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Why the Prop 8 Protests Matter

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I didn't join the street protests against Proposition 8 right after it passed. My gut reaction was: "where were all these people when we had the chance to defeat it?" But "No on 8" ran a terrible campaign that would not have effectively used more volunteers, and it's possible that many had tried to get involved. Now the state Supreme Court will decide what to do about Prop 8, and City Attorney Dennis Herrera has put on a strong case to have it overruled. But that doesn't mean the Court will do the right thing; even the best legal arguments can lose. A mass movement of peaceful protest is crucial at building the political momentum to attain marriage equality - which can convince the Court it's okay to overturn the "will of the voters." Social movements rely too much on lawyers and politicians to make progress - without effectively using the masses of people who want to help. Now people are angry, and this weekend we saw mass protests across the country. It's now time for everyday people to get involved.

As Barbara Ehrenreich once argued, Roe v. Wade didn't just happen because a majority of Supreme Court justices decided women have the right to choose. It was after a mass movement worked hard for many years to make that politically possible. While we like to believe the best legal arguments always win in Court, judges are - at the end of the day - politically connected lawyers who wear robes. As much as Dennis Herrera's lawsuit is well written and legally sound, it's still a leap of faith for the state Supreme Court to override a popular majority in the last election. And citizen action - if done effectively - can go a long way to give them the political courage to do the right thing.

Public outrage at Prop 8's passage has not just been a few angry protests in the Castro, or righteous indignation at churches. People who never thought of themselves as "activists" have suddenly been spurred into action - and they're using the same tools the Obama campaign used to win the presidency. For example, my friend Trent started a Facebook group called "Californians Ready to Repeal Prop 8." He expected a few hundred people to join, but in less than a week the group had over 200,000 members. Efforts are afoot to collect signatures for a statewide proposition - in 2010, or sooner if we have a special election.

This viral activism is in stark contrast to the "No on 8" campaign - where people relied on political leaders who failed us in waging a statewide effort. My first involvement with "No on 8" was in July, right after the San Francisco Pride parade. The campaign had just collected thousands of postcards at Pride, and our task was to call these people and recruit them to volunteer. But a lot of people come to SF Pride from across the state, and all the volunteer activities were in San Francisco. It was a lot to ask someone who lives in Monterey or Santa Rosa to come table at a Farmer's Market in San Francisco for a day.

I asked the campaign why they couldn't just get people to do "No on 8" activities in their own communities. They didn't have to wait until the campaign could afford to open offices in other parts of the state. Online groups like MoveOn have perfected the model of using the Internet to connect like-minded activists to each other - and get them to meet in "offline" locations to push their political cause. My suggestion was ignored. Now we see spontaneous efforts - organized online via social networks, without any "leaders" - to lay the groundwork for a future Proposition campaign to restore marriage equality.

November 15th was a massive "Day of Protest" against Prop 8, and we predictably had a huge rally in San Francisco. But we also had nearly 2000 people in Sacramento, a whopping 12,000 in Los Angeles, 5000 in San Diego, 2500 in Santa Rosa, and over 1000 in Downtown Ventura. And it wasn't just a statewide action - 12,000 took to the streets in Seattle, 5000 in Boston, thousands in Chicago, 1000 in Albuquerque and even a rally in Peoria. Prop 8 hit a nerve felt past California's boundaries: during a presidential election that gave millions hope, one of our bluest states voted to take away peoples' fundamental rights. People are upset, and want to get involved.

Now Prop 8's fate is in the hands of our state Supreme Court - who must decide if the greater good (equal protection under law) is worth telling 52% of California voters they can't eliminate marriage rights. Peaceful protests can give judge the resolve to do the right thing. Unlike George W. Bush - who said he didn't "listen to focus groups" after 2 million people across the world marched against the Iraq War on a single day - I believe that our justices will take these protests seriously. Which is why they matter so much.

Paul Hogarth is the Managing Editor of Beyond Chron, San Francisco's Alternative Online Daily, where this piece was first published.