The Human Rights Campaign choreographed its rally against "don't ask, don't tell" last month to the smallest detail. Held midday on Washington's Freedom Plaza, it was headlined by comedian Kathy Griffin, who brought along the camera crew from her reality show, My Life on the D-List. After emerging from a cordoned-off area reserved for media, Griffin told a few jokes, then read letters from fans who had been affected by the military's policy. Rally participants held American flags distributed by HRC staff -- no drag queens, no rainbows -- and were told to pose, facing East, then South, then West. Photographers circled around them, snapping photos.
It was a picture-perfect performance until Lt. Dan Choi, the former military officer who has become the poster boy for DADT repeal, got on stage. He had not been scheduled to appear.
DADT is "no joke," Choi said, angrily denouncing the military policy and asking those present to march with him to the White House. He proceeded to lead a few dozen people a few blocks from the site and chained himself to the White House fence until he was arrested. A controversy has ensued, revolving around whether Choi harmed the cause with self-serving theatrics or helped it by going beyond the more staid advocacy of professional lobbying organizations. The answer depends on what the aim is: Grass-roots efforts tend to be more effective at mobilizing and energizing supporters, but the scripted, top-down approach is often better suited for selling an issue to the public at large.
Lefties – especially those who came of age in the era of mass demonstrations -- almost reflexively champion grass-roots protests; they see them as the messy, raw expression of popular will -- democracy unfiltered. But as anyone who has ever been to such a demonstration can tell you, they tend to bring out the crazies. In the lead-up to the health-care vote, the loose coalition of Tea Party groups included members who shouted racial and homophobic epithets and spat on members of Congress. Gay-pride marches have long been criticized for being risqué, but being inclusive means allowing penis-shaped floats and marchers who hand out dildos.
Whether or not these antics support the overall message demonstrators are trying to convey, they provide a straw man for the opposition. During a panel discussion about immigration reform in which I recently participated, an opponent tried to portray the recent immigration march as radical because some participants carried anarchist signs and Mexican flags. The wrong optics can also spark a backlash; some have credited the 2006 immigrant-rights protests for the subsequent rise in anti-immigrant sentiment among Americans.
A good rally turnout can give the the illusion of power and popular support, but any effect demonstrations have is largely mediated by press coverage. The number of protesters matters less than how these numbers are amplified or undercounted by media. In fact, estimates of participation made by media outlets serve as a crude proxy for how newsworthy the event is considered. Fox claims the immigration march had only 50,000 members; the HRC claimed 1,000 people attended the DADT rally. The way a story is covered – or not – affects not just how an event is perceived; it plays a direct hand in social movements themselves. The initial Tea Party protests a year ago would not have metastasized into a cohesive movement had Fox News not reported so widely on them. Perhaps March's immigration protest, which included 200,000 people, would have had a greater impact had it not taken a backseat to the health-care vote the same day.
It is perhaps unromantic to think of demonstrations as a media stage. It certainly saps the life out of them. The mood at the HRC-sponsored DADT rally was subdued, weighed down by its self-conscious theatricality. But the images that came out of it – protesters respectfully holding American flags in silence – were compelling. Shots of Choi handcuffed to the White House fence look much less so. Savvy organizations like the HRC have entire departments to maximize the impact of an event or rally and tailor its message to appeal to the public. However, having access to the levers of power and kowtowing to mainstream tastes also means they are more likely to exclude constituents who do not mesh with the media strategy or, as is the accusation with HRC, fail to exert real pressure for fear of disturbing relationships with powerful people.
There is really no comparison between the mood of Choi's protest and the HRC rally. On their march to the White House, Choi's followers chanted loudly -- they were angry, resolute, and determined. What their protest lacked in organization it made up for in energy. But at the end of the day, which action brought us any closer to the goal of repealing DADT?
Even if it did not get the coverage the HRC rally did, Choi's bold move served another purpose. As a cathartic departure from HRC restraint, it galvanized members of the gay community who share his frustration with lack of action on DADT, which is an end in itself. Inclusive, free-form demonstrations help solidify group identity among members of a community; they are much better at accommodating the diversity and unity of a social movement than selling their message to the public, which is why they tend to be more lively. I would much prefer to join Choi than pose for press photos while Kathy Griffin talks to the press in a roped-off area, but the relevant question is whether I'm marching for myself or for change.