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.