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In Defense of Forcing the Spring: A Longtime Activist's Appraisal

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Last week, KPCC/NPR reporter and gay bro' Frank Stoltze asked me to join a live-streaming conversation with Jo Becker, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Forcing the Spring, and Terry Stewart, the talented attorney and lesbian sister who was an important part of both California marriage cases.

Of course I agreed and quickly dove into what looked to be an online feeding frenzy, mostly critical, of the book. So I read the book and had to wonder just how many of these critics had actually read it.

Forcing the Spring is a thrilling book. We know the ending and we still want to read every word. So here's my message to the guys who piled on: It's A book, not THE book, on the Prop 8 fight. It's one bold chapter of our vibrant social movement history, told in vivid color and compelling detail. We feel what the plaintiffs feel as their lives are splayed open by Supreme Court justices. We see the parade of witnesses (experts in sociology, history, psychology, economics and more) bearing and baring our collective truth, making the case for our humanity from every conceivable point of view. The proceedings in Judge Walker's courtroom were, indeed, an historic 'Truth Commission,' as Mary Bonauto called it. The weight of that truth, as presented in the book, was so powerful that the reader can actually experience how the pro-Prop 8 arguments withered away from the force of it. I've never read anything close to Becker's beautifully written account of such a sweeping indictment of any "ism".

OK, so some of the players are my dear friends (activist Cleve Jones, economist and witness Lee Badgett, MILK producer Bruce Cohen). And I've known Chad Griffin from work together in LA politics over years. Yes, it's fun to see one's friends come alive in a spellbinding, sweep-of-history tale. I can quibble with a few passages; the Rosa Parks mentioned in the first chapter is unrecognizable: it makes it seem as if she entered the scene around 1963 after Birmingham rather than 1955 in Montgomery.

I yearned for more early on in the book about the actual political context for this story: that extraordinary "movement moment" as the jubilation we felt over Barack Obama's election quickly crashed into the sickening reality that our human rights, validated by the California Supreme Court, had been stripped away from us by popular vote.

Revolutions, we learn in history class, arise from rising expectations that get dashed. That's what happened in November of 2008. Barack Obama's win accompanied by Prop 8's victory drove thousands into the streets, led by a new generation. Dr. King's "fierce urgency of now" transferred with lightning speed from the Obama campaign to California's uprising against Prop 8. Marriage equality instantly became the first mass progressive issue of the "hope and change" Obama era. Forget the specifics of who held or voted for what position; movements have an electricity of their own that compels that arc forward.

That "movement moment" opened the way for Chad and his team. Fresh ideas and boldness were required to match the moment. In 300 cities, 50 states, 8 countries, an estimated 1 million people demanded justice in November 2008. And from that mass protest seedbed, community organizing grew in California on a scale not ever seen here in such a compressed period of time. Twenty two new groups formed in Los Angeles alone: LGBT history projects, Shepard Fairey posters, massive demonstrations. The city teemed with teach ins; Fresno (yes!) hosted the widely covered "Meet in the Middle" the next spring; Camp Courage, which I co-created, trained 1,600 folks in 10 cities in story telling, multi-racial organizing and coalition building; "It Gets Better" campaign went viral a bit later.

That unstoppable surge of grassroots activism generated a brand new constituency, an army of supporters -- a powerful demand system for taking risks that flattened the existing strategic consensus in the LGBT movement -- an incremental, state by state, take-our-time, don't-go-federal yet idea that suddenly seemed to belong to another era. Brand new political space opened up that demanded boldness, fresh leadership. Chad Griffin understood this. He didn't create that revolutionary moment, but he sure was brave enough to take it and make something powerful out of it, bringing along Ted Olsen, David Boies, Bruce Cohen and his own superb Hollywood-honed political and PR campaign skills. (By the way, those skills are why Chad needs to be supported in leading at HRC as well. You go get 'em in Arkansas, Chad! Back off, bloggers. Let the man LEAD!)

Jo Becker, too, was magnetized to that issue, to that story, at that electric moment. And she covered that story with everything in her. So what if she missed a few things? She has written one beauty of a book.

Now, I can't wait for other books that will bring alive all the other stories. I can't wait for as large a book on the DOMA cases, another sprawling epic with great vivid detail about the lesbians, Edie Windsor and Robbie Kaplan and Mary Bonauto. I'd like to see a book, too, about the amazing young activists who were transformed during that fierce, throw-down time and went on to insist on making real permanent change in every arena -- young leaders like Suzy Jack who co-founded a young professionals group and went on to become the youngest Deputy Mayor in LA history, helping the LAPD eradicate transgender bias, and much, much more.

Movements are not made by single historic court cases, even those that generate big historical decisions. But a great writer can portray a brilliant strategist, a few amazing legal minds, some brave plaintiffs and a cast of characters committed to big change at the right time in history, and craft these portraits into a story that is magnificent and unforgettable, and that stands as a permanent tribute to all who have gone before. That's what Jo Becker has done.