Friday, November 12, 2010

GLBT Liberation Comes to Durango

The other day I got an email from an old political friend. He knew that I was living in Durango and he asked me if anything political was going on here. Disparagingly I responded that I was unable to detect anything, and that most Fort Lewis College students I have met seem more interested in smoking pot or rock climbing than in actual discussions about politics- let alone living activism.

The very next day my girlfriend here told me she was going to a protest. Apparently, a recent documentary called The Anatomy of Hate was being screened at the school, and a group of Christians from Kansas (whose outspokenly anti-gay church and pastor, Fred Phelps, were featured in the film) was coming to protest it. The students were organizing a counter protest of the protesters.

We went to check it out. There were a lot of people there

At least two issues apparently came together to form this protest. The first was the counter protest of the Christians. The second issue is that Ft Lewis has just got its first openly gay student president. Recently there had been some anti-gay posts made about him and sexuality on some internet forums and the protest here was held to counter that.

Not having visited the Ft Lewis campus before, I asked some students where the movie was being shown. Several of them replied, "what movie?" Apparently they didn't know about it, though I'd like to consider that more of a positive sign of the protest's mass nature than a negative sign of the protest organizers' inarticulateness.

We saw the film. I was definitely glad I was able to see it, and I found myself agreeing with much of it, like how hate comes from fear, how governments and religions promote hate-fear to control people and promote their causes against the general good of the species, how people project parts of themselves they are afraid of onto other people they don't know and then try to tear them down for it (ex: homophobia among closeted gays / bisexuals).

In the discussion following the film I did take a minute to talk about the fact that Palestinians are living under daily occupation, blockaded Gaza is essentially the world's largest open air prison, and that the issue is not so simple as "my religion and my people verses yours", which I felt the film, through the limited context it provided, tended to convey.

The psychology of people living under occupation, and the psychology of occupiers living in fear of possible retribution from the occupied, is interesting to examine. These conditions, and individual motivations, are useful and important to understand. But it is far more useful, which approaching a conflict as complex and seemingly intractable as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to examine issues politically, and in the context of history.

This is important not just to understand why the conflict is ongoing, but also to understand how it might be stopped. When we look at things politically, when we talk about power, money, populations, and activism- rather than just one on one interactions between peoples- we begin to see the power that groups have which individuals don't. To take an example from the film, I think it is a great and inspiring thing to see former Hamas militants, and former IDF soldiers, refuse to fight each other and form a peace group together. I also understand that the efforts of such groups alone to end the occupation and stop the war will likely amount to very little as long as Israel can count on $3 billion worth of American military equipment per year, and billions more in economic assistance, to continue its "holy" expansion onto Palestinian soil.

The filmmakers' affinity for psychological probing, and one on one communication, was apparently shared by the moderators of our discussion, which often took the form of emotional soul searching and only rarely delved into politics. This left at least one girl disappointed there were no local Nazi rallies she could attend to try and understand Nazi's motivations and whence she could attempt to reason with them. In the discussion as in the film- where Anti Racist Action militants are actually portrayed as being more violent than the calm, self disciplined, "suit and tie" Neo-Nazi and KKK leaders- there seemed to be cast a shroud of suspicion over the "equally hateful" actions of anyone trying to prevent a hate group marching in their town with a counter protest or direct confrontation.

These questions about how- or whether- to confront hate groups was worked out on Ft Lewis' campus in the days and weeks proceeding the movie by a debate among protest organizers over whether they should counter protest the bigots directly, or hold a separate "pro-tolerance" rally on the other side of campus. As it played out this time, the latter option won. Personally if I had been a student organizer here I would have argued for the former, and I would have had a lot of examples and history and points to cite in favor of it. But as it was, hearing about and attending this struggle on the day of the already organized protest, I was happy to see it and I was pretty inspired by the work of the students to make it happen- and to come out to it in such large numbers.

At the end of the day, having the protest at all seemed to get the job done. Apparently, the bigots didn't make it- no Westboro Church members showed. The students managed to get about 1,000 people out (organizers optimistically hoped for 300), mostly through word of mouth, text messages, and social networking sites. The outpouring of support wasn't limited to the student body, either- the president of the College, Dene Kay Thomas, as well as Durango's Mayor, Michael Rendon, gave the protest their blessing, and spoke at it. Even the town paper wrote up a story!

* * *

After the film my girlfriend and I hung out with two foreign exchange students from the Basque country that we met in the discussion. We had a few beers and talked about politics, capitalism, protests, revolution, Basque self determination, and the differences among each our countries' populations between those intelligent and good hearted people interested in protesting things and fighting for a better world, and those many more intelligent and good hearted people who've given up on politics and are simply trying to live out their own lives.

This night of conversation with these very intelligent people reminded me just how long it has been since I had participated in something like it. Since mid way though high school, till about 7 or 8 years later, I have had the privilege of being a friend, room mate, and / or activist alongside many of the most intelligent, intellectual, and politically active people the United States' Left has been able to produce. I do love river trips and I do love living in the desert- in many ways much more than what kind of life I have been able to find in the cities. But I also miss being around passionate, intellectual, political people.

Around a lot of the west, among liberal "hippy" types as well as among more conservatively minded people, there is this attitude where people don't care what your opinions are, and most people tend to respect other people's rights to have their own ideas- however strange or different (mormon, buddhist, republican, hippy, democrat, whatever...) they may be. At first I have found this a rather refreshing intellectual condition, a breath a of fresh air from the in-your-face, pervasive, confederate flag waving bigotry I grew up with.

But upon reflection, and in light of this recent reminder of what it means to actually be around intelligent people having discussions and trying to find answers, I come to realize what a liability this attitude can really be. Much of this "tolerance" for other people's opinions has about the social impact of the straightjacketing of thought. It is too often considered "rude" to ask someone's opinion about politics, the election, the protest, or someone's living situation- in the same way that in many cities it is considered "rude" to make eye contact with a stranger on an elevator or a subway car, or to ask someone you don't know how their day is going.

When we raise political questions, and have actual debates and discussions with each other, it's a sign of respect, not disrespect. It means we care enough about each other, and enough about the issues at hand, to take our ideas seriously, to go through them, to subject our own ideas to the fortifying scrutiny of polemic, and to figure out what actually does make the most sense.

I didn't get to speak at the rally, even though they began soliciting comments from anyone in the crowd who'd like to share any. I got there and approached the organizers too late. However, if I was able to talk there, I'd tell those kids that I am very inspired by their actions. I've been reading non-stop this post-election analysis of how allegedly right wing America is, of how big a deal the corporate, republican organized "grass roots" Tea Party is (even though its size of all its events have been dwarfed many times over by the size of every mass progressive demonstration that has occured- and largely been ignored by the media- over the past 10 years). The reality, beneath the hype, is quite different. The reality is that we're not a nation of 45 year old, $50,000-100,000 a year, white, racist, suburbanites. We're a heck of a lot more diverse than that and, if opinion polls are too believed, most of us are a heck of a lot more socially liberal.

This protest was a very welcome affirmation not just of that, but of what potential there really is, for more of us, like these students, to figure out that Hope doesn't come from quietly taking abuse while waiting for disinterested politicians to do nothing, and that change doesn't come from sitting at home and doing nothing.

Durango Herald Article on the Protest

Official Website for The Anatomy of Hate

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