Anatomy of a Protest
Who Made It Happen, How Many People Turned Out, What Elected Officials Are—and Aren't—Doing, and What Happens Next (Confidential to the Naked Lady on Her Balcony: We Love You)
The revolution started in Fremont. Amy Balliett, 26, was e-mailing with a friend in Cleveland, Willow Witte, on November 7, lamenting how large national organizations would be slow to respond to California's Proposition 8. "In a bureaucracy, they have to go through all the hoops to actually get something going," says Balliett. "And the thing is, the country needed a reaction now."
The measure called into question the legality of Balliett's marriage to her wife, along with about 18,000 other same-sex couples who had married in California. So Balliett launched Jointheimpact .com, calling for a national day of action. "I used a lot of the methods I use in my daily job," says Balliett, who drives traffic to websites for a living. She and Witte blasted e-mail, text, and Twitter messages to announce the project. Within one day, 800 people had joined on Twitter. On the second day, the web server crashed under an influx of traffic. Balliett found another host with a more robust server, but "our traffic doubled overnight," she says. The traffic ended up crashing that server, too. Someone offered a third server, and within five days it had received 10 million hits.
By Saturday, November 15, over 300 cities had signed on. The next day, Google News logged 1,500 articles on the protests.
In the two days following, six organizations working on marriage equality contacted Balliett, and collectively they have started plotting ways to harness their new momentum, such as building national and local organizations and lobbying state legislatures. "We've all agreed we are going to form a coalition and use Jointheimpact.com as central hub for everyone to communicate," says Balliett, "because it has become a political social network." DOMINIC HOLDENChristopher Frizzelle
In addition to what Amy Balliett was able to accomplish with Jointheimpact.com (see above), a social network went viral on Facebook. It spawned 38 local groups within a few days, including one for the Seattle protest, which over the course of five days gained roughly 1,000 new members a day. Seattle University senior Andy Swanson used the "Seattle Protest Against Proposition 8" Facebook group to promote an on-campus sign-making party on Thursday night.
At the rally in Volunteer Park, Susan Nunery, 63, says, "I didn't see any posters." Nunery, who is straight, stood beside her friend Esther Rousso, 71, who is also straight. "We heard about if from MoveOn.org in an e-mail," said Nunery.
The internet flash-mob formula is not without its weaknesses. "We need to have the grass roots, but we also need to have the large organizations," says Balliett. "Our protest on Saturday would not have been where it was without Equal Rights Washington." ERW, which focuses on marriage equality, dropped everything to re-direct its staff to recruiting volunteers, sending e-mail alerts, notifying the press, and using its establishment connections to assemble a speaker lineup.
ERW spokesman Josh Friedes says, "We just rode a wave of youth activism." DOMINIC HOLDENJoe Szilagyi
Memo to Ron Sims and Greg Nickels: Yes, everyone in the crowd at Volunteer Park seemed thrilled to see you. But a brief note on your choice of words. Gay marriage is not a slippery slope, as some argue, but you make it one when you start sounding like you're endorsing not only gay marriage but also NAMBLA fantasies and polygamist dreams. "Everyone should be able to marry whomever they want" is not the gay-rights position. What gay couples are asking for is the same access to civil marriage that heterosexual couples enjoy. Marriage between two consenting adults. It doesn't roll off the tongue as easily as "Everyone should be able to marry whomever they want!" But there's a difference, and it's important. ELI SANDERSMatt Westervelt
According to a conservative police estimate, 6,000 people marched in Seattle—event organizer Kyler Powell thinks the number is closer to 10,000. Over 25,000 people marched in San Diego. At press time, 50 of the 300 participating cities had reported their attendance estimates. Running total: 132,000 protesters. DOMINIC HOLDENJoe Szilagyi
The lead organizer of Seattle's protest against Proposition 8—the antigay initiative backed primarily by Mormons—is a gay Mormon. That's him (left), 21-year-old Kyler Powell. A student at Seattle Central Community College, he responded to Jointheimpact.com's call to action by getting permits for the Seattle march and rallies, starting the local Facebook group, coordinating logistics for the event, and roping in Equal Rights Washington and other local organizations to help. "I was kind of outraged with Prop 8, which inspired me to start a protest," he says. However, "the Mormon Church's stance on abstinence, dating, and the clothes you wear resonates with my personal morals."
The march he organized was the first protest he ever attended. He MC'd rallies at the beginning and the end of the march.
