As I ponder the passing of Howard Zinn, one of the most radical minds of our time, I am hard-pressed to speak on anyth
As I ponder the passing of Howard Zinn, one of the most radical minds of our time, I am hard-pressed to speak on anything but the way of dissent, of revolution, of progress, of change. His work was instrumental in my turning the corner from liberal to radical. And it is with his spirit, his words, his legacy that I pen these ruminations.
I’ve always loved a good struggle. Show me a wall and I’ll show you how to scale it. Give me the road and I will march the length of it. Raise me a rebel voice and I will scream along with it. Show me a woman who has got some sizable ovaries and I will get wet in the panties for her courage.
Zinn and Chin
People who stand fierce in the face of difficult struggle are sexy. Women who resist tyranny. Men who dare to be vulnerable. Hearts insist on mending after being shattered. I love a women who can fall in love, get dumped, fall in love, get dumped and then fall in love again. Perseverance is the stuff of which good sex, good people, good friendship is made.
Dissenters make me particularly horny. They make me want to do things. To make the world better.
In the 1930s Ghandi wrestled with the Brits and rubbed salt in their wounds. In 1955, Montgomery, AL. Rosa Parks refused to get up and give a white person a seat on the bus. They arrested her, and all hell broke loose.
In the 1969 the gay community in New York City pushed back at cops who routinely closed down gay clubs and harassed the patrons. Out of that push-back the LGBT movement was born.
It would be years before the nation was energized to rise up again.
It is about 40 years later. Blacks and Latinos and Native Americans can ride where they will on public transportation. We can eat at the same restaurants as white folks, sort of. (Most times we can’t afford to.) We can drink from the same water fountains- if we can get close enough. White kids buy music made by Black musicians, and Black kids dance all night to music made by folks from all around the world.
But here in America, Black and Latino kids aren’t graduating. Our boys are being pipelined from high school to prison. And those who aren’t in prison are killing each other. Most of those that actually defy those racist odds and head to the Ivy leagues become so disconnected from their racial identity that we don’t know what to do with them, and they don’t know what to do with us.
Most of the white working class in this country can’t afford to send their kids to college. The middle class is struggling to keep their house, and cars, and health, and all the other necessary “luxuries” they have been told will come if you work hard and obey the laws.
On the books, everybody in the US all can cross ‘tween the sheets and flit across lines of race and class and sexuality. There are no laws that prevent LGBT people from being with each other. There are no laws that say Blacks can’t marry Whites, or go to school with Asian kids. The laws do not state that kids on the south side of Chicago can’t go visit their friends in Hyde Park. But the realities of safety and economics and freedom make it almost impossible for poor people, for people of color, for LGBT folks to live, eat, and exist in particular neighborhoods.
Gays boys can march in parades with their ass cheeks “out” for all the world to see. They can teach straight guys to dress well on TV. Lesbians can host talk shows. We can play professional tennis, and basketball. We can be the star of prime time sitcoms. Our stories can become comic relief. But we can’t marry in most of the zip codes in America. We can’t get federal spousal/partner benefits; health insurance, social security, immigration rights for those with which we partner. In many states we are not allowed parental rights. And we were still being fired from our jobs for being LGBT. And we were still being turned away from many spaces because we were too openly gay.
Then came Barak Obama. Smart as he was sexy. Even-tempered. And he had a strong, sensible wife. He had equal parts white blood. He spoke in a universal language. He appealed to both camps. He looked good to those of us who needed to see something good.
Some of us took a while to cross over to Obama-land. The most radical of us mainstream democrats/liberals were with Edwards. Then Edwards’ penis went astray; his mistress turned up pregnant, and he jumped ship. Largely because he knew Americans like their leaders chaste- or at least SEEMINGLY chaste.
Soon after Hillary lost the scuffle. So there was only Obama. Well, Obama or McCain.
So Obama it was.
And he was promising the world. Hope. Hope. And More Hope. And healthcare. And education that was affordable. And rights for the weary LGBT. He promised to go after the wealthy. He promised he would go after the corporations that siphoned off too much of the communal pie. The crowds roared when he spoke. People invoked Dr. King. And the rest of us, wanting so badly to be a part of something wonderful went along with him -some kicking and screaming, some with a willing song of hope in their hearts.
When he won we couldn’t believe it.
