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Another March on Washington: To be Worth the Effort, the Gay Rights March Has to be Done Correctly

Commentary by Andy Thayer and Roger Fraser
(Gay Liberation Network)

GLN permalink posted June 12, 2009

In the wake of the new tide of energetic LGBT activists generated by the Prop 8 debacle, many are floating ideas for a national LGBT march on Washington. We think this is a good idea, but it’s got to be done right to be worth the expenditure of resources, especially in hard economic times like these.

Although a few commentators have ruled out all marches as ineffective, this is foolish, ahistorical and ignores the tremendous strides advanced by a few marches.

In particular, the single most effective march in U.S. history was the 1963 March on Washington organized by Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others. In its wake came a tidal wave of civil rights legislation. God knows that LGBT's could use such a wave of national legislation, especially since we’ve seen almost NO such legislation pass Congress despite years of expensive lobbying by HRC and NGLTF.

There have been many failed marches since 1963. The question is, how can we duplicate the ‘63 success? How do present efforts so far stack up against ‘63?

For one thing, the 1963 march was meticulously organized. Organizers of the present march, however, failed to secure permits before announcing nationwide a march for the 2009 Columbus Day weekend in October. It turns out they failed to notice that other groups had already reserved the National Mall for the entire holiday weekend. In addition, Congress won’t even be in session on that weekend.

Worse yet, not only have the present organizers committed many of the same mistakes made by the organizers of the notoriously unsuccessful 2000 Millennium March, they have also added a fatal one of their own. The organizers of the Millennium March (HRC and the Metropolitan Community Church) maintained far too tight and top-down control, but they at least conducted an on-line poll to determine the principal demands of the march.

The handful of present veteran organizers, on the other hand, consulting no one but themselves, simply announced their demands when they announced the march’s time and place. This is no way to generate the enthusiasm and money necessary to bring hundreds of thousands to DC in the middle of a severe recession (for example, stage and sound alone for a large national march run a minimum of $200,000).

So what should be done? For a start, similar to the earliest LGBT marches, open and well-publicized organizing meetings around the country will need to be held to generate maximum participation. Each meeting should formulate the demands of the national march and set up city-wide committees to generate local publicity, arrange transportation, and organize scholarships for those who otherwise could not afford to attend. Without this participatory democracy, it will be very difficult to sustain mass enthusiasm or generate the money necessary to put on a big event. (There is a possibility that a ew wealthy benefactors will step up and contribute; but if past history is any guide, they will demand a disproportionate amount of undemocratic control in exchange for their largesse.)

It is unlikely that the present organizers intend, or will have the time, to do any of the foregoing. But their most serious error is that they have so far ignored the critical political lesson that set the 1963 March on Washington apart from so many of its imitators.

The ‘63 march made demands on power and threatened political retribution if those demands were not met.

While one of the main organizers of the present march hinted that the march would go easy on the Obama administration, that it would not be an “angry” march, Dr. King and others made demands on the Kennedy administration. The implicit threat was that the ‘63 march would be a march against the White House if the Kennedy administration didn’t accede to its demands.

Kennedy had been desperate that summer to cement the two wings of the Democratic Party together (those representing northern big cities and the Dixiecrats), as well as to compete with the Soviet Union for the favor of newly independent Third World nations by concealing apartheid conditions in the southern states. The march, he knew, would be highly polarizing, and so his solution was to lean heavily on the organizers to call it off. The march organizers, to their eternal credit, stuck to their guns, continued with plans for the march, pulled it off, and thus forced the Kennedy administration to match its rhetoric with action by pushing for the first modern wave of civil rights legislation.

Following the inspiring example of the 1963 March on Washington, we must demand that Obama fulfil his pledges to the LGBT community: repeal DOMA, repeal Don't Ask / Don't Tell, legislate needle exchanges, and pass a strong, inclusive ENDA. We must demand he drop the Bushite “faith-based” funding and return to the time just a few years ago when he supported full equal marriage rights in the Illinois statehouse. And we must demand the president stop cozying up to anti-gay bigots, in the same way we would expect a politician to shun association with open white supremacists.

But make no mistake about it: demands are stronger than requests because unlike hat-in-hand requests, demands, if genuine, have credible threats backing them up. We need to back our demands with the credible threat of sitting out en masse the 2010 Congressional mid-term elections if the congressional Democrats and Obama fail to get with the LGBT program.

This brings us to our last complaint against the present organizers: They’ve got the timing all wrong. They are calling for a march in the fall of this year when our political clout will be weak; it would be far more politically savvy to schedule the march for the spring or early fall of 2010, so that the threat of sitting out the mid-term elections carries real muscle.

Today the history books trivialize the 1963 march as a day of soaring rhetoric. But we’ve seen great speeches before and since. What made that day historic is that King and Rustin made demands on the White House, backed them up with a credible threat, and thus got the goods in the form of sweeping civil rights legislation. If ‘rights’ is what LGBT's want, we should attempt to emulate King’s and Rustin’s strategic prowess on that day.

■ Andy Thayer is co-founder of the Gay Liberation Network, an LGBT direct action group which has been a local leader in gay rights, anti-police brutality and anti-war organizing, and was co-organizer of Chicago's big November 15th Join the Impact protest. Andy was national co-organizer of the recent anti-Prop 8 "Day of Decision" protests and was Assistant National Protest Organizer for the successful Stop Dr. Laura campaign against hate radio hostess Dr. Laura Schlessinger. On May 16th he was among 30 LGBT activists arrested in the 4th annual Pride demonstration in Moscow, Russia.

■ Roger Fraser is also a long-time activist in the Gay Liberation Network and has decades of peace and justice organizing to his credit.


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