Do you ever say something and think, in retrospect, “Hm, maybe I could have worded that differently?” Well, I had that experience recently while talking with a friend about a comment I posted late last year on my Facebook wall and emailed out to a couple of list serves.
On December 18th, I wrote:
“It’s amazing to me that queer and allied people are so afraid to spend a night in jail to help move us forward at a much faster pace. By the end of this year I’ll have been arrested for equality six times. It’s no big deal. But the more we do it – it makes a world of difference. If you think you ‘can’t’ get arrested for equality – I say – you’re both lying to yourself and others and are a piece of shit.”
This comment, and my subsequent back and forth with other members on the list serves caused the administrators to remove me from the lists. Even though I felt some of the comments in return were equally as strong, I as the instigator of the heated conversation paid the price.
During the conversation with my friend, I realized, my anger was completely justified – but – I went wrong in a couple of places:
1. I was angry because on these list serves and so often on Facebook people complain, criticize and tear down. (I’ve done it too, more than I’d like to admit.) But, often, that’s all people do. It’s as if people are competing with each other for some opinion prize. And I’ll admit, being the rebel in the public’s eye can give one a sense of validation and be exciting. And it is incredibly powerful to take a social movement fight into one’s own hands. So, of course this work rocks the boat to many people no matter what you do – that’s part of the point. But, to talk and not to act, well that just doesn’t make sense to me anymore. That overall growing anger led to…
The night I posted my comment, I had seen a video of the Granny Peace Brigade engaging in an act of civil disobedience. Here are older Americans – grandmothers and grandfathers, going to jail for justice. Their sacrifice made it even more clear to me that so much of what I was seeing on the FB and in these email groups (which, by the way are all groups for people interested in direct action and civil disobedience) seemed out of line with the empowering work I feel we should be doing. This work is about collaboration. And we are on these list serves because we say we are the DOERS. How did we ever get sucked into such vitriol in the first place?
So, I lost it. I saw these sweet elder people, some who I’ve met before, and I thought, what the hell is wrong with people? They use chronic diseases as an excuse not to spend a night in jail. They come up with all kinds of ‘I’ll lose my job’ excuses – most of which are BS – or at best, the truth – but either way – it makes me question – Then why are you on this list serve? Or why are you interacting with me on Facebook? Have I not been clear enough that I am interested in working with people who believe in their own power – who stretch themselves – who break through some of their fears – especially the ones that are based on pure myth?
2. My mother always told me, (Yes, the same mother who voted against our civil rights. She, like me isn’t a demon. She did, as it turns out impart to me some good bits of wisdom over the years.) If you feel someone is a certain thing, it is simply not polite to come out and say it. You should instead say, well, in this instance, people are ‘acting’ like pieces of shit. That way, it is stated as what it really is, my minuscule opinion, not perceived as a statement of fact. Mother also taught me not to lie. So, you can see, using my best moral compass, I was in quite the quandary.
I should also note, a few months prior to being removed from these same list serves, I blocked messages coming from members on them. I couldn’t keep opening my email and seeing messages that enraged me, caused me to raise my defenses and jump into virtual boxing matches. I saw us become what our oppressors hope we will become – angry queers and allies eating each other alive. It is a lot less work on those who want to keep us under their thumb if we do the destructive work ourselves. During this time, I did stay on the lists so I could share the actions in which I was a part. I felt that was the best way to use these resources, since again, these were list serves designed for people interested in direct action, right?
What does all this mean?
Well, to me, it means even more so, we’ve got to get offline and get face to face with each other – in our own communities. As long as I’ve been doing this work, I’ve been a firm believer that real action happens in a circle, when each person is equally engaged and empowered, so together we can create actions that are much bigger than ourselves. Sure, the more extreme actions tend to draw fewer people. That’s always the case. But, in time, if those who are committed to consistent action remain firmly rooted – and find ways to make actions hit deep spots in the guts of us all – AND make the action creation process a ‘yes and’ instead of a ‘no but’ process, AAANNND – MAKE IT FUN! – make the action creation process a place where community is BUILT – then, we can tumble towards the mass movement for full civil rights we so honorably deserve.
And we must remember – social change happens through what each of us chooses to do each day – and through the hard work of collaboration. This isn’t a competition. Competition can be good in other arenas. But here we can’t build mass movement if we keep standing on each other’s necks. I feel we must unbrainwash ourselves. The unhealthy criticism we hurl on each other is, I feel the result of a lifetime of being told to compete. Schools tell us to compete, while at the same time reinforcing dominant narratives about who we are, our history as a ‘nation’, which serves to ‘keep people in their place’. The media tells us to compete – ‘This sports team is better than that one.’ ‘This is what a pretty gay man looks like.’ ‘Feminine guys are weak and needy.’ ‘Look up to leaders in government and industry for answers.’ Sexy women have a size 0 waist.’ and so on.
I’m not saying throw out a critical pedagogical approach to social movement discourse. On the contrary. I believe we should just create spaces where your truth and my truth can thrive together. Which means, thinking before removing people from the conversation – and not letting the impersonal online faux communication devices be the dominant way in which we share our thoughts and feelings.
And to all those I’ve offended with my ‘piece of shit’ comment – I say – get over it! Just kidding – I say – break through those walls of fear. And then, when you turn around – that is when you can see how paper thin those walls really were. And, yes, it is a very individual decision what choices we make as active people fighting for our birthrights. But, please, before you say ‘no but,’ could you take a moment to go inside yourself? Maybe you’ll find that you actually can go to jail for justice, but maybe just don’t want to. Being honest with others and ourselves may be a more centering choice.
Or, maybe you really can’t go to jail for justice. But, before coming to that conclusion, I would ask you to review all of the actions done by people who were living – or dying of AIDS who paved the way for the disease to be manageable for many today. Or, I would ask you look to all of the people who paved the way for the continued racial equality fight. Or, possibly examine the Americans with Disabilities Act movement, where people less able than most were gumming up the jail and court systems to get their message on the societal agenda.
And, as for being a cheer leader encouraging people to move through their fears – I’m not just talking out of my ass here – seriously – right now I’m breaking through a huge wall – I’m homeless for equality and it’s been starting to sink in. Sure, there is a growing network of people who support the wandering activist/educator/change agent types in the LGBTQ and other social movements – but it is hitting me that I really don’t know what is going to happen – and not when the walk I’m doing begins at the end of May, but next week.
Feeling vulnerable right now is a good thing. Sure, it’s a risk – but what fight was ever won without going beyond one’s comfort zone?
Thanks for reading.
Alan L. Bounville