Op-ed: WikiLeaks, the NSA, Ellen Sturtz, and the Case For Dissent

Activist movements weren't built on the shoulders of those who were best known for being polite.



At left: Bradley Manning

I come from an activist background. I was raised by Socialist parents who were civil rights workers in the 1960s. I met some amazing people as a small child, and they helped forge my consciousness. I spent years as an AIDS activist in ACT UP and Queer Nation. I don’t believe in shutting up and sitting down. My mentors were Martin Luther King Jr. and Dorothy Day. Their work was all about dissent, about disruption of the status quo, about talking whether people wanted to listen or not.
Civil rights is messy business. King says this with breathtaking eloquence in "Letter From a Birmingham Jail." He writes, "We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’"
I worry about the chilling effect on dissent being fomented by the Obama administration and embraced by most Americans, including a majority in the queer community. 
We’ve cheered on people toppling repressive dictatorships abroad as they tweeted and Facebooked their revolutionary actions. We’ve lauded brave individuals like Malala Yousafzai, Aung San Suu Kyi and Ai Weiwei. Nelson Mandela, currently hospitalized in Johannesburg, is one of the most beloved people on the planet. 
And yet dissent in America? It’s "rude" at best, "traitorous" at worst. 
I don’t agree. Dissent is an American tradition and is essential to a strong democracy. Dr. King was right — we cannot sit back and "wait" for things to happen for us. Whether it’s transparency of government or assignation of our civil rights, we can’t expect those in power to hand their reins to us without protest. 
The politics of dissent and disruption that Dr. King espoused propelled the black civil rights movement forward. And if we are honest as a community, it was activists risking arrest –— myself among them — who forced our government to address AIDS and queer civil rights issues.
You can disagree with leaks and you can disagree with "heckling," but the fact is, activism and protest aren’t about politeness. 
For days I’ve read how queers had better accept how nice the president has been to us and we had better stop talking back. Some of that has been said by straights, but sadly, it’s also been said by people in our own community.
Here’s the thing: We don’t owe power anything. We don’t owe power our politeness or acquiescence or servitude. Power owes us. It owes us transparency and honesty and equality.
Activism isn’t polite. Protest interrupts power. Dissent is disruptive. But we are not going to be granted equality by sitting back and waiting while we continue to pay $10 or $10,000 to support our so-called allies in the hope of some future recompense.
Democracy is not quiet. It’s loud, it’s uncompromising, it’s a living thing. Dissent is the soul of democracy. We don’t need power to silence us if we are so willing to silence ourselves. And we’ve learned nothing from American history or our own queer history if we have already forgotten that Silence = Death. If Manning, Snowden, and even Greenwald can risk their lives, if Sturtz can weather all the name-calling, isn’t it time we added our own voices in protest?
VICTORIA A. BROWNWORTH is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist and winner of several NLGJA and SPJ awards for her investigative series on LGBT issues. Her essays on politics and activism have appeared in more than 70 anthologies and journals. She is the author or editor of more than 30 books, including the award-winning Too Queer: Essays From a Radical Life and Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic. Follow her on Twitter @VABVOX