Heat And Activism In Fresno: A Prop. 8 Protest Journal
Thousands rallied on 5/30 in Fresno for Meet in the Middle 4 Marriage Equality event, which included a 14-mile march. Protest organizers chose the city of Fresno--instead of marching to the capitol or in so-called "gay ghettos"--because they city had voted 65%-70% for the passing of Prop 8.
Weekly contributor Dave Barton was on hand, and sends us this travelogue:
When I step out of the air-conditioned comfort of our rented Mercury Grand Marquis and walk into the dry heat, Martin Sheen's opening voice-over in Apocalypse Now immediately comes to mind.
It's 11:45 in the afternoon and I've just arrived with my partner of 15 years, Peter, and our friends, Frank, Russ and David. We've just driven 3 ½ hours from Orange County to participate in the Meet in the Middle 4 Equality demonstration protesting Prop 8. Scott and Erika send us a text that they've just finished eating in town and are heading our way. Alexander and Chris are already at the end point of the rally, along with Heather and her husband, Eric, their weeks-old new baby, as well as their other two kids.
We're standing at Van Ness and Railroad Avenues, a large metal archway high overhead stating "Fresno. The Best Little City in the U.S.A." At noon, we're to accompany a group of marchers, led by Fresno-based gay and lesbian couples who were able to become legally married in the window between the two California Supreme Court decisions. They'll lead the charge into the rally at Fresno City Hall--another 2 ½ miles from where we're standing--with us following and cheering them on.
It's after twelve and they're not there yet.
Looking at the small numbers assembled around me, I say out loud, "There's less here now then there was at the shitty OC rally at the Santa Ana courthouse on Tuesday."
I'm beginning to think we may have wasted our time.
While any progressive rally that gathers together more than a handful of people in Orange County is praise-worthy, after a couple of decades of queer activism in OC, a few hundred people is disappointing. Corralled into the back alleys of Santa Ana, away from crowds or businesses, in the over-used and isolated Plaza of the Flags, things haven't changed much in 20 years.
After all this time later, OC gay politics is still in the closet.
One of the harshest lessons being an activist is the lack of respect by apolitical slugs that'll make the time to go to Coachella for a weekend but not the couple of hours it takes to correct an injustice. There's also the understanding that unless a social issue directly affects an individual, they usually won't get involved. Even if there's a political referendum on your humanity like Prop 8, you can't count on your friends to do more than just offer an ineffectual sympathy. You can't even count on them to vote in your best interests.
Robin McGehee, the organizer of the Fresno march and rally, her young son nearby, has a bullhorn and welcomes the crowd. She tells us that the marchers are running late--which we know already--and tells us that we can wait for them and march or get out of the heat, climb into vans nearby and get driven the 2 ½ miles, bypassing possible heat stroke.
This starts a "To Van or Not to Van" discussion in our group. Peter wants to drive over and I argue with him about the social significance of braving the discomfort and of how important it is to support the people who've been marching for four hours already.
It's not a very long discussion...everyone decides to wait and walk.
SPF 24 sunscreen.
It's a good thing.
My skin quickly turns pink.
I take pictures of the metal sign, of the railroad tracks, of barbed wire fences, the surrounding deserted feel of the isolated area we're standing in.
I snap androgynous teenagers in cool t-shirts, a rainbow flag or two, the occasional sign that makes me laugh or inspires me or makes me wish I'd thought of it.
The bullhorn fires up, again, telling us the marchers are coming.
They're quite a ways away still, but I can see the strobing flash of police car lights in the distance and my heart starts to quicken.
I throw on a black-checked kaffeyah to cover my bald head and it's been such a long time since I've worn one at a protest, I end up draping it over my head instead of trying to wrap it correctly and look like some jowly, squinty-eyed monk.
While we waited, busses and cars dropped off more protesters, swelling our numbers dramatically. By the time the marchers arrive, there are a couple hundred of us.
A raucous cheer goes up as the group walking for the past several hours arrives and doubles, perhaps even triples, our numbers.
Posed pictures are taken quickly before the march resumes, as people drink thirstily from bottles of water and chat excitedly. Some are carrying signs naming the various parts of California they come from. A couple of people are walking dogs. Groups with similarly colored t-shirts look like green and pink clots amid the barren gray landscape. White vans load up some of the elderly and disabled.
