Today, here in Boston, I was at a rally at the State House supporting the demonstrators in Madison and supporting our unions and theirs. It was not very big, somebody said a thousand people, and it was orderly. Everybody seemed to agree on the basics—unions and collective bargaining are essential to the kind of culture we have in this country—and the crowd was cheerful and energetic, applauding the speakers at every popular line. The police were respectful and kept a low profile. We had a sense of the other demonstrations—we were told that these demonstrations were being held across the country in all the state capitols—and I don’t think people felt very embattled, but even so, it was inspiring to be there with others who felt as I did and to feel that we represented a larger movement than had actually shown up on Beacon Street.
Another rally I went to in front of the State House was several years ago, in favor of gay marriage. It was after the Supreme Judicial Court had construed a new definition of marriage—”two persons” rather than “a man and a woman.” The legislature was considering whether to allow a vote by the people on amending the constitution to prevent same-sex marriage. The legislature was inside the building, and we were outside chanting and singing and carrying signs. It was very cold then, too, just like today, and the demonstrators felt very embattled. There were many opponents of gay marriage on the street with us, and many strident arguments from people who wanted to quote scripture to us. We had no idea which way the legislature would go. It was going to be one or two votes in either direction that would decide the matter. In the end, the amendment was turned down, and gay marriage as decided by the SJC was saved, and we were saved.
I have spent most of my time since January 2008 studying and writing about the Stonewall Riots, which was another way that American citizens have come together to petition the government for redress of their grievances. The police raided the bar, the customers were thrown out on the street where they ended up rioting, and the police trashed the bar. The police, in three nights of rioting, were never able to control the streets. Some people have asked, “Why didn’t the police use their firearms?” I suspect that the answer lies in what is happening in the Middle East. Once the police or the armed forces start firing on unarmed citizens, they have lost the battle. And what the citizens have to do—whether they live in Madison or in Tripoli or Cairo or in Boston or New York—is to be persistent, to keep coming back, to never allow themselves to be permanently run off the street. Citizens, actually, no matter where they are, own the street, despite the cops and the soldiers. In the end, the gay men and women on the streets of the West Village after the raid on the Stonewall Inn never gave in, and they proved a more powerful force than the cops and the politicians. We have our lives as proof.