Rachel Maddow often begins a story and makes me wonder Where is she going with this? She began her lead story Friday night with a Harvard scientist working with hydrogen in its various states. She informed us that hydrogen can have a gaseous or a liquid or a solid state. Solid state hydrogen, apparently, under immense pressure can be transformed into a metal. Rachel concluded by saying that pressure can bring about change.
Rachel then moved to politics. Last week the Trump administration issued executive orders, the first of which was to the staff at the Health and Human Services, prohibiting their corresponding with the public. This raised such an outcry that the administration gave in and rescinded the order. This sequence was then played out with other executive orders: to the USDA scientists prohibiting them from posting data to the public, a prohibition that was then reversed by the administration after immense pressure was brought to bear on the administration. Then, as the week progressed, executive orders were issued at the EPA, at the VA, and at the HHS. In each of these cases, the original action by the administration caused such an outcry that within hours the administration backed down and the status quo was re-imposed. That is, in each of these cases, Rachel made the point that pressure brought change.
A gay person, experiencing this week, might remember the last fifty years and remember, perhaps, that moment on December 10, 1989, when 4,500 members of ACT-UP invaded St Patrick’s Cathedral in NYC to protest Cardinal O’Connor’s opposition to abortion and birth control and safe sex policies. The pressure that Rachel speaks of comes in all shapes. Sometimes it’s crowds on the street, sometimes it’s senators at a microphone, and sometimes it’s random dudes chained to a pew in a cathedral screaming at a cardinal. Cardinal O’Connor never gave in that day, but the point of the action was to separate the cardinal from his flock—and thereby to reduce the cardinal’s power—and the demonstrators succeeded in that. The action in the cathedral was one of a series that led to the church being less and less relevant to the people. A Pew Research Center report from last September shows that almost twice as many Catholics (62%) believe that homosexuality is morally acceptable or is not a moral issue as against thirty-five percent who believe it is morally wrong. The church hierarchy holds to antiquated and bigoted dogma, and parishioners often don’t. The church has been under relentless pressure in the last forty years to change its dogma, and the activists have been successful in capturing 62% of the church. They’re with us on this.
There have been other pressure points. In 1988 ACT UP led the demonstration against John Hancock insurance company for not covering aerosolized pentamidine, a medication used to treat pneumocystis pneumonia for AIDS patients. The demonstration was called a “circus” and was brought about by sophisticated PR techniques by the demonstrators. Have you ever thought “pressure” could be brought about by a “circus?” It could. It did. In 1989, John Hancock gave in and started covering aerosolized pentamidine in its insurance policies.
Another demonstration, this time against Harvard Medical School in 1988, involved 55 gallon drums of red liquid made to look like blood and poured on the white marble steps of the medical school. ACT UP managed to force the dean of the school to issue the statement, “I am not a bigot.” Like Nixon’s “I am not a crook,” this was evidence that he had already lost the PR wars. The result of the pressure that ACT UP and other organizations brought to bear on the medical profession brought about change in the way the medical profession ran clinical trials and changed fundamentally the way the epidemiology of the disease was conducted.
Any community outside the mainstream has to learn to exert pressure on those who would presume to control them or to limit their rights or to operate on them rather than work with them. Rachel is right about that. The Women’s March last week showed us how much that one group knows about resisting the government. We are rich in communities like the LGBTQ community, who have long histories of resistance and who know how to put pressure on governments and who have developed decades-long files on how to prevent the disaster that appears to be coming. The suffragettes wore white. In Bangor, Maine, after Charles Howard was murdered, we started to wear buttons that read, “Another Friend of Charlie’s.” We learned how to handle journalists, how to research our past, and how to make politicians hate to see us coming. And we know how to use the legal profession because we know that eventually the laws will have to be changed. And there are books that have to be written, posters designed, mailing lists collected, politicians to be embarrassed.
The point is that, at this really dangerous point in our history, We the people are composed of dozens of communities who know how to fight power and to bring about change. And if we ask each other—Native Americans, Jews, African Americans, the whole LGBTQ crowd, women, and everybody else who has ever wondered to themselves, How do I get them to hear me?—we have answers. We know how to do this. We are not helpless. Even against the President of the United States.
At this point, Rachel would conclude with her sly smile and ask, “Anybody for a 55 gallon drum?”
Steven Epstein. Impure Science: AIDS, Activism, and the Politics of Knowledge. Berkeley: Steven University of California Press, 1996.
Benjamin Shepard and Ronald Hayduk. From ACT UP to the WTO: urban protest and community building in the era of globalization. London: Verso, 2002.