Friday, April 23, President Obama spoke with a group of 500 youth leaders at a town hall meeting in London, and among the students who spoke were a number who raised questions that involved the relationship between principles and tactics in social movements like LGBTQ marriage equality or Black Lives Matter. This subject was picked up by mainstream media and was all over the internet by Friday afternoon. You can read the whole US government transcript of Obama’s meeting here, a comment here, a fully-argued rebuttal here, with another comment here.
Speaking to a man in green who asked about how to get people to compromise, Barack Obama said, “I would distinguish between compromising on principles and compromising in getting things done in the here and now.” He explained, “If I have a chance to get health care for 200,000 children, then I can take that and get another 200,000 children in the next budget negotiations.”
The President’s proposal—hold fast to a principle, draw attention to your issue, then, at the negotiation table, take the long view and accept something less than your goal because the future will bring you closer to your goals—seems admirable to me, until I think more closely about my own life or about the recent history of the US.
The President’s advice seems to fail at the shift from “drawing attention to the issue” to negotiating. How is one to know exactly when the other side— “elected officials or people who are in a position to start bringing about change,” in the President’s words—are actually ready to start serious negotiation? Much of my way of dealing with my culture as I seek my place in it, I learned during the thirty years between 1980 and 2009 when I was dealing with a conservative culture that had elected right-wing Presidents at least five times, who ignored the AIDS epidemic, appointed right-wing conservatives to the Supreme Court, signed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act into law, and sought again and again to eviscerate Roe v. Wade, and gave the country Bowers v. Hardwick. For decades, until the Obama administration, “negotiation” actually amounted to nothing but smoke and mirrors. When do you know that you can quit “yelling at them” (in the President’s words) and actually start negotiation? For me, in the world I have inhabited for much of my adult life, the attempt to get their attention never resulted in a clear moment where, suddenly, the other side was ready to turn to negotiation.
During those thirty years, the people that I have admired most were people like Lt Dan Choi, West Point graduate, who was thrown out of the Army for being gay, and who started chaining himself to the White House fence, over and over and over again until you know the White House was sick of him. At first, the country thought he was a jerk, but when he started being a jerk over and over again, the focus began to shift, and he became a powerful symbol of resistance to oppression. He refused to let the government—the military and the President—drive the process. They might assert their right to this report or that authentication, but it was Lt Choi and his colleagues and all the activists across the country who drove the process and who demanded all of it. And then they got it, too. Eventually Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed, and he was deeply admired. His chaining himself to the fence over and over again went on after the negotiation process had begun. I assume that the Reagan administration, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II and even the Obama administration all lied whenever there was a negotiation proposed, and that our side had to return to some form of chaining ourselves to some nearby fence to maintain the process toward freedom.
When the President says, stop yelling at the person in authority after he has begun to negotiate, he suggests that the person in authority is telling the truth, which the President knows is not so. Far better and smarter for us to keep the pressure up, to keep shouting in the street, chain ourselves to nearby fences, and to maintain the ability, if the negotiations don’t go our way, to have thousands of people in the streets again within a matter of a few hours. And, of course, to have very good, tough lawyers and generous donors.
What President Obama, speaking to the students in London, didn’t say was that sometimes the fight is already won before there are any negotiations if we are tough enough and very smart. Sometimes the opposition just collapses. That happens when our side exhibits such determination, such adamantine will, such strong chains to the fence, that the people are drawn to us and we win there before our case gets to Congress or to the SCOTUS. Think of 2013 and 2014. By the time the Supreme Court came to the case, the country had already decided what was right. This didn’t happen because we were sweet. It happened because even the very oldest of us, out there in the street, holding hands and signs, demanded our rights. We did it as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg would have us do it—one state at a time, one local federal judge at a time. Social revolution by retail.
In this process, the principle that we are committed to which is non-negotiable is not always to “equal protection under the law.” We may phrase it that way in court cases, but the higher law is that we have a right to a safe space in our lives. We have a right to be safe in the streets, in our schools, in the stores and libraries and locker rooms of our cities and towns, and most of all in our families. We have a right to be treated with respect by other members of our families. This is not a question of negotiation. It is right that we raise hell if we don’t get it.