It’s hard to believe what’s happening in San Francisco only a month before the 44th anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion. Two weeks ago Bradley Manning, the whistle-blower being prosecuted (many, including the American Civil Liberties Union and Amnesty International, say persecuted) by the Obama administration for leaking documents about America's role in Iraq, Afghanistan, and several covert wars while an Army specialist, was named grand marshal of the San Francisco Pride parade.
Then the honor was withdrawn. San Francisco Pride president Lisa Williams issued a statement from the board attacking Manning as a traitor who put thousands of lives in jeopardy. She also said the choice of Manning was made without the board’s full consent and that service members and veterans had protested the action.
Protests about rescinding the honor followed.
But this wasn’t just a little local flurry of discontent among a handful of activists and the corporate pride organization. Manning’s notoriety catapulted the incident from a local LGBT story to a mainstream press news item.
S.F. Pride fought for damage control, but Wednesday, 20 San Francisco activists led by David Waggoner, former president of the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club, as well as five organizations, including San Francisco ACT UP, filed a complaint against S.F. Pride with the San Francisco Human Rights Commission.
Also among the notable signatories is Lt. Dan Choi, himself a grand marshal in 2009. Choi, a 2003 graduate of West Point, served in combat in Iraq. Choi supports the choice of Manning for grand marshal.
The five-page complaint alleges that the S.F. Pride board’s action violated a series of city codes as well as the organization’s own policies and also, because S.F. Pride receives city grant monies, violated the provisions of that funding as well.
The complaint asserts that the board’s action "has caused embarrassment, discord, and outrage in the community and has resulted in scathing criticism from San Francisco to London to Cairo. We therefore respectfully request that the Human Rights Commission take immediate action to ameliorate the Board’s prejudicial, discriminatory and unlawful action against those members of the Electoral College who nominated and voted for Bradley Manning."
The debacle has put a harsh spotlight on queer politics in this era of mainstreaming LGBT issues. If all politics is local, then the small but very queer town that is San Francisco is providing a litmus for what activism means in 2013 and what direction that activism should take.
About 125 activists showed up for a meeting hastily convened by the S.F. Pride board Wednesday night. But only 20 were allowed in as other protesters chanted "You say court-martial, we say grand marshal."
The situation devolved quickly. San Francisco activist Tommi Avicolli Mecca said that police were called on the protesters, but that they were more reasonable than the board of S.F. Pride. There were no arrests, but Avicolli Mecca said a tense situation was exacerbated by the way the community was treated by the board.
As someone who has detailed the inhumane treatment of Bradley Manning for three years — his third anniversary of incarceration is next week — I have been personally stunned by the ignorance with which his case has been met within the LGBT community. I’ve received dozens of emails from gay men — some former service persons — attacking me for detailing Manning’s plight.
True progressives and especially LGBT activists must recognize that Manning has been unjustly imprisoned and penalized for an act of heroic dissent that has benefited all Americans. Manning’s actions provided a level of transparency that has been withheld by the Obama administration, which pledged to be the most transparent administration in history.
Instead the draconian Espionage Act of 1917 was revived nearly a century later, specifically to quell dissent about this president’s overt and covert wars and stifle whistle-blowers like Manning. (Obama has prosecuted several whistle-blowers under the Espionage Act.)
The LGBT community has embraced President Obama for his belated comments in support of same-sex marriage (after spending nearly four years filing numerous court cases in support of DOMA); acceptance of whatever Obama says regarding wars or Manning has also been given tacit approval.
Daniel Ellsberg, Pentagon Papers whistle-blower from 1971, was an early supporter of Manning. A haunting photo of him at the protest last week in support of Manning and against the S.F. Pride board shows Ellsberg, now 82, holding a hand-lettered sign reading "I Am Bradley Manning."
Ellsberg was Manning 42 years ago, doing exactly what Manning did. But he wasn’t prosecuted and instead was on the cover of Time magazine. With that sign, however, Ellsberg has made clear that any dissenter to the Obama (formerly Bush) war machine will be viewed through the prism of Manning’s actions.
Ellsberg, who was one of the few allowed into the meeting Wednesday, explained to me, in contradiction to Williams’s and S.F. Pride’s early and vituperative condemnation of the young gay soldier, that "Manning’s release to WikiLeaks of a State Department cable revealed U.S. knowledge that an American atrocity which the government had denied had actually occurred, without leading to any prosecution of the perpetrators. That publication forced [Iraq prime minister Nouri] Maliki — who had been inclined to allow President Obama to keep 10,000 or more American troops in Iraq beyond the end-of-the-year deadline agreed by Bush — to insist that there be no immunity from prosecution by Iraqi courts for American troops remaining. Obama couldn't keep American troops there — to be accused, perhaps correctly, of atrocities — without immunity. He had to pull them all out." Ellsberg explains that Manning saved lives, rather than causing harm to thousands, as Williams had claimed.
Photos of the meeting called by the board tell a sordid tale. The transparency promised by Williams et al was rendered moot by the setting. Many people were crowded into a tiny space. Ellsberg described the room to me as "the size of a closet," which he found an unsettling metaphor for the LGBT community. Speakers were restricted to a minute’s time — literally 60 seconds — to speak. Rainey Reitman of the Bradley Manning Support Network attended the meeting and noted that the board said in unison that no "indecorous" speech would be allowed.
Initial talk of moving to a larger space was immediately quelled