Thursday, September 17, 2009

Is that blood on your hands?

Back to that first Le Tigre album, some of my friends already thought Le Tigre was a sellout project because they didn’t look tough and Kathleen was dating some guy from the Beastie Boys so maybe she wasn’t even a feminist anymore and synthesizers drove the music and not just guitars, but I was never that excited about guitars. I was excited that Le Tigre was trying to make dance music that was actually political, homemade and messy and not just empty except for that feeling in your head. Sure, they were in on the ‘80s electro revival, old tools to make new music but this was before electro became electroclash so there was still hope for scenesters critiquing scenesters. Maybe they were actually trying to represent something. In one song, they managed to name-drop Leslie Feinberg, Angela Davis, Dorothy Allison, Marlon Riggs, and even Mab Segrest, the author of Memoirs of a Race Traitor -- not just name-drop, name. David Wojnarowicz. As in: this is how we came to be, thank you. Like in the early ‘90s when we would exchange books to start a conversation, a conversation which was our lives. That’s when Sadie Benning got famous, all the buzz was about this teenager making movies, so when I saw her at first I was kind of surprised she wasn’t a teenager anymore. The names that made us, I mean them, do you see what I’m saying?

Gina says: I hope I don’t sound too stupid, which is funny because actually what she says sounds familiar, touching and intimate and not stupid at all, and what’s also familiar is that feeling, I hope I don’t sound too stupid, that’s how I’m feeling the whole time I’m writing this, like when do I get to go back to that place where I’ve figured everything out? Instead of figuring it out now, as I’m writing, I mean when I started this it was about Le Tigre except now it’s about everything and I don’t even know why I’m writing about Le Tigre. Or Riot Girl -- I mean, Riot Girl never meant anything to me. But here’s Socket saying: I was 15 and I was living in LA and I heard Bikini Kill and it was like I could do that, they weren’t doing anything I couldn’t do and I started following their fashion and grasping their politics even though I didn’t quite understand what they were and my friends and I loved them and most people around us didn’t and that made us different, we were picking up pieces of things, trading tapes and reading books and Bikini Kill was one of the first bands that talked about rape, Kathleen talked about being raped and Mia Zapata of The Gits had just been raped and murdered right before she was going to play in LA and it was a big deal, Bikini Kill used the word revolution and I was a girl and identified as a girl and it was for me, there weren’t many things like that.

But if that Le Tigre show actually took place in 2000, then first there was Gay Shame, and I was finally finding activists, and then, in October 1998 when the murder of Matthew Shepard became front-page news, a few people decided that something angry had to happen immediately, so they called everyone they knew, and then about 20 of us met and planned a political funeral for just a few days later. We went out and flyered every gay bar we could get to, like this was the ‘70s and bars were still community spaces, and the crazy thing that happened is that we expected 1000 people if we were really successful, but we ended up with 10,000. And the cops started attacking us instead of letting us march in the street and all the marshals got arrested and I was the one person in charge of front-to-back communication, so you know this was before all my pain started, or before I noticed. I was running back and forth like crazy as the cops were swinging their clubs or charging us on horseback and in the end I remember standing in Madison Square Park, hours later when there were maybe only two other marshals left, since it was the marshals’ job to risk arrest except my job was not to get arrested, I was doing the communication. And we had a press conference, and I stood next to someone with blood dripping down his face, blood from the police batons and we were on all the TV stations saying: this is what happens when queers try to protest when one of us was murdered, they attack us.

Since most of the people at the action were not the usual activist types, a lot of people in office clothes coming right from work, my hope was that people would become politicized to do anti-police activism, not just activism against police brutality which was already more than they were doing but I was thinking big. We tried to create a large-scale radical queer activist group, but we got stuck in endless process and the meetings got smaller and smaller, some of formed an affinity group called Fed Up Queers to do smaller, targeted actions, but remember this was a state of police tyranny so we ended up planning a series of political funerals for murdered queers, always careful to connect NYPD murders of unarmed people of color to lynchings of black and gay people in the South to the disappearances of transwomen in the meatpacking district to the murder of Brandon Teena in Nebraska, we were a small group organizing these mass actions and we ended up getting stock.

Maybe this is when I transitioned from being an activist who got involved with existing struggles to an organizer who instigated my own challenges to the status quo. Originally the idea with Fed Up Queers was that we would only meet when someone had an idea for an action, we wouldn’t get bogged down in process, but then we mostly went from one action to the next, since someone always had an idea, sometimes there were several ideas at once.

When Amadou Diallo, an unarmed West African man, was gunned down in a hail of 41 NYPD bullets, there were protests but no one was getting arrested and we wanted to raise the stakes. We wanted to block the Brooklyn Bridge, but we only had eight people who could risk arrest so we said okay, we’ll block the bridge with eight people, that’s how desperate and angry and empowered we felt. So we measured the width, bought chain so that we could cover several hundred feet, scouted the location, planned it all out. But when we got there, we found cops waiting in the exact spot we’d chosen, since this was a covert action we had obviously been infiltrated but we didn’t think about that right away we went to plan B but plan B wasn’t possible either, I can’t even remember what plan B. was. We went to a new plan, chained ourselves across Broadway in rush-hour traffic except the middle link somehow disappeared, that was the infiltrator, the only time in an activist group when we’ve know for sure. But it didn’t matter -- we blocked the street anyway, the chains made it more dramatic they had to bring out electric saws to get the locks off, and we were right near the larger, permitted demonstration organized by black church leaders, the action our civil disobedience was supporting. So we were lying in the street in the freezing cold February streets with reporters bending over to ask what a bunch of queers, most of us white, could possibly be doing with this other demonstration nearby. I said we’re here because unarmed people of color are being gunned down on the streets of New York, and it’s a state of emergency. That’s how it always felt, a state of emergency.

