ve never lived anywhere that wasn’t ultra-ultra-liberal: around half of the teachers at my notoriously tolerant, pseudo-hippie private high school in Los Angeles were gay, I recently graduated from UC Berkeley, and I’m in the process of moving to San Francisco. I’ve been surrounded by people who love to voice their opinions, speak up in the face of prejudice, and protest authority for my entire life – some in, shall we say, less subtle ways than others.
So, when a hefty harmonica-playing woman covered in black face paint led a mob down Gough Street towards a frantically retreating anti-gay street preacher, spewing spit out of her mouth and screaming, “Jesus was a faggot too!” or a girl wearing barely nothing more than a bra and a few strategically placed rainbows accidentally knocked me down with a large “NO ON H8” sign, or when a lesbian couple, Chihuahua cozily ensconced between them, loudly declared that they’ll marry their dog, too, if they want, I was hardly shocked.
I cringe a little when I think about how jaded I must have looked during one point during the Prop Eight protest yesterday, when the police started setting up barricades and slowly inching their way towards the circle of gay-rights supporters holding hands in the middle of the intersection between Gough and Van Ness and we all stood there silently, tweeting and typing and wondering what was about to happen. There I stood, only a few feet away from the “civil disobedience” going on in front of me … eating a hot dog. I hadn’t eaten anything since the night before – and live-bloggers need subsistence, right? – but, nevertheless, I couldn’t help feeling like I was at the circus, shoveling down street food and watching a show.
In a way, I was. I spoke to both policemen and marriage equality supporters alike that cheerfully admitted that the civil disobedience taking place was pure political theater. As one cop bluntly put it, “The DA always throws the gays out.” I heard countless people say, “The point is to be arrested. If you’re not in a place where you can be arrested, move.”
Maybe that’s why I originally felt like something was amiss. I didn’t expect such an orchestrated, relatively peaceful protest (besides a scattering of abrasive activists like harmonica lady, most of the demonstrators kept their composure), or what I first took as a sense of resignation that permeated the majority of the crowd. When we first heard that the California Supreme Court hadn’t overturned Prop 8, the people around me seemed more glum than irate or incensed. They sighed, shrugged, and rolled their eyes. “That figures,” more than one person said to another. They hugged each other, called their partners to tell them they loved them, and said, “We’ll win, eventually.” Everyone stood around, unsure of what to do next, until a woman came over with a loudspeaker and herded us to the Van Ness intersection. That’s when the show began. After an hour of handholding and intermittent chanting, the police finally moved in. They made some half-hearted attempts at convincing the crowd to move off the street, then quietly began arresting protesters with those plastic-looking white handcuffs. Every ten minutes or so, those arrested exited the circle, grinning widely and yelling things like “peace out, motherfuckers” to the delight of the cheering crowd.
I asked those around me if they did, indeed, feel resigned about what had happened that day. Did they know this would happen? What next? Everyone I spoke with was quick to tell me that they were not complacent, but that they had expected such an outcome and didn’t think it was anything more than a disappointing setback. I heard emphatic variations of, “It’s going to happen,” from everyone I spoke with. “It’s a matter of when, not if – 2010, or 2012,” one protester told me. I also asked people what they thought about the right way to protest. Was such civil disobedience productive? What did it truly represent? Some said it was; some said, “it’s the only thing we can do;” some said grassroots organizations were more fruitful; some said we shouldn’t be blocking “relatively gay-friendly” areas but focus instead on districts that voted predominately for Prop 8.
Everyone more or less got along, which I think disappointed a few revved up protesters who jumped at a chance to rally during a low-energy part of the day when they spotted a street preacher walking down out of a building on the other side of the street. The man was instantly surrounded by an angry mob that wouldn’t even give the preacher a chance to speak because they were too busy arguing with one another. The man (Rev Chauncey Killens of Prunedale, CA) disappeared into another building while harmonica lady and a wizened looking, gray-haired activist got into a heated fight over the right way to protest.
“I’m not a nice gay, bitch,” harmonica lady spat out. “If it wasn’t for me, you wouldn’t be here. And learn to speak!” the older woman retorted. “You’re all on the fucking same side,” another girl yelled. “Get along.” “No, we’re not,” both women shot back. After the fight had died down, I asked all of the women if they knew whom, exactly, they had initially been directing all their aggression towards. None of them did.
As a result of growing up around too many people who rebel without knowing exactly what they’re working towards – obnoxious private school brats who don’t know what they’re talking about, stereotypical drugged-out Berkeley crazies, and people like the one girl I overheard today on the steps of the Civic Center saying, “Dude, this fucking sucks, equality for all and shit … want to go have a barbecue? I have hella steaks at my house,” before dropping her cardboard sign on the ground, tearing off her Haight and Ashbury peace sign headband, and wandering down the street – I’m skeptical of protests. But, the longer I stood at Van Ness and Gough, talking to and observing those around me, I started to have a change of heart.
I’m not sure exactly when it started. Maybe it was the man carrying his toddler on his shoulders, telling her, “See, this is a protest. We’re all allowed to do this, protest whenever we feel something isn’t right.” Maybe it was when the police finally started to enter the hand-held circle and both armed forces and marriage equality supporters surrounded the circle, seemingly working hand in hand to make sure no one got hurt, the supporters singing “We Shall Overcome” over their loudspeakers while most of the policemen smiled in what I like to think was an approving manner. I saw one policeman actually walk over to a group of protesters standing on the sidewalk, hug them, and ask how they were doing.
Or, maybe it was Brittany and Janna, two women around my age (21) that I approached in hopes of an interview because they were decked out in a myriad of posters and pins.
“We’re actually just visiting from Texas,” one of them told me bashfully. I talked to them for a while and found out that they had been together for three years, were very much in love, and hoped to move to California one day. “In a way, this outcome is hard because we come from such a conservative state, and if California can’t do it, Texas never will,” Brittany said. “But,” Janna added, “at least the 18,000 marriages performed last year are being recognized. That’s a step through the door, and that’s a lot for us, coming from Texas.”
No, the protest didn’t look like anything from Harvey Milk’s era. No windows were smashed, no one was tear gassed, and everyone respected the police. Furthermore, the civil disobedience was not just a protest; it was also a strangely healing, communal way for all of us there to take solace in the fact that there are scores of people out there that cannot stand for this kind of prejudice any longer. I felt this even more strongly when I returned home from the protests and spoke with one of my best friends and roommates, Corey, about how my day had gone. I asked Corey, who is gay, how he felt about the ruling. “Honestly,” he said, “I felt a billion times better when I signed online and saw that almost everyone I know’s Facebook and Twitter status said something about how horrible today’s outcome was. Seeing such widespread solidarity made me feel confident that Prop 8 will be overturned soon, and it just made me feel good inside.” Whether such a coming together happens on a street corner, or on the Internet – whether self-expression comes in the form of a hand-held circle, a grassroots campaign, or a harmonica solo, the important part is that it’s happening somewhere.
I stopped by a caf