Editors' Note: Frequent guest blogger Monica Helms is the president of the Transgender American Veterans Association.
I received a phone call from a good friend, Zan Thorton, telling me that Congressman Barney Frank had fifteen disabled people arrested in his office, Tuesday, September 16, 2008, at around 3 PM. Zan informed me that around fifty LGBT and straight disabled people entered the Congressman's office around 1:30 PM and asked to speak to him about the housing crisis for disabled people. They were there representing the Center for Disability Rights.
According to the Congressman's Chief of Staff, Peter Kovar, the group, several in wheelchairs, came into the office, went right into Congressman Frank's office and "moved things around" to have a place to sit. He informed them that they couldn't be in there and that Frank was about to go to the House floor for a vote.
Kovar stated they needed an appointment to speak with the Congressman. The Spokesperson for the group, Bruce Darling, Executive Director of the Center For Disability Rights, stated they have tried and tried to get an appointment but had been turned down each time. Kovar asked them to leave their literature and come back later, and asked them to leave "five times." Congressman Frank even asked them to leave three times.
The group started chanting, disrupting the office activities, so someone called the police. Out of the fifty, fifteen people, all of them disabled, refused to leave and were arrested. In that fifteen, one was trans, three were lesbians and three were gay men, including Bruce Darling, and all were in wheelchairs. According to Zan, the other eight were either straight or she didn't know. Zan called me while the Metro Police Department processed her in.
I got a chance to speak with Peter Kovar and he was "mystified" why the group took a belligerent stance when this was an issue that Frank highly supported. The group actually has a legislative aid in the Congressman's office who had been working with them on this legislation. One of the things Zan told me was that they also wanted to talk with the Congressman about transgender rights. Seems to me that they may have ruined their good relationship with Frank's office.
This is just another incident in the increasing evidence that some LGBT people are willing to ratchet up the level of confrontation with other LGBT people, causing more to be harassed, injured and arrested by the very LGBT people they protest. We have seen a person physically ejected from an HRC dinner, mounted police at the Houston HRC dinner and I was almost arrested handing out flyers at an HRC sponsored event. HRC has hired a goon squad to protect their people and now Barney Frank is willing to have disabled LGBT people arrested.
I am not defending the actions of the protestors any more then I am defending the actions of HRC and Barney Frank's people. There is a fine line between protesting to get your point across to the largest audience and crossing the line, making yourself look foolish. Even though some of our LGBT people grew up in the 60s and participated in the Civil Rights and war protests, the technology of the 21st Century has created a whole new set of "Rules of Engagement."
The biggest change in the 21st Century is the advent of the digital recording media. Practically every cell phone can take photos and many can do video as well, after which they can be sent to other phones and E-mail addresses. Instead of relying on a lone news camera person with a black and white 16mm camera to cover the events that get viewed days later, we can send out video from over a hundred different angles, and from both sides of the conflict, instantaneously.
Digital still cameras can capture hundreds of photos in a matter of minutes, then downloaded on a laptop and sent to thousands of people instantly through a Wi-Fi connection. Text messages and phone calls are also instant, so many people are aware of the event as it happens. As evident of this, my friend Zan called me from the DC MPD as she was being processed in. That wouldn't have been possible in the 60s.
So, how does this world of instant everything changed the face of protesting? It can lay bare the atrocities of some people and governments, breaking the barriers of silence and repression. We saw Buddhist monks protesting in Tibet, yet the Chinese government tried to suppress the information and pictures. We could see protesters in China during the Olympics, getting past the strongest surveillance China has ever initiated. Children misbehaving on a bus, train wrecks and natural disasters are recorded and sent out for all to see. Not only is Big Brother watching us, but so is all of his next of kin.
But, there is another side to this age of instant recordings. We, the protesters, are also scrutinized in great detail by those whom we protest. Make one mistake, say one wrong thing, act just a little stupid and our actions will also find their way on YouTube. A picture is worth a 1000 words and moving pictures can invalidate a 1000 words we may try to use to defend our actions. How many elections have been derailed because of a stupid comment splashed on YouTube? Movements can experience setbacks because of the actions of just a few. Just ask yourself this, "Do I want to be the person who makes my organization look foolish?" It's a question Joe Solmonese should have asked before taking the podium at Southern Comfort last year.
I have heard many activists who say we should take to the streets and cause civil disobedience to make our issues more visible. I don't see this as a viable way to approach things in the 21st Century. Digital technology makes our issue visible in ways we could have never dreamt of, or hoped for in the past. We can use that instead.
Also, we should take a queue from what happened to protesters at this year's Republican Convention. The police no longer care if you are just passing through or not. If you are in the area, you're a target. Due process isn't due anyone any longer. There's also no gray area and the police don't care about harming people. This hasn't changed much since the 1960s, but they have more weapons to use. I hope the people who protested Frank's office don't come away with too big of a fine to pay. We will chalk this up as another learning experience.