There would be perms in the White House. Imagine! Melanin behind those walls. Black kids crawling on the Oval floors. Collard greens in the Oval pots. The sinew of Black flesh sleeping/making love on the oval beds. It was euphoric. So we sang. And danced. And dared to believe.
But six Months into Obama’s presidency and folks are becoming a little antsy about what he hasn’t delivered. The national LGBT sentiments, so forcefully pro-Obama during the presidential campaign, turned impatient, and a little sour. Folks began to call for action.
It was in that atmosphere that I met Cleve Jones: A white gay man who invited me to be in on a big march they were planning. Black LGBT voices were important he said. He wanted folks to hold him accountable. “We don’t have enough people of color- Black people, Korean people, Indian people in the news, in the marches, in our media,” he said. The sassy, flamboyant, gay man, said the word “Black” so easily. Unsolicited.
And so I signed on for The Equality Across America March in Washington DC.
The march was designed to light a fire under the Obama administration’s bum. Many said such a march should not happen. That sort of Revolution was dead. Commitment was low. Funds were limited. Folks needed to be patient. But LGBT kids were determined. And exhausted. And high on the win they had just executed in the White House. This was the generation that did the undoable. They had put a black family in the most revered home in the country. Nothing was impossible, these young people maintained.
It was here that I met Kip Williams and Robin McGehee.
Like many fomenters of dissent before them, they mobilized the masses. The two made phone calls to people they knew. And reached across the country. And into small towns. Pulled in ordinary folks and activists and they held phone meetings. And they showed up in various cities. And convinced folks to help to convince other folks. They were committed young folks. They believed in change.
The team of folks who planned and and made this march happen, included many, many others; Sherry, Tanner, Derek, Seth, and a whole bunch of folks who moderated noisy and democratic conference calls, took notes, wrote articles and blogs, and emails.
I was stoked to be involved with this rabble rousing bunch, who seemed to love the work of social justice for LGBT right.
I have to mention that Kip was not in this alone. He had his mom. Cheryl Williams.
At the press conference for the march, Cheryl, came to me and quietly and sweetly (very southern) tapped my arm and told me how much she had heard about my work from her son. She hugged me and teared up when I told her that I wished she could give lessons to my mother about how to love her kids.
So we had the march. 150, 000 people marched on Washington. It was glorious. And amazing. And buoyant.
And there was little no response from inside. But the outside made a lot of noise and the rest of the country heard us. But nothing happened. And I always thought, “If we could march on Washington DC the way the African americans of the sixties did, we could start a revolution! Change some shit, right?”
Right. And a little naive.
Marching, it seems, has become a way for those in power to allow the dissenting to let off steam. There are permits and agreed upon limits. It’s almost a party and a way to make money for DC. I thought the world would ignite, that folks would be forced to deal with LGBT rights. That the federal government would have to make some progress on this issue. I mean, 150,000 that one hundred and fifty thousand people in front your door.
But no. We went home. And the revolution was widely televised. And then we went back to our lives.
I can say, at that point. I was tired of using the same old methods. I didn’t know where the fuck to go. I had trusted the process. I had worked within the system. And now I had no idea where to go.
Then came a retreat at the Highlander Center. The place that radicalized and hosted the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Pete Seeger, and many, many more.
Kip called to ask if I’d be interested in a retreat for folks who wanted to explore a way forward. I said yes. I had no idea who would be there.
Nervous and a little skeptical, I packed my boots and headed to the mountains of East Tennessee.
About 50 folks were in the room when I arrived. Some of them I knew from the march. Some of them were known to me long before the march. Some of the faces were new. But all of them were activists. People who were on the ground in their own communities doing work.
Ann Northrop, from ACTUP, Derek Washington, Presente, PETA, and many more. I wouldn’t say the room had everybody, but there had been an attempt to make it inclusive.
So I suppose, you could say, like-minds or likish-minds were gathered.
We talked. Argued. Fought. Hard. There were so many different ways to do things. To talk about those things. We talked about Civil Disobedience, and Direct Action. Others talked about privilege. And how this group was NOT EVERYBODY.
That had to sit for a minute. But we got through it and talked some more.
We bandied around the term Radically Inclusive. We all agreed that it meant that we have to get everybody in the door. We had no idea how to do that. We knew it was going to be hard. Damn near impossible. But we discovered that real revolution, real change cannot happen until we attempt to get every vote counted. Until we included every voice that has a stake in the outcome. This was what Democracy really looks like. And I wasn’t exactly excited by it. But it had to be done. Any plan we agreed on had to include everybody. And that was what was so radical about that kind of inclusion.
Hence the term RADICAL INCLUSIVITY.
The concept is big. And so hard. So we needed a big phrase.
I was still mostly skeptical. It is my necessary armor of survival. So I listened. And scoffed on the inside and reminded myself that White folks were still in charge and that saying they wasted to include everybody, was not actually doing so. I challenged ideas and demanded that things be clarified. And explained. And extrapolated.
And there were young activists who still believed that the impossible was possible.
And there were folks with their hearts on their sleeve. (Snot and breakage in full view) And some people were pricks. And then said they were sorry. And we had to understand that we need prick for the revolution too. So we had sandwiches. And tea. And late, late at night some people had beer. Then we all woke up and started talking again.
And somewhere in the process of biting off heads, and leveling egos, it dawned on me that this struggle is bigger than me and my hurt feelings. At Highlander Center, I was reminded that this work is about change. Progress. Slow and fast and crazy and disappointing. It is about doing what you can in a war that began long before you were born. It is about setting up the fight to continue long after you are dead.
The struggle is the point. And there has been progress. Even if it has been slow.
But there comes a time when we have to amp up the pressure. We have to be loud and visible so our progressive politicians know that they are not without support. We have to hold them accountable to a common vision. We have to remind them of what they said they would do. We have to make sure the left is pressing as hard as the right. So we have to march. And plan acts of civcil disobedience. We have to beat drums and blow whistles in the streets.
Our leaders can only respond to the voices they hear coming from the noisy crowd. We must find our voice and bellow our common truths out to the masses loud enough so they can hear. We must encourage the crowd to replicate our call. We must be willing to stand and scream our demands until we are heard.
Marching and protesting and storming the offices of those we elected to do our will is not an attack on those offices, but a reminder, a show of support, an urgent call to a promised action. We gather in the streets and carry signs and chant our demands because we want President Obama to know we have his back should he decide to get aggressive on these greedy, right wing bigots. The supporters of those bigots have talk shows and ads and monies to dispatch their messages. We need to find ways to dispatch ours.
If Obama should say, repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell right now. What can we do to make sure he survives the heat from the conservatives? We have to be able to take them on with him. We have to debate them, and respond in the media to their unfair and often untrue messages. We have to continue to gather, to protest in his defense when he does the right thing. If he should say, get radically inclusive with his tax cuts, and/or come out in support of LGBT families, unions, we will lobby our own conservative families on his behalf. We have to make sure he does not lose his ability to do his job because he is standing up for our rights.
And that is why coalition building, multi-issue politics, and cross-pollination tactics are the only way forward.
If he does what he says, we have to promise to campaign, and make phone calls, and donate money, and twitter, and facebook, and knock on doors, and shuttle people to the poling stations for him in 2012. We have to find better ways of convincing the independents, of wooing the conservatives who have doubts about their positions. We have to include the churches. And we have to include the groups that are marginalized. We have to talk about race. And class. And we have to begin talking about sexuality. And gender. We have to commit to the work of real democracy.
I call on you to support the leaders we elected. I call on you to let them know that we are not sleeping. I call on you to hold them accountable to the promises they made when they came asking for our votes. Tell them if they don’t hold up their end of the bargain, that we will find other leaders who will.
This is just the beginning. I am an activist. Active duty, again.
I’m up. Late. Writing. Scheming. Devising ways to my rights. To get equal. It’s time to get free.
Call your congress person. Your senator. Your pastor. Call your mother. Your brother. Your bigoted step mother. Get to know your network. All of it. Widen it. Use it.
I can only say that something is brewing.
Something is afoot.
Make sure you know your where your friends are.
Make sure you know
what your enemies hold in their hearts
in their pockets
in their fists
you have got to have a plan
make sure your leaders know we are coming
make sure you know where you are going
make sure when the moment comes
it finds you ready and able
to reach for an army
prepared to fight long-term
and hand to hand
Talking about a revolution like a whisper. Or a plan.
We will miss you, Howie, but we plan to keep the legacy going.
Howard Zinn, (1922 – 2010)
Staceyann will be reading The Other Side of Paradise, at Barnes & Nobles
Tuesday, February 9, 2010
Time: 7:00pm – 9:00pm
Location: Union Sq, 33 East 17th Street, NY, NY.