April 22, 2010
Four days ago, at a fundraiser for Senator Barbara Boxer’s re-election campaign, President Barack Obama found himself dealing with protesters who called for action on the Pentagon’s policy of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’, an issue which has been drawing more and more attention through factors such as the declared commitment of the current Administration to repeal DADT, and the actions of demonstrators such as Lieutenant Dan Choi and Captain Jim Pietrangelo, who, along with others, handcuffed themselves to the fence of the White House in protest against the policy.
Zoe Nicholson was one of the protesters at the Boxer fundraiser, and took the time to shed more light on her actions, the protest, and the wider background of the current state of DADT.
You got in trouble. For heckling the President. What happened?
I find the word ‘trouble’ kind of funny. Being 61 and never the quiet one in the room, I feel almost impervious to being in trouble. And being an avid devotee of Emmeline Pankhurst, Alice Paul, Gandhi and Dolores Huerta, I was just answering a call. It was literally a call, by the way. The phone rang with a request by the most radical US LGBT group, GetEQUAL. While this group is new, on the heels of the National Equality March (10/11/09) and the terrible loss of Marriage Equality around the US, it is founded on the principles of Act Up; the famous group of the late ‘80s when queers were dying in record numbers from HIV/AIDS. The founder Larry Kramer met with people who were on fire as they knew that silence =death. Their actions are legendary and inspiring – and, most importantly, successful. Government funding came through for research, pharmaceutical companies sped up meeting this new disease and support organizations unfolded all over the country. Frankly, I think one reason they were so effective then and there are so many “casual” activists today is, in the late 80s, death was present in every circle of gay friends.
My phone call asked if I would join people from GetEQUAL and interrupt the President at a pricy fundraiser for Barbara Boxer. They told me to buy a ticket on line and they would reimburse me. You may find it interesting that you never know who it will be, how many or even the nature of the interruption. You either say yes or no. A Satyagrahi* just says yes. That is the commitment. I hung up and bought my ticket, sealing the commitment (good to do before the nerves kick in). Over the next week, there were conference calls, rehearsals, changing messages, tee shirts made; bringing it all into focus. Of course you don’t know what the room will be like – seating or standing; what the law enforcement will be – friendly or stern; what are the real unknowns. In this circumstance the worst of it is that we would be alone in a crowd of people who paid a lot of money to see their beloved President and we would be embarrassing them.
Embarrassing the audience?
If you read Gandhi – his key word is EMBARRASS. The opponent’s embarrassment is the goal. That discomfort is the quaking of their conscience in the light beam of your truth shining on them. However, as in my case, a nearby man was very, very angry. He was so aggressive and violent that I knew it was about a whole lot more than me and it made my Secret service escorts switch into protecting me! But I lurched ahead in the story.
OK. So, the event had begun, all the pieces were in place…
We agreed that once the initial applause quieted and POTUS was selling his party to the crowd, one by one, we would shout a chant, “Mr. President, it is time to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. We are waiting for you to show leadership, Mr. President. Repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. It is the right thing to do. Get Equal.” Between each of us, we would wait 2 minutes. I was third (and last – obviously no one would know that).
And then… showtime.
Plants in the audience chanted out the first disrupter with, “Yes we can.” Clapping drown out the second one. I waited for POTUS to get back to his easy rhythm and the room to quiet down. I took off my jacket – revealing my GetEQUAL tee – put my head down, invoked Lady Gaga at the National Equality March, took a deep breath and let it rip. I bellowed, “Mr. President. Repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. It is the right thing to do,” twice. At that moment, he invited me to the podium saying, “If you have something to say, come up here and say it.” I raised my right hand and replied, “I would love to.” (Funny thing to know is that I would be more comfortable up there than in the crowd).
I started to walk to the podium, people began to allow me through until 1) the Secret Service kindly took my elbows to escort me out, 2) a violent angry man slammed his feet into mine, his face into mine and screamed at me – “You are the ugliest cunt in the room – get out.” I must say that was unexpected – whoa. No rehearsal for that! He just kept going, inching his feet, shouting in my face and saying his hateful sentence. I am sure he has quite a proud story to tell his golf buddies on the 19th hole. But for me, the good news was that it made the SS act on my behalf and peel him off of me. I was then passed through a succession of SS and peace officers to make sure all of us were off the property. At the end of the parking lot, we were released.
Everyone seems to be a little bit upset with Obama right now. On both sides of politics, activism is on the rise and getting more and more media coverage – what was it that made you decide to go to a gathering of the faithful and ‘heckle’, as they’re calling it?
You can ask any woman who is 9 months pregnant; it is time to push. Equality is breathing, looking for life, reaching for light; it is time to push. The radicals in every human rights movement start to act up because there is something to be won. There is a sense of urgency. Finally, after 18 years, POTUS says he is willing to repeal DADT, pass ENDA, and has identified himself as a “fierce advocate.” October 11, 2009, at the HRC dinner he said again that he would repeal DADT. We have military who are willing to sacrifice their freedom for this and officers stating in Congressional hearings that it should be repealed. We have a super majority in the 111th House – hey, it looks like it is time to push.
Do you think the LGBT community on the whole is becoming impatient with Obama?
Not as a whole, as you put it; but activists (my political peers) are not mapping to the whole. It is the duty of the activists to stretch convention so the “whole” can step a bit toward the goal, maybe with no personal risk. The activist is moving the red velvet rope so the crowd can move. As an activist, I will share that I am impatient with the “whole” and it is time for everyone to get on board and MOVE – as we are holding the rope for them.
What was your response to Robert Gibb’s statements about the DOD timeline on the investigation into repealing DADT?
Blah, blah, blah. I wonder if anything concrete and succinct and ringing of truth has ever come out of the press room. To expect that is naïve. We are coming to the end of this Congressional session, elections are on the move, fundraising is happening, a Supreme Court Judge is about to retire and let’s all break out into a chorus of “Sit down, you’re rocking the boat,” (and you know that is the cue to ROCK).
What about Obama’s own response to the ‘heckling’: “When you’ve got an ally like Barbara Boxer and you’ve got an ally like me who are standing for the same thing, then you don’t know exactly why you have to holler because we already hear you. It would make more sense to holler at the people who oppose it.”?
There’s been a lot of commentary, both on your personal media networks and in the larger media about the disturbance you caused. How have people tended to react to your actions?
When I got up the next day and looked at my facebook page, there was a single sentence posted by an overseas soldier – thanking me. It doesn’t get any better than that. Amen brother. The second thing that comes to mind is a post today that a F2M trans kid at CSULB was stripped, molested and “it” was cut into his chest. That is why we do this – we have to integrate our hearts and become the diversity we are seeking. We have to love one another and if one kid, one person, feels that somebody out here gives a damn – that’s all that matters. Today I posted, ‘There will be no graveside folded flag for a lesbian widow.’
We made a ruckus and collectively we made history. I am proud to have been a part of it. Activism is a vocation and I am still upright. There is so much to do.
Zoe can be found online here.
*Satiagrahi: One who adheres to the truth and demonstrates active non-violence.