Queeruption was different, more like Gay Shame, an attempt to gather radical queers from all over to share strategies for resistance over Columbus Day weekend in 1999. since it would take place over Columbus Day, I figured we needed an anti-imperialist action, so I suggested we target the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of US colonialism, connecting NYPD murders of unarmed people of color, the US occupation of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, police attacks on queer visibility and the crackdown on public sex -- here we would have hundreds of queers coming to New York and what could be a better opportunity to challenge all this violence? You know this was a different time, because we actually started planning this out, the few people who were interested, we even wondered if we could get Lady Liberty to drip blood red paint, would we occupy the Statue or try for some sort of banner drop? We figured out theatrical stunts for people who didn’t want to get arrested, but I was going on a trip to the West Coast so I told the committee to go ahead and plan the action without me. But then when I got back no one had planned anything because the group had decided that this action wasn’t queer enough.

I wasn’t willing to concede that the people planning a radical queer gathering weren’t actually interested in direct action. Then I was at some kind of meeting relating to Fed Up Queers, I guess it wasn’t a Fed Up Queers meeting because our meetings weren’t open to the public, but at this meeting some guy showed up in his work clothes like some of the mainstream gay men at the Matthew Shepard political funeral, the mainstream gay men who I thought might become politicized after suffering police violence but that mostly didn’t happen. Anyway, this guy told us about one night when he was cruising the Ramble in Central Park, and he went behind a bush to piss, and behind the bush was a cop who arrested him for public indecency. And then in jail the guards instigated the other prisoners against him and he was raped with a razor blade at his neck, when he got out of jail he tested HIV-positive.

This guy was asking us for help, our help -- he didn’t know us, or even know much about our politics and in a way that made this more important. I realized oh, this could be the Queeruption action -- this was obviously queer, right? And since I’d realized most people in Queeruption weren’t interested in direct action, most of the people on the direct action committee were my friends in Fed Up Queers, who weren’t interested in Queeruption but they were interested in direct action. And so, at the next Queeruption general meeting I proposed this new idea. We would take back the park with a queer carnival to connect the entrapment of gay men who were cruising with arrests of transwomen on prostitution charges just for hanging out in the street, with police targeting of queer activists at protests -- all of these were attacks on queer visibility. We would challenge the cops in the park and at the same time create our own idealized queer space for the evening, a place where queers of all genders could come together to cruise and celebrate with the pageantry and play of public confrontation.

Kathryn said: I don’t understand how this action relates to lesbians. And since most of the people in the room were lesbians who were there because of Kathryn, Kathryn who had started the feminist bookstore where we were meeting, the proposal went down. This was so different from organizing with Fed Up Queers, where almost everyone was a dyke but no one ever asked: how does this action relate to me? Because we knew that wasn’t the point.

Don’t get me wrong -- there was plenty of drama in Fed Up Queers, but a different kind of drama -- people would get in crazy fights about what time we should meet or the wording of a flyer, but then afterwards you would realize they were really fighting because of who was sleeping with whom. I didn’t find this out until much later because I wasn’t a dyke so I wasn’t sleeping with anyone in the group and I didn’t have a history with these people, we were making our own history but that was different.

Kathryn and I did have a history, starting with when she invited me to help organize the Matthew Shepard political funeral -- or at least I think it was Kathryn, right? Then we were always in conversation about feminism and identity and our place in the world when she was opening Bluestockings, and when we made the Gay Shame zine with Scott we bonded because we were all vegan, there weren’t many vegans in New York. Especially not vegan queers. So I sat down with Kathryn and figured out how to get her support, which meant the support of the group and I think Queeruption was a disaster for most of the core organizers, those of us who were doing too much, but inspiring for many of the people who came from all over the place and I guess that’s the way a lot of activism works. When it came time for the direct action, most people weren’t interested, I organized pretty much every aspect of the action and basically harassed people to go, and we did end up with over 100 people, the crowd was multi-gendered and intergenerational and even included a few Stonewall veterans, Sylvia Rivera and Bob Kohler, who weren’t icons yet because they were still alive and we marched into the park with cheerleaders and queers in dragged-out glory and we actually found a cop hiding in the bushes. We caught him in the glare of our flashlights and the head of the park precinct came out to talk to us, I remember yelling: is that blood on your hands? And then we marched back out of the park, no arrests, it was amazing.


Hilary Goldberg said...

Gaymazing. I love the build up to this with your previous posts, and the way this unfolds. (I don't think it is supposed to be up there twice in one post) It is incredible how nothing and everything changes, how the stakes back then led to the hohum single issue marriage politics funeral. Much to reflect on...

Thanks! love, hil

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Yay -- thank you, Hil. It's true that everything and nothing changes, nothing and everything...

Love --

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Oh, and up there twice?! Thanks for letting me know -- I was wondering why it seemed so long, I mean it is long but longer...

Love --