Friday, January 15, 2010

Consensus and contradiction

How does a mostly white activist group challenge structural racism? For Gay Shame this meant exposing hypocrisy wherever we found it. But there was always a wide range of political awareness among organizers and participants. It’s probably accurate to say that we never planned an action where everyone understood all the issues we were addressing, or if everyone did understand that didn’t mean we all agreed. I think that’s part of why Socket says it wasn’t real consensus. But I do think that part of consensus means that coming to agreement doesn’t necessarily mean you agree.

Maybe that sounds contradictory, but let me give you an example. In January 2004, Gay Shame held a political funeral at Gavin Newsom’s inauguration. Carrying a coffin for the “Voice of Dissent,” and gravestones for compassion, radical culture, the school system, environmental justice, tenants rights, cultural diversity, and even a “free ride,” the procession moved through City Hall Plaza. I didn’t participate because it was agreed that, in order to minimize the possibilities for arrest, this political funeral would be a silent protest -- I wasn’t interested in silence. But I didn’t block consensus, and the protest occurred as planned. It actually looks pretty glamorous in the pictures.

Our earlier political funeral was a noise protest -- we marched from Bagdad Café, where Akbar was murdered, to the police precinct in the Mission. I think we even carried torches. The cops assigned to guard the entrance actually looked scared, but what about this question of whether the crowd really understood? Usually we handed out a flyer at each action, articulating our politics as clearly as possible, but I don’t remember what our flyer for that action said. And I can’t find it anywhere.

Does consensus mean that you take the time to make sure that everyone at a meeting understands what the hell you’re doing? Absolutely, but that’s probably only possible if you don’t want to do anything else. Of course this is a contradiction, but remember that Gay Shame was always an open group, sometimes people would show up who understood nothing that we were doing. I do mean nothing. But we still had to come to consensus. Sometimes we rushed, especially at the beginning when consensus was basically a word with a question mark after it, followed by a group cheer. But we never came to consensus if people expressed hesitations: we waited until the issues were addressed, or settled enough to move forward. Part of this meant that our process was different than other groups that used consensus -- we didn’t want to do anything that felt like voting; Socket tried a straw poll a few times and everyone was aghast.

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