Then the march starts up again.
McGehee seems more than a little overwhelmed and tells the assembly that she's not the kind of organizer to lead the march in chants and asks for someone to stand up and take the bullhorn.
I'm excited that a young woman raises her hand and moves towards her, but that evaporates as a white guy a few years older in a t-shirt and Levis walks up, snags the bullhorn and begins the chant.
Gay activism--it's the same old boy's club wherever you go.
You eventually come to the realization that your friend's and family's disconnection, their defensiveness when confronted is more their issue than yours. You discover sooner that to keep your friends you can't participate in an ad hominem j'accuse because nobody likes to have their indefensible decisions thrown in their face.
So you make peace with their seemingly oblivious lack of passion, their eye-rolling demand to calm down and relax. You accept the disillusion, the bitterness and lack of understanding by people who should know better.
Silence does indeed equal death, it seems.
I'm shooting all along the 2 ½ mile route.
My less-than-superior camera blurs if I'm moving, so I have to stop to take them.
I get behind as a result and then have to walk faster to catch up.
I still end up getting an awful lot of shots of people's backs.
Did I mention that it's friggin' hot?
The route the marchers are taking to the rally is a long one, but after the weed-encrusted sidewalks and sterile industrial areas, we come into other places just as deserted. The stores and warehouses look like they've been empty for a while, so I don't know if it's because of the economy or because of under-development.
They stand still and unassuming, quiet observers as we chant and march and root for the people at the front.
Cops in police cars and on bicycles look completely unfazed by the crowd.
Cars stopped at freeway exits or side streets watch, honk and shout their approval or sit and watch, saying nothing.
The cops let the protesters have the streets, without a club, police dog or pepper spray canister in sight.
That's a first in my experience.
And something gives way inside you and you get angrier. You want to shut people out. You despair and want to toss a Molotov cocktail at the same humanity you once vowed to help.
A woman waiting for a bus talks on her cell phone and sips on a soda.
"It's some kind of parade or something, "she says to the person on the other end.
Nobody is screaming Bible verses or "sodomites" or asking us if we'll next demand the California Supreme Court to legalize sex with corpses--the kind of thing that Reuben Isreal and his gaggle of street trash preachers screamed at us in Santa Ana.
In fact, it's about as opposite as can be. As we head into the downtown area, more traffic is stopped and people continue to take the wait in stride, honking cheerfully, people coming out of stores and watching passively or waving and smiling. Everyone's polite and, even kind, some applauding or holding signs of support along the way.
One of my friends tell me later that they saw one guy yelling, but I never did.
The most hostile sign I saw was a lesbian holding a placard that said Hitler would have voted for Prop 8 and that just seemed more statement of fact than angry manifesto.
I was amazed by the civility of it, especially after Santa Ana.
Something cracks and it stays broken until another surprise comes your way...
A friend who never even thought about direct action, picks up a sign and meets you in Fresno. Or in Santa Ana. They don't just talk. They take action. They make a PSA to show solidarity. They write their politicians.
My concerns about numbers and whether it was worth it all changed as soon as I got closer to the rally. Was that applause?
And "deafening" may seem over-blown, but in this case it wasn't.
As we poured into City Hall, amid the ecstatic shouts and whistles, I saw that I was surrounded by hundreds and hundreds and hundreds...Thousands...of people that were looking at me and the other marchers, smiling and waving and screaming.
And my stomach tightened a bit at all of the faces and my eyes filled up with water and the area was awash in so many different kinds of humanity that I felt myself lifted into the air and embraced by the cheers and I thought, "God, it's been years since I've felt like this."
I'm no fool. I know it wasn't for me, per se.
I hadn't walked fourteen miles.
Hell, I hadn't even chanted that much.
And none of it happens as a result of you and that's okay, because it happened and you were lucky enough to be around to see it and hear it and be there with them.
And you feel invigorated and hopeful and cared for once more. You think--however tentatively--that you might just give this activism thing yet another chance.
And you come home again.
And, most miraculous of all, it can happen anywhere.
Even in Fresno.
More pictures from Dave Barton, who wrote the above post, here.
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