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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Commentary: Prop 8 Protesters Take To The Streets

Here we are almost two weeks after the 2008 elections and we are still thinking about 2008 election results. Part of that is because the results are not finalized yet. We still do not know what happened in three Senate races, a few house races, some legislative races, heck we still have a state that is not completely clear yet. And yet probably the big news next to whether or not Barack Obama is going to name Senator Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State is Proposition 8.

The Vanguard wrote about Proposition 8 last weekend, and yet people were still posting to that thread as late as Thursday. Now I have some additional thoughts on the proposition.

The day after the proposition passed by a relatively narrow margin, the activists hit the streets to protest it. I found that very odd frankly. Even now, I have mixed feelings about protesting the passage of a proposition. Let me explain.

My first reaction was that the majority of the people who voted, voted in favor of the proposition. So what good would a minority protesting it do. It seemed like a futile gesture. I mean whatever you think of majority rule in this case, it certainly supersedes mob rule.

And those of you have been discussing Proposition 8 with me know I do not necessarily agree with majority rule in this case. I see the right to marry as a fundamental right. I do not think that it can be abrogated by the vote of the people any more than free speech can. Some obviously do not see marriage as that sort of right. They see this as simply changing the traditional definition of marriage. But that is a much trickier argument than people perhaps want to admit. At one point in our nation's history, the definition of marriage was the union of a white man to a white woman. Intermarriage until really the last forty years was outlawed in most states. Moreover, at one point blacks could not even marry other blacks. So it is not as though we have not changed the definition of marriage.

I am going to avoid the debate between a separate status for same-sex partners than the marriage status for two-sex partners other than to say if there is a reason you want the status separate, then it's probably the same reason same-sex partners want the same status.

Back to the protest test. My second reaction to the growing number of protesters is where were you before November 4? This frankly frustrates me to no end. If every person who is protesting spend the time they are taking to protest and instead prior to the election canvassed their neighborhoods, I wonder if we would not have had a different outcome.

People have and will spent a lot of time analyzing the results and I agree with some of the analyses. But, I think you also have to look at the ad campaign. For the most part the ad campaign the Yes on 8 side ran was not running simply against marriage. The two most effective string of ads were the emotional appeal using the imagine of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. And the misleading scare tactic suggesting that not passing Prop 8 means same-sex marriage is taught in school.

When they covered the protests and counter-protests in Roseville prior to the election, that was the argument that the pro-side used. That having legal gay marriage means it gets taught in school and children learn that its okay for a boy to marry another boy. There was a fear by some that if children learn about same-sex marriage, they will want to get married to a same-sex partner. This fear of homosexuality, actual homophobia was a powerful tool used.

I go to these lengths to suggest that had these protesters been canvassers and talked with people, these fears could have been allayed. At the margins the vote was about fear not about philosophic opposition to marriage.

I had the same reactions years ago when people protests Proposition 187 and 215. Do not protest, vote and work to get out the vote.

And yet, here comes the mixed emotions part. I like to see people hit the streets. A moment ago I called it mob rule, but really it is not mob rule. It is expressing the right to free speech--a vital and vibrant part of our democratic tradition. I am a believer that thousands of people hitting the streets is a good thing and can lead to change. But only if it is harnessed into a movement that can actually do something.

I have said many times that I believe the time and demographics are on the side of those who support gay rights. In general our society has moved in that direction. I believe by the time my generation is in their fifties, this will be a non-issue. I think a generation that has grown up with openly gay people in every facet of life necessarily is more supportive of the rights for gay people. Moreover, you can not fear monger them out of their support for gay marriage. No one who has grown up around gay people and understands it is going to believe that teaching about gay marriage in school is going to convince children to become gay. Nor for that matter will they necessarily fear their kids being gay.

Some people have suggested that this is a manifestation of youth that may change over time. I do not think this is a young issue, I think this is a comfort and familiarity issue. In a way, I think younger generations having been raised in a more explicit and sexually overt time have an advantage over their older counterparts, I think younger people are more comfortable with their own sexuality and that shows up in a number of ways from willingness and openness to talk frankly about sex, to other issues such as sexual orientation. Certainly there are downsides to openness and comfort about sexuality when it comes to issues of infidelity and promiscuity, but in terms of tolerance and acceptance, it is an advantage and one that is not likely to change over time.

And yes it is true that first time voters voted against this proposition by a two-to-one margin and so some of the differential between the outcome a few years ago and the outcome this year is an artifact of that difference. Nevertheless, the gap between 22 points and 4 points is not merely explained by increased voter participation. It is too large a gap. Rather, it points to an increased acceptance level that is likely to grow over time.

Still getting back to the original issue of street democracy, the verdict is not in yet on that. If they are simply blowing off steam and that steam dissipates, then taking to the streets is still a futile gesture. They are not going to change the outcome by going to the street. They are probably not going to change a lot of minds. And they are not going to influence a court ruling. However, if they can harness that energy to create a grassroots movement that will be the foot soldiers for a new initiative, then it is not futile to take to the streets.

Is that likely to happen? My experience is that few protests of these sorts last long enough to be effective. Anti-war protests in the Vietnam era were fueled by external events that enable them to sustain themselves. Civil rights protests perhaps are a closer parallel. Still the effectiveness of those protests were largely aided by the brutal response from authorities that will not occur now.

Organizers should get names, numbers, start Facebook groups, and start a movement. The closest example to that type of mobilizing effort might be something like which started out as a simple internet message and turned into an organization that had some staying power and varying levels of influence.

The but ultimately the success or failure will depend on the ability of leaders to organize and the willingness of protesters to partake in other activities such as canvassing.

Regardless, as I have said throughout this process, I believe this is simply a matter of time.

---David M. Greenwald reporting