But his allegiance to the church—according to some—prompted him to block speakers from mentioning a protest at a Mormon temple in Bellevue later that night. "He is allowing his personal bias... to get in the way of challenging the Mormon Church as we did in NYC," said Rebecca Snow Landa, a member of COLAGE, a group of families with same-sex parents.
Powell counters, "When you are... trying to advance a cause, you need to try to build coalitions and relationships with people on the opposing side." While he acknowledges staunch opponents may never be convinced, he believes a more moderate message appeals to the "movable middle." But he's considering resigning from the church. DOMINIC HOLDENJoe Szilagyi
While marching down the slope of Pine Street, surrounded by a crush of like-minded citizens shouting for equal rights for all, my eye caught the unmistakable pale glow of exposed Caucasian flesh several hundred feet in the air. On an unadorned balcony outside an upper-upper-floor apartment of the 801 Pine building, a real-live naked lady was letting her fleshy freak flag fly. With her arms spread wide and her hips cocked jauntily westward, she stood still enough to initially suggest a well-positioned mannequin. But when her left arm floated down to deliver a lit cigarette to her lips, it became clear we were in the presence of a living, breathing superstar. If you think the sight of a naked lady might draw a complicated response from a crowd that included lots of gay men, you'd be wrong. There was a deafening chorus of whoops and shrieks for Seattle's own Lady Godiva. (Lady Gaydiva?) DAVID SCHMADERKelly O
It was the saddest protest you've ever seen. One woman.
Two days after Saturday's protest, Cara Wilde stood outside the house of Donald Pugh, a Bellevue Mormon who donated $50,000 to Proposition 8. She had a sign fashioned from a sheet neatly painted: "Donald Pugh is a homophobic bigot. Shame on him." She insisted on a pseudonym for our interview. Inside the house was one man who didn't speak much English and said he wasn't Mr. Pugh. "According to King County tax records, this is his plot," Wilde said.
The banner, ringed with LED Christmas lights powered from a battery in a backpack, lay on the sidewalk. "It would have looked better with another hippie holding the sign," Wilde told the 10 reporters, photographers, and cameramen hovering around. "But my other sign-holder flaked."
Wilde's logic for protesting here: "I think you have to be pretty naive to respond with hearts and flowers. These aren't just casual misled voters or average churchgoers. I'm talking about the people who donated obscene amounts of money to a religious propaganda blitz to deceive the public and spread hatred. I can't think of a more appropriate place to be protesting than in front of the homes of Prop 8 donors."
Nationally, Mormons gave roughly $22 million, about two-thirds of the money behind Proposition 8, and local donors gave about $200,000 to support the measure. The weekend after Election Day, protesters picketed a service at the Seattle North Stake Center, a Mormon chapel.
Wilde's friends backed out on Monday, saying protesting someone's house was too confrontational. Wilde says, "I guess I'm just the most abrasive cunt in Seattle." DOMINIC HOLDENPeter Hoh
It's hard to think of a precedent in the gay-rights movement for what happened on November 15. There have been marches in Washington, D.C. There were vigils all over the country for Matthew Shepard. And then there's that annual Gay Pride thing. But there has never before been a coordinated protest for equal rights for gays and lesbians in hundreds of American cities on the same day. Andrew Sullivan called what happened in the wake of Proposition 8 an "awakening."
No one has a single explanation for this unprecedented outpouring—from Seattle to St. Paul (left) to New York City. The election of the first African-American president, the organizational power of the internet, the length of time that this marriage fight has been going on, the weather—all likely had something to do with it. I think it also had something to do with the place that California holds in the national psyche. It's where people run when they want to start over. It has a huge gay population. It's long been the national laboratory for social experimentation. To watch it lurch backward, at the hands of its own people, is appalling. ELI SANDERSJim Loter
"Most of my colleagues"—in other districts—"have never had anyone talk to them about marriage equality," says Ed Murray, state senator of the 43rd District in Seattle. "That is a glaring description of the work we have to do." Along with state representative Jamie Pedersen, Murray has pushed two successful bills that recognize same-sex couples as domestic partners. They intend to push more domestic-partnership bills, inching toward full marriage equality—eventually.
The next push to lobby the state legislature for same-sex marriage is Equality Day on March 12, 2009. The onus now falls back on the shoulders of march organizers like Amy Balliett and Kyle Powell to harness the massive online network to get people there. Pedersen hopes "the energy we saw on Saturday can be channeled into an ongoing movement." DOMINIC HOLDEN