Lately, we’ve been reading about Black Lives Matter and their disruptive tactics on the campaign trail. BLM have disrupted Hillary’s events twice, here and here, and Bernie Sanders, here, the mayor of Washington here, and they may have disrupted a Republican or two.
Sean Strub’s book, Body Counts(New York: Scribner, 2014, available in print and digital), is about his life as an AIDS activist. One of the stellar actions he took part in was the disruption of the service at St Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue December 1989 by ACT UP. Men and women stood up all over the nave of the cathedral shouting out to the Cardinal. “O’Connor, you’re killing us!” and “Condoms save lives!” The Cardinal didn’t answer. He closed his book and ended his homily. People all over America condemned the tactics of the AIDS activists. Gay people, and those with AIDS, said to each other, “‘Bout time.”
In May 3, 1971, the Gay Liberation Front, including Frank Kameny, disrupted sessions of the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in Washington, D.C. The GLF members broke into the Convocation of Fellows of the APA, and Frank Kameny, grabbing a microphone, announced, “Psychiatry is the enemy incarnate! Psychiatry has waged a relentless war of extermination against us! You may take this as a declaration of war against you!” Psychiatrists shook their fists, but the result, over the next several years, was the removal of homosexuality from the diagnostic manual of the APA. They no longer said we were sick. (Ronald Bayer, Homosexuality and American Psychiatry: The politics of diagnosis, New York: Basic Books, 1981, apparently not published digitally)
As a tactic, civil disobedience is growing on us or at least is still alive and well, and we can look more closely at what’s going on. Some people try to fight disrupters—shout them down or talk over them—while other people seem to just give in to them, like Bernie Sanders in the third link. Neither seems to be a productive response. One way to get at what is going on here is to look at the concept of community.
The candidates and the Cardinal and the psychiatrists, all seem to demand that the disrupters respect the communities that exist, the community of the faithful, the community of American citizens, the community of professional mental health professionals —and otherwise keep silent.
The disrupters, on the other hand, refuse. They seem to say, if you try to define what is community, if you try to determine our place in your community, if you try to set standards of decorum without us being heard from, we will know that there is no community among us. You defend merely a faction or a party, and we owe you no loyalty and no respect.
When the disrupter stands up to interrupt the candidate, saying, The only way you can claim to represent our community is for you to hear from me too, she is doing the rest of us a great service. Black Lives Matter understand that politicians are acting as if they don’t know that black lives matter. BLM know that politicians proceed as if it doesn’t matter whether black lives matter. BLM know Black Americans have been separated from the community that they are in fact members of—the community called America. They understand something basic about America that the rest of us don’t understand or have forgotten. America is composed of constituent communities, and no one community can act as if another is not a part of America. A single person can be a member of several communities at once. BLM know these things.
In order for community to be healed, BLM insist on their sense of community by rising and demanding to speak. I am here too, and I will be heard in my community. In 1971, to repair their torn sense of community, homosexuals had to say no to the psychiatrists, and then to rise and speak for themselves and refuse to allow psychiatrists the right or ability to silence them. In this way, community is healed.
It is an astonishing fact about our culture, that it thinks it is one community, that it thinks it’s inclusive, even while great swaths of the culture are left out, through ignorance or malicious intent. There is hope, however. The summer Charles Howard was murdered, in 1984, the local paper opined that it thought that local residents would be serene again if the local gay population— which, almost to a person, had come out and started marching when they found Charlie was murdered—would go back in the closet. The paper asked, “What are we going to do if it turns out the local gay population won’t go back in the closet?”
They wouldn’t. They didn’t. They became an immovable force. They formed an organization. They collected money; they built a monument to Charles Howard that announced clearly why he died. They got this monument placed in a prominent spot in the center of town, and, in the end, everybody got used to seeing it there, and got used to what it said, and they got used to gay people being part of the fabric of public life of the town. Bangor, Maine, achieved after Charlie died what it had not been able to achieve before he died, and what BLM is hoping to achieve, a more perfect community. That’s the goal in these things.