Monday, February 28, 2011

Owning the Streets in the Facebook Era

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

There have been riots ever since humans have had cities, strikes ever since we’ve begun leading mechanized lives. Mass movements have been claiming the streets ever since there have been masses. Facebook doesn’t change that. It’s just a new version of an old tool, media, that makes popular action easier and more effective.

Instead of sending human messengers, or letters, or telephone calls, you blog and tweet to share information, and rouse people to action. And when you get it done, instead of relying on word of mouth, or broadsheets, or TV or print coverage, you post a cellphone video on YouTube and hope it goes viral.

What all media does is augment the power of the street, not replace it. Especially for participants. Tunisia and Egypt have taught us that. If you want to know why, just ask where we literally live. Not in the blogosphere, but here, in our bodies, and out in the world.

It’s important for the powerless to remember, especially those of us defined by our flesh -- women, lesbians and gay men, the transgendered, people of color. Because that is what the world takes direct aim at, beating, bashing, raping, lynching the life out of us.

Hate crimes generally involve more brutality than other assaults. Why stab a faggot once, when you can do it a couple dozen times? The aim isn’t only murder, but destroying what they fear and despise. To this end, attackers are more likely to use hammers, baseball bats, ice picks, anything that allows repeated blows that can reduce a human being into so much pulp on the floor.

It’s why, in the segregated south, black men were systematically lynched, and women like Recy Taylor were so often gang raped. Sexual assaults were so common the NAACP had special investigators, like Rosa Parks, who did a lot more than refuse to give up her seat on the bus.

I’ll even stretch my authority and say dictatorships -- almost always justified as being for the good of “the people” -- are so brutal because they’re attempting not just to keep citizens submissive, but actually transform them in their imaginations from human beings into something less than ghosts. Every year it gets easier. Every year “the people” lose substance which the dictator sucks up like a vampire. Along with most of the national assets.

Reclaiming our existence from bigots, from haters, from tyrants, requires more than courts, online petitions, and updates, but re-establishing a physical presence, and waving the flags of our race, and gender, and sexual identity in front of hostile forces. Get big enough, the forces of power will be afraid, and either make concessions with the people always ready behind the scenes, or get in their private jets and fly away.

More importantly, taking to the streets allows us to reclaim our own sense of power and humanity. Once you relinquish your terror and step out there, something strange happens. Photographers always capture the raised fist of demonstrators, the grimace. But the truth is you’re as likely to start laughing with exhilaration. You must have seen it on the faces of demonstrators in Egypt and Tunisia that began dancing long before their revolutions were won. I’ve tasted it myself in the Lesbian Avengers, stepping onto Fifth Avenue with enough others like me for my voice and life to be amplified.

I saw it, too, a couple of weeks ago, when I was watching a segment of “Eyes on the Prize” about the struggle to desegregate Albany, Georgia. The camera of these documentaries usually circles around men, but this time it showed a whole row of young women in a big meeting singing and clapping. The next day they were on the street, laughing their heads off, faces shining with joy.

You could put it down to their participation in the enormous civil rights movement that they must have known was going to change history, but they were also young girls in the midst of a personal revolution. There’s nothing else to call it, females emerging in a way that they’d rarely done before -- as themselves. For once, they were not scurrying past hoping not to be noticed. They were not afraid of getting raped by a gang of white men sneaking around in cars. If violence came, it would be direct. Face to face, between equals. These young women were radiant with existence, and screamed with laughter.

Freedom, finally, is not something that can be negotiated, legislated, or rebroadcast on YouTube. Though all that helps. It’s something you seize with both hands, claiming actual space in the physical world where oppression also lives.

Monday, February 14, 2011

An Egypt For Everyone?

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

By the end of it, they were all in Tahrir Square - young kids hoisted onto the shoulders of their parents, old men arguing in groups, women and girls screaming at the top of their lungs. Even early on, soccer rowdies paired with the Muslim Brotherhood youth to beat back the cops, and at prayer, Muslims were ringed by Christians protecting them vigilantly from Mubarak’s thugs. Bean-eaters and steak-eaters sponged the blood from each other’s broken heads. We were there, too, lesbians, gay men, the transgendered, indistinguishably playing our part.

I got choked up watching, and if I were the believing kind, I’d get down on my knees and pray for this moment of grace to endure long past the first free election, and for Egyptians to figure out how to sustain that good will through the tough times of building a democratic state.

Even women passed through the crowd unmolested, scarves or not, because for a moment, the people in the crowd were all sisters and brothers united by a common desire not just for jobs, and bread, but freedom. You can’t write this stuff. You’d have to be pretty creative even to dream it. For too long Egyptians seemed resigned to a humiliating image as a nation full of long-suffering sheep that could be moved only by religious extremism. Now, they are courageous individuals, activists, artists, the new face of democracy itself.

I still can’t grasp the enormity of it. A thirty year dictatorship gone in a couple of weeks. And not by a military coup, or a group of revolutionaries (as we used to understand them) laboring for years in dark cellars, and dreaming of the moment they would rescue their longsuffering land, and as repositories of wisdom, claim the head of it.

No, the informal network of young Egyptians that seem to have sparked things off, sharing ideas and techniques, were led only by disgust at the tyranny and corruption, a desire for real freedom, and a willingness to learn from other nonviolent youth movements like that in Tunisia. If you were compiling dossiers on names that repeatedly came up among organizers, you’d have thick folders on Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ghandi more often than other Egyptian activists. Power holds little attraction for actual movement figures like Google executive Wael Ghonim who is content to yield to politicians now that Mubarak is gone.

Which doesn't mean he won't be involved. As somebody in the crowd at Tahrir Square noted wryly, “Now, we know our way here.” Translated, it means, “We’ll be back if the army refuses to relinquish power. If they refuse to lift the perpetual state of emergency. If the cops continue to torture. If they try to shut our mouths. If politicians steal, lie, abuse, or separate us, we’ll be back.”

The revolution must give queers confidence, too. It’s been ten years since the Mubarak regime launched an antigay campaign with the Queen’s Boat crackdown that landed fifty-two men in jail. They were subjected not only to police abuse and torture, but a media circus of a trial geared to distract Egyptians from grinding poverty, and establish the regime as defenders of Islamic morality instead of the Muslim Brotherhood. Twenty-three of the defendants were eventually sentenced to prison with hard labor, while the others were acquitted. Periodic crackdowns followed.

The reformed, secular state that protesters demanded would mean police will have less occasion to arrest LGBT people for offending public morality, the primary charge leveled against us in Egypt, a country without any specifically antigay laws. And with freedom of speech and of assembly, and a truly independent press, Egyptian queers will have the tools to fight homophobia openly. It will also be easier in the new Egyptian society where young people favor more tolerance for everyone.

Even if some old timer politician makes an effort to scapegoat queers as a distraction for their incompetence, and they probably will, it’s less likely the ruse will continue to work on a crowd that’s developed a taste for real change. And that gay man, or dyke, or transgendered person can always retort, “I was there, too, in Tahrir Square. I’m an Egyptian just like you. Are we equal or not?”

Reinventing the idea of citizenship is one of the huge accomplishments of the youth organizers. “This is your country; a government official is your employee who gets his salary from your tax money, and you have your rights.” That entitlement is why people took to the streets, and stayed to clean up Tahrir Square after each day of protests.

Egypt belongs to them, now. They hold it in trust and guard their new democracy like a child. You can see pride and hope shimmering from faces in photos, from the TV screen, on YouTube. It is possible to change the world. The clean stones bear witness.