Guest Blogger

The 21st Century "Rules of Engagement"

Filed By Guest Blogger | September 19, 2008 3:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: Barney Frank, Center for Disability Rights, Joe Solmonese, people with disabilities

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.

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The bottom of every comment form contains an admonition from Bil that, " this is our online home; ill-mannered house guests will be shown the door." The Capitol its offices and the HOB are the work home of every member of Congress. As the "people's house" it is or should be the focal point of American democracy. I think the same admonition is in order.

Having said that, I think that there is still room for some well staged political theater (civil disobedience). With the operative idea being, "well staged." It is the presence of instant media that gives political theater a renewed relevance. I think it is also important to note that a large part of civil disobedience is getting arrested. Complaining about, or protesting the arrest undermines the impact of the action.

I agree with Monica that new media tools make it oh so easy to come off looking the fool instead of promoting a cause. Rather than a signal to put on the brakes, this should be a cue for a new curriculum for Activist 101.

"Activism 101?" (I changed the word a bit.) This sounds like a great guest post by Polar, myself and Angela Brightfeather, or a post by Monica Roberts. It would be interesting to get a non-trans view of Activism 101.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | September 20, 2008 10:00 AM

It wasn't like Barney Frank did not have anything to do. The financial institutions of the country were about to implode and he is chair of the House Financial Services Committee. I do believe he was busy on the 16th of September.

Let's be fair. They could have had them out of there simply by giving them an appointment.

The LCR's could have a field day with this if they had any savvy....

Speaking from personal experience here, the real problem in this particular case is Barney Frank and his staff. For someone who speaks out and does as much work on LGBT issues as he does, it's inconceivable how completely inaccessible this man makes himself to the people he purports to speak for in Congress.

Unlike most members of Congress, you can't email Barney Frank directly unless you are a constituent. He'll appear in media directed at his favored demographics (i.e. rich white gay men like Michelangelo Signorile listeners), but he flatly refuses talk to media or take meetings with those representing those outside those elite groups, such as transpeople or, (apparently) disabled LGBT people.

In contrast to the accessibility of most members of Congress and most politicians in general, Frank closes himself off from interaction with those who don't represent the groups with the largest numbers of voters and the most money for the Democratic Party. Frank is an excellent example of the kind of unresponsive partisan politics Barack Obama has been saying needs to change in Washington during this campaign.

While I agree with Monica that the rules of engagement have changed...obviously, those of us here at TPB fully utilize these new technologies to get our own positions across...I can totally understand why disabled LGBT folks felt compelled to go directly to his office and confront him and his unwillingness to speak to them and their issues directly.

It's frustrating in the extreme when a politician who is highly influential in getting the issues important to you and those who care about on the table not only fails to do so but also refuses to even do as little as take just a meeting with you to discuss them. So, therefore, while I definitely think they could have made their point in a much better way using the modern media tools we have today, I fully agree with their motivation to break through Frank's unwillingness to enter into a dialog and force the issue.

I do agree that technology has changed the ways we engage in direct action. Before the problem was not getting information out easily enough, so the power-that-be would pick and choose what got out, and now so much is out there that the powers-that-be just have to organize it effectively.

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.