Sunday, February 11, 2018

Differing perspectives

There are always differing viewpoints on the issues of the day, for all sorts reasons, such as different life experiences, ideologies, values, and so much more. Expressing different views on public policy issues, when done peacefully, is one of the pillars of democracy, and necessary to ensure wherever we end up has brought most of us along for the ride. But sometimes, there are intrusive and disruptive things that keep us from moving forward.

The other day, I shared a Facebook video from the New Zealand Police about their “rainbow cop car”. I said in that post, “outreach efforts like this are… important and a mark of progress achieved. That in itself is notable.” I knew at the time that not everyone would agree with me, which is fine and expected.

When I shared the video on my personal Facebook (which served as the basis for my blog post), I got a comment telling me about an article on Fairfax’s Stuff news site, “Rainbow police car a 'cynical, two week-long PR stunt', Pride Festival organiser says”. In that article, Lexie Matheson, who is co-hair of Auckland’s Pride committee, a member of Auckland Council’s Rainbow Communities Advisory Panel, and a noted trans activist, was described as “outraged”, and quoted as calling it a “cynical 2 weeks long P.R. stunt” and adding that "I'm queer 52 weeks of the year, their car is queer for only two weeks of the year. They will take the rainbow off, but I can't." The article also quoted someone from a particularly strident, from my perspective, direct action activist group that blockaded the Pride Parade last year to protest the Department of Corrections and the Police marching in the Parade.

I responded on my page that it was “not the first time I’ve disagreed with activists, and it certainly won’t be the last. While I sometimes disagree with Lexie, I also note she has pointed out a positive aspect of this, and I agree with her on that. The other activist quoted… I don’t agree with.”

That would have been that—until I saw an Auckland Councillor, who is a Facebook Friend, posted about it and Lexie responded. Her comment was outstanding, showing a far more nuanced viewpoint than the Stuff piece had suggested, provided more context, and corrected errors in the Stuff piece. I asked her if I could share it, and she gave me permission:
“I’m far from outraged by the car, it’s a car. Nor, as I told the lovely young man, was I speaking as Co-chair of Pride. This was just me, private citizen, taking my right to speak my mind freely for a short walk. Of course I value the changes NZ Police have made n recent times. I’ve benefited. In 2007 I got a beating and was arrested, charged, intimately searched by a male officer and dumped with others in a male cell. What followed was a year of hell, on bail, with numerous court appearances before the charges were eventually thrown out. It’s fair to say I didn’t enjoy that much. As an activist and protester I’ve seen a lot of the cops since 1981. The last protest I went on was pretty confrontational. One young cop I spoke to proudly called me by my name and said he was there to look after me because ‘he’d had training about trans people.’ What’s not to like about that? As for the car it’s a neat idea but if it’s to be fully effective it needs to be there all the time and not just during Pride. Otherwise it’s tokenism. Nice tokenism, but tokenism all the same. As you can imagine I’ve been bluewashed today and I’ve been surprised at how many cops agree with me, high ups and street cops. It was heartening and, had I actually been outraged, it would have calmed my troubled breast.”
I shared her comment on my own Facebook post, as well as here, precisely because it gives fuller context to her remarks and because it helped me understand where she was coming from, and what her point was—all of which was missing from the Stuff piece, making it a disruptive influence that sowed division rather than understanding.

The thing is, back when I was an activist in my native Illinois some 25-30 years ago, I realised quite quickly how there were different paths to the same goal. I respected activists like Lexie back them, even when I disagreed with them or their tactics, because I knew they were moving things forward.

When I was an activist, I was a "suit and tie" activist, and the direct activists out in the streets—people like Lexie—made it possible for activists like me to meet with elected officials to present our demands. We got those meetings because we were "respectable" and seemed less threatening than the loud activists out in the streets. The irony is that we presented the exact same demands, but we were listened to. We wouldn't have gotten that access, nor succeeded in winning our victories, if it hadn't been for those street activists making the establishment uncomfortable enough to be willing to deal with activists like me, who they could identify with more.

Many direct activists despised activists like me (and still do, actually), because they saw us as accommodationists, too steeped in (and only interested in) our own privilege to push the demands of those without that privilege. But I saw how important both of us were to achieving our ultimate goals—eyes on the prize, and all that. I've always been a pragmatist, and that means I was an incrementalist rather than a revolutionary. It takes all kinds, in my opinion.

As I see it, activism is one of the tools available in a democracy to push those in power to address injustice. As Frederick Douglass said, "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will." We activists—whatever our methods or peaceful tactics—provided that demand. Activists still do.

Sure, sometimes I roll my eyes at the more confrontational activists, and sometimes I sincerely believe that their rhetoric or tactics do more harm than good. Sometimes. But other times, they provide the needed push to move things forward. Lexie said to me that sometimes she was “standing on the unpopular side”. I think that standing on the unpopular side is sometimes the only place to be. The way I see it is that the activists doing that, and even doing/saying stuff I disagree with, are necessary. Sometimes it’s the only thing that moves us all forward.

But I still like the rainbow cop car.

This post is based on several different comments I left on Facebook about this “controversy”.

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