One of the easiest times to get tangled up while struggling for a better world is when we’re losing ground, when the other side seems to be winning. How, in times like these, can we minimize our losses and even reach for some new ground by going on the offensive?
The campaign on behalf of homophobia can teach us something about this, as well as a neighborhood campaign to free itself from the grip of drug lords.
Fighting in defense of fear
First, take a minute to pity the poor homophobes who have been losing ground for decades. Not only have LGBTQ forces won a series of concrete victories since the battle of Stonewall in 1969, but a huge shift in culture has gone along with that, with even young evangelical Christians by the millions turning against the homophobia of their parents. Brave members of sexual minorities have done many things right, as I pointed out in a recent column.
But the homophobic right has managed to slow the lavender menace with a combination of defense-through-framing and on-the-offensive action.
Warning that heterosexual families were under threat, advocates of homophobia set up the Family Defense Council. Warning that traditional marriage was under threat, they raised funds like mad to defend discrimination. “Equality itself is threatened by granting special rights to gays,” they trumpeted. “Your children’s minds will be warped by pro-gay education.”
The brilliance here is that they were dipping into a pool of truth, even if with a dirty cup. Heterosexual families are in trouble, although not because of LGBTQ folks. Heterosexual marriages are falling apart at record rates — including among evangelicals — although the causes lie elsewhere. Inequality is increasing, and so is underemployment. Education is in trouble. The homophobes are connecting with the harsh experience of tens of millions of people. Yes, they’ve been defending homophobia, but to do it they’ve been speaking about the lived reality of their constituents.
I think there’s a lesson in that.
Defense has a powerful appeal for people, often more powerful than the appeal of change. If mainstream labor leaders knew what the strategists for homophobia know, the “Reagan revolution” could have been slowed or even stopped; the last four decades would not have become framed as the defense of trade unions, but instead as the defense of working families, the hundreds of millions being attacked by the 1 percent.
How they frame defense is half of the homophobes’ strategy. The other half is how they go on the offensive through action.
Gandhi’s first principle of strategy was to take the offensive, even if you’re up against the most powerful empire the world has ever known. You cannot defend your people — or yourself — by acting defensively.
In this way, even while framing their movement as defense, the strategists for homophobia launched action campaigns to take the offensive. On a state level, they passed laws forbidding equal marriage. Then they took the offensive again in order to pass state constitutional amendments forbidding equal marriage. They took the offensive in the same way on a federal level.
They launched campaigns to get local school boards to exclude anti-homophobic curriculum and LGBTQ speakers. The world of commerce was another arena for their campaigns, like boycotting companies that treat LGBTQ people fairly as a preemptive move to prevent other companies from doing the same.
It was brilliant strategizing, effective enough to throw gay friends of mine into periodic episodes of gloom, although not effective enough to win. Even the smarts and money of the right wing can’t stop the widespread struggle — including a lot of personal courage — on the LGBTQ side.
The right wing has no monopoly on how to use defense and offense, however. My late friend Barbara Smith knew that.
Defending a neighborhood — by going on the offense
Barbara lived in the West Philadelphia African-American neighborhood of Mantua, known throughout the city as “the Bottom,” for good reason. With high unemployment rates, Mantua had infant mortality rivaling the poorest countries. One of the neighborhood’s afflictions was a booming drug trade, with open-air markets that attracted expensive cars from the suburbs. Police were as intimidated as the residents. Neighbors shook their heads as they talked among themselves: Somebody ought to defend the neighborhood.
Barbara had been working with me in the Jobs with Peace Campaign, a 1980s labor/community coalition taking the offensive against the Reagan revolution. Although she frequently carried a gun, she became fascinated with the potential of nonviolent direct action. In 1988, she decided it was time to launch an offensive to defend Mantua.
With two other women she went to one of the street corners most popular with the drug trade. They carried plastic trash bags and brooms. They began to sweep up the litter, assertively moving the men aside as if they were teenage boys standing in the way in their kitchens. When they finished cleaning up, they left, carrying their bags.
The women then scheduled a meeting in a neighborhood church, inviting residents to talk about the drug trade. Some women who lived in upstairs apartments on that street corner had seen Barbara and her friends cleaning up around the drug traffickers, and in their amazement spread the word. A few women came to the meeting to talk with Barbara and her friends.
The next week the intrepid three came back to the corner to repeat the performance. This time, to make it more edgy, Barbara took a break from sweeping, pulled a small notebook and pen from her purse, and appeared to be taking notes. She told me the next day in the office that in fact she was much too scared to be able to write anything, and just scribbled to mime writing. The guys with the guns were tense, but didn’t do anything. Do you beat up a couple of older neighborhood women because they are sweeping and making notes?
More women came to the next meeting in the church basement, not only to observe the courage of the three but to ask what they could do. The group was off and running, devising tactics that, bit by narrow bit, got edgier as their numbers grew. They persuaded women to call the police when they saw someone bring a bag of money and throw it in the trunk of a car; eventually the police became brave enough to seize the car.
They adopted a name that said it all: Mantua Against Drugs, or MAD. Barbara welcomed a community leader, Herman Wrice, who brought his credibility and courage. MAD began to contest territory, choosing carefully, step by step, which corners to occupy before the traffickers got there. They knew their effectiveness — and survival — depended on avoiding the outright provocation that would result in deadly reprisals.
MAD organized marches, first through the safer streets, then through streets considered drug territory, chanting their favorite slogan: “Up with hope, down with dope!” In a considered escalation, they began to march at night, and police became so brave as to accompany them that, in the presence of the community, officers could arrest drug sellers as the parade went by.
Men in the neighborhood began to realize that they were being left out. A characteristic of campaigns that are experienced as defense is that the “mainstream” of a community knows that it has an obligation to defend the group. As MAD became viable and visible, more of the men — the tougher and more important part of the neighborhood, at least in their own eyes — realized they were missing in action.
Herman and Barbara offered hard hats and sledgehammers to the men with a special assignment: On the next march, they were to take the lead, and when the march reached a crack house, they were to go up on the porch, smash the door down, and lead the march right through the house.
The men did it, and the sellers in the crack houses had to flee out the back doors. It turned out that one of the houses belonged to a neighbor who had been forced out so the drug dealers could occupy it — that’s how lawless the community had become.
The escalation made many more actions possible. I spent a memorable night tending a fire on one of the street corners we now occupied all night, to the chagrin of the wealthy white suburbanites who drove up hoping to buy drugs. The movement spread from there to other neighborhoods.
President George H.W. Bush, while running for re-election in 1992, came to Mantua for a photo-op. The president said to always-feisty Barbara while the television cameras were running that she was doing a wonderful job.
“Yes,” she replied, “and I wish I could say the same for you.”
That was Barbara, whom I miss a lot. I’d sum up her approach this way: Be edgy, frame in terms of people’s lived reality and defend your community fiercely by going on the offensive.
In risk-averse Singapore, pro-democracy activist Jolovan Wham chose to go to jail rather than pay a fine to erode the widespread fear of civil disobedience.
In recognition of the pandemic crisis, big-city, mainstream newspapers are calling for actual system change. Activists need to be ready to answer the invitation.
As the government response to the pandemic falters, mutual aid projects — a staple of social movements for decades — are rising up to meet people’s basic needs.