Activists have been talking for some time about how to revive direct action to force real change for queer people. At Creating Change earlier this month, I saw this discussion first hand at a planning session for a nationwide series of civil disobedience. So many of us are over the glacial pace of the political system—and politicians elected with the help of our votes, only to fail to make good on their promises. We all know how effective ACT UP was in getting Burroughs Wellcome to cut the price of AZT after the group invaded the New York Stock Exchange in 1989. Their actions back then forced the country's power holders to deal with the AIDS crisis after years of soft-pedaling.
So it was interesting—and inspiring—to see how The Power responded to Harold Ford Jr.'s appearance before the Stonewall Democrats in New York City Wednesday night. Instead of acting "civilly" (read: docile) and listening to the former Tennessee congressman repeat what they call his "lies," members of the Power boisterously pushed back at almost every statement, chanting "liar" and raising signs that said "Snake Oil Harry, Go Away." Ford, who's mulling a carpet-bagging primary run against Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, voted twice for the Federal Marriage Amendment as a House member. But what really bugs many LGBT New Yorkers (and their allies across the country) is that Ford supposedly told gay leaders in his old Memphis district that he wouldn't vote for the venal bill. When Ford disputed this Wednesday—"I never promised anyone I'd vote against that amendment," he said, adding: "You're misinformed"—a veritable melee ensued.
"What do you take us for?" someone shouted. "A bunch of gays, that's what he takes us for," replied another, amid great laughter. Then someone compared the protestors to "tea party people," as the night's moderator implored everyone to, yes, "keep it civil." "I never lied to anyone about my position," Ford retorted. "You can't have it both ways—you can't say that I said I'd vote against [the amendment], then vote for it, and then I was for it and then against it. I was always for it." (A regrettable line, to be sure.)
The protest was designed as much to rattle Ford as it was to send a message to his political backers. While some in the audience bristled at the Power's in-your-face tactic—"Stand outside and demonstrate on your own!" said one woman who exchanged words with a protestor—others seemed thrilled by the spectacle, which attracted a record crowd for a Stonewall Democrats meeting. (There were about 150 people on hand, including numerous reporters and TV cameras.) The Power's de facto leader, Jeff Campagna, was certainly pleased. "So much has been said about how major donors to the DNC are backing him, the Wall Street fat cats," he said after Ford hastily departed. "The media payoff will be to show them that their candidate has real constituent issues to address."
And, Campagna added, we can learn something from the far right's tactics during last August's health-care town halls. "I find it really sad when gay people say 'don't be like the tea-party people.' The tea-party people are citizens who've taken signs and noise-makers and shown up at meetings and made a scene—and they've done more to advance their agenda than anything liberals have done since we won the election. For us to be saying we can't do that to advance the progressive agenda is really castrating the movement."