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National Equality March Called Out on Process. Is Process Critical?

Steve Ault, who helped organize national gay rights marches in 1979 and 1987, has written a thoughtful criticism of the National Equality March, a march on Washington, DC set for October 11, 2009 with demands of equality and non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Did you notice I had to tell you what the march was about? Ault points out that the specific purpose of the march should be part of the title. This is one of many points on which he makes constructive criticisms. But Ault’s largest point is that the process by which the National Equality March is being organized isn’t inclusive or democratic enough:

Briefly, here’s how our first three marches were organized and structured. The primary decision-making steering committee, national in scope, was comprised of delegates elected at regional meetings, assuring representation from all parts of the country while also mandating gender parity and inclusion of people of color. National organizations and spokespeople from unrepresented and underrepresented constituencies were added to make sure just about everyone had a seat at the table. The leadership was in turn elected from and by the steering committee. This decision-making process — admittedly contentious and chaotic at times — won acceptance as fair and inclusive. The ability to be both heard and represented motivated people from all over the country to commit time, energy, and resources to building these marches — a factor at the very heart of their success.

What’s the goal here? To have a social movement based on inclusive decision-making that incorporates representatives from various constituencies and organizations? Or to place pressure on government to enact policy change? For those who respond “Both!,” well, let me force you to go back and pick a primary goal. Which is more important to you?

If you had a March on Washington advocating for policy change you thought was important, and yet it was organized through a non-inclusive process, would you go or stay home?

Conversely, if you had a March on Washington advocating for policy changes that you didn’t agree with, and yet was organized through an inclusive process, would you go or stay home?

There are many (I’m thinking of participants in the anarchist, cooperative and — sometimes — feminist movements) for whom process is king, for whom the movement itself is the goal, an embodiment of a process of social living that is accomplished every day by the act of organizing in the right way. The goal of these processual movements is not primarily to get a law passed, or stop a bad law from getting passed, but of spreading the movement, growing the movement, propagating the mode of living that the movement represents.

I respect the existence of these kinds of movements, but I’m not part of all that. Oh, back when I was an undergraduate student I used to be. I used to spend hours in late-night consensus sessions, breaking into small work groups and then coming back to the larger body to report, listening to hours of conversation about the name of a group or the standards for deciding how decisions would be made by the group. We could spend hours and hours doing this… because we had the time. Now that my life is busier and occupied with concerns like food and preventing my kids from getting flattened by oncoming flatbed trucks, I don’t have the time for meetings like this. I’m not, as the academics like to say, biographically available for such high-commitment activism.

When it comes to a massive social movement activity, like a National Equality March on the DC Mall, most people who attend won’t be, cannot be, involved in intense conversations and consultations and negotiations like that. The vast majority of participants won’t have been included in the planning process at all. It therefore strikes me that the criticism of non-inclusive leadership for the National Equality March is a criticism of a very particular and small set — the leadership of the LGBT political movement. This is a fight between different segments of the leadership, jostling for control, pushing to not be left out.

When I put it that way, it sounds awfully petty. But then I return to the academics again. They refer to the notion of bloc recruitment; most people don’t decide to participate in a social movement action simply because they think it is a good idea. Rather, they participate in a social movement because some local movement leader tells them about the action and encourages them to take part. As Steve Ault put it:

The ability to be both heard and represented motivated people from all over the country to commit time, energy, and resources to building these marches — a factor at the very heart of their success.

It could be that satisfying all the petty squabbles about inclusion in planning for the march are essential to getting local leadership enthused enough to pack the buses and make the March a success.

6 thoughts on “National Equality March Called Out on Process. Is Process Critical?”

  1. J. Clifford says:

    Oh, Gag. In my experience, this sort of process to process the process about process stuff creates groups that stop meeting, because people get frustrated about meeting to plan meetings to plan meetings of the committee on meetings.

    There are people who care about “being heard” within these movements, a phrase which usually translates into having an axe to grind, and making everyone else suffer the grind along with them. These process excesses actually prevent appropriate process. They prevent people from being heard, and they prevent effective action.

    This march is a good idea, and it’s timely. So, let’s join in it, and leave behind arguments about whether the vice chair of the granola subcommittee should have been selected by consensus or by a deliberative process that sampled the opinion of expatriate koala bears.

    If being heard within a social movement was really the prime motivation for participation in protests, then we could just get lots of people to turn out for meetings without purpose. We could have a National March for Being Heard, and people would flock to it. I don’t see that happening.

  2. Jacob says:

    A few weeks ago there was an ongoing argument on this site on how stupid national awareness for X days are. The opinion of many on this site was that they are pointless and serve little good. They get lost in the shuffle if you will…

    I am wondering if marches like this dont fall into the same boat. There are som many worthless marches anymore for every cause under the sun. Do they really make an impact like they did in the 60’s?

  3. Jim says:

    This is the distinction:

    Activism promoting legislation declaring a symbolic national awareness day for everybody to think about X Rays doesn’t promote doing anything, just passing a law declaring a day to care. If the proposed legislation is only symbolic, then the activism to promote its passage is inconsequential.

    Activism promoting legislation that changes the law of the land changes promotes changing the law of the land. If the proposed law of the land is consequential, then the activism to promote its passage is consequential.

    Spend some time on the Thomas database reading various bills and you’ll see what the distinction is between symbolic bills and consequential bills.

    1. Jacob says:

      But, I understand that if a law passes that actually accomplishes something its way different. My question is whether marching is an effective way to get attention anymore. I feel like I hear about a different march everyday anymore and the second the 5 second news story is over I forget about it. I may be wrong but to me it feels like this form of getting attention has been used to the point that it doesnt turn heads anymore. It also bears stating that the magnitude of other marches where so large other marches pail in comparison further deminishing the idea that people will notice.

      Do you believe that real change comes as a result to the march? If so, thats awesome

  4. Mark Cahill says:

    It is [NOT] cancelled. Cleve will announce soon.

    False Witness Alert! Mark Cahill is a fundamentalist Christian who makes it his practice to dog gay rights marches. This is an out-and-out lie. The National Equality March will go on as scheduled on October 11, 2009 in Washington DC.


    1. Jim says:

      There is no statement to that effect either on the news wires or on the national equality march website itself. Can you provide a direct link to such information to show that it is true? There’s been a lot of bull tossed up about the march by people involved in lgbt movement infighting; my first inclination is to conclude that this is more of the same. To show me it isn’t, you’ll have to supply that link, Mr. Cahill.

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