Joyce L. Arnold: Liberal, lesbian, Independent, equality activist, writer.
Kerry Eleveld’s recent article, What Gay Rights Activists Can Teach the Left About Winning, is an important take on activism, LGBT and otherwise, in this 2012 election cycle. She begins:
Remember when you believed that if we just elected enough Democrats to Congress and took the White House, we could take this country back?
Actually, no, I don’t remember that, because I didn’t believe that. But the point she’s making is valid – there were legitimate expectations of “hope and change.” There were also those who don’t think electing any one person is ever going to mean the end of the need for activism and feet-holding-to-the-fire accountability. The 2008 election was one piece of a much bigger picture. And Obama was / is just one person in that same much bigger picture. An election win can, occasionally, be of the “life changing” variety, but our Two Party Corporate system isn’t seriously challenged by one or two or more election cycles.
That’s a part of what Eleveld’s piece is about. She mentions Keith Harrington, an environmental activist who volunteered many hours with the Obama 2008 campaign.
But his actions and those of his fellow activists embody a realization that many progressives have had: It wasn’t enough to elect historic Democratic majorities to Congress and place a Democrat in the Oval Office. …
… that’s why LGBT activists started handcuffing themselves to the fence that forms the perimeter around the White House, showing up at presidential events and sometimes shouting down Obama … .
After studying Obama as a member of the press corps for nearly four years, the only time I have seen the fire of true indignation flare in his eyes is when he feels as though the left is questioning the authenticity of his progressive ideals.
Eleveld notes that not all LGBT’s favor the criticisms of Obama. Writing at Bilreco, for example, Bil Browning says:
For all those who keep complaining as if Obama is the Worst. President. Evah. on LGBT issues, who would you rather have in the White House – one of those GOP fools who show such cavalier attitudes about basic respect for LGBT people or a President who shares your values?
The point, though, isn’t simply to compare Obama to the GOP field and conclude he’s better on LGBT issues than they are. The point, rather, is that he’s needed to be pushed to act on LGBT equality. That’s what LGBT activists have been doing, pushing the guy in the WH, not comparing him to the wannabe opposition.
And that “pushing” was noticed by other activists. As Eleveld talks about, immigration activist also went to the White House to protest, and some were arrested. They, too, have very good reasons to protest. Deportation rates under Obama exceed those under Bush. In a speech to La Raza, Obama used an argument familiar to LGBT’s, among others.
The day before the arrests, Obama had tried to explain … that he couldn’t change the laws by himself, he needed the help of Congress. But Obama’s words were met with a new twist on a familiar refrain. ‘Yes, you can! Yes, you can!’ they shouted at the president.
As Eleveld writes, it’s a “familiar conversation,” being told by the administration that they have no choice, that they must, for example, defend DOMA. Which they did, vigorously, for two years.
Eventually, they realized that there was a bigger political cost to defending the constitutionality of the law than there was to abandoning the effort.
The administration also saw the repeal of DADT get lots of praise and support, with very little downside.
So it wasn’t particularly surprising to some LGBT activists when the president and his advisors discovered that they did indeed have the ‘prosecutorial discretion’ to suspend deportations of immigrant youths who pose no threat to public safety.
The learning curve, we notice, became more obvious as 2012 came closer. Election years are opportunities that seasoned activists grab, well aware of its limitations, but also of the possibilities. In that always present Big Picture reality, you use the moments you’re given, or rather, you use the moments most often won by activists.
The Big Picture timing is, of course, one reason for the Keystone Pipeline actions, the Occupy Wall Street actions and the upcoming October 6 actions.
Eleveld concludes with this:
At the very moment that a promising politician gets elected, a true activist’s work has only just begun. …
It turns out the ‘change we can believe in’ must come from within. It starts, by necessity, as a yearning that gives rise to a voice, which gives way to disenchantment, and even to unrest, if unanswered.
“Even to unrest.” In the world of the activist, “unrest” is essential. It can be expressed in different ways, and it can happen in conjunction with, or at least at the same time as, Insider (think HRC) efforts. But expressed “unrest” (think GetEqual) is absolutely essential.