Owning the Streets in the Facebook Era

BY KELLY JEAN COGSWELL | There have been riots ever since humans have had cities, strikes ever since we’ve begun leading mechanized lives. Mass movements have been claiming the streets ever since there have been masses. Facebook doesn’t change that. It’s just a new version of an old tool — media — that makes popular action easier and more effective.

Instead of sending human messengers, or letters, or telephone calls, you blog and tweet to share information and rouse people to action. And when you get it done, instead of relying on word of mouth, or broadsheets, or TV or print coverage, you post a cell phone video on YouTube and hope it goes viral.

What all media does is augment the power of the street, not replace it. Especially for participants. Tunisia and Egypt have taught us that. If you want to know why, just ask where it is we actually live. Not in the blogosphere, but here, in our bodies and out in the world.

It’s important for the powerless to remember, especially those of us defined by our flesh — women, lesbians and gay men, transgenders, people of color. Because that is what the world takes direct aim at — beating, bashing, raping, lynching the life out of us.

Hate crimes generally involve more brutality than other assaults. Why stab a faggot once, when you can do it a couple dozen times? The aim isn’t only murder, but destroying what they fear and despise. To this end, attackers are more likely to use hammers, baseball bats, ice picks, anything that allows repeated blows that can reduce a human being into so much pulp on the floor.

It’s why, in the segregated South, black men were systematically lynched, and women like Recy Taylor faced gang rape. Sexual assaults were so common the NAACP had special investigators, like Rosa Parks, who did a lot more than refuse to give up her seat on the bus.

I’ll even stretch my authority and say dictatorships — almost always justified as being for the good of “the people” — are so brutal because they’re attempting not just to keep citizens submissive, but to actually transform them in their imaginations from human beings into something less than ghosts. Every year it gets easier. Every year “the people” lose substance, sucked up by the dictator as though a vampire. Along with most of the national assets.

Reclaiming our existence from bigots, from haters, from tyrants requires more than courts, online petitions, and updates, but also re-establishing a physical presence, and waving the flags of our race, and gender, and sexual identity in front of hostile forces. Get big enough, the forces of power will be afraid, and either make concessions with the people always ready behind the scenes or get in their private jets and fly away.

More importantly, taking to the streets allows us to reclaim our own sense of power and humanity. Once you relinquish your terror and step out there, something strange happens. Photographers always capture the raised fist of demonstrators, the grimace. But the truth is you’re as likely to start laughing with exhilaration. You must have seen it on the faces of demonstrators in Egypt and Tunisia that began dancing long before their revolutions were won. I’ve tasted it myself in the Lesbian Avengers, stepping onto Fifth Avenue with enough others like me for my voice and life to be amplified.

I saw it, too, a couple of weeks ago, when I was watching a segment of “Eyes on the Prize” about the struggle to desegregate Albany, Georgia. The camera of these documentaries usually circles around men, but this time it showed a whole row of young women in a big meeting singing and clapping. The next day they were on the street, laughing their heads off, faces shining with joy.

You could put it down to their participation in the enormous civil rights movement that they must have known was going to change history, but they were also young girls in the midst of a personal revolution. There’s nothing else to call it — females emerging in a way they’d rarely done before. As themselves.

For once, they were not scurrying past, hoping not to be noticed. They were not afraid of getting raped by a gang of white men sneaking around in cars. If violence came, it would be direct. Face to face, between equals. These young women were radiant with existence, and screamed with laughter.

Freedom, finally, is not something that can be negotiated, legislated, or rebroadcast on YouTube. Though all that helps. It’s something you seize with both hands, claiming actual space in the physical world where oppression also lives.

For baby dykes, activists, and anybody who’s ever wanted to save the world, visit the Lesbian Avenger Documentary Project at lesbianavengers.com. Check out Kelly Sans Culotte at http://kellyatlarge.blogspot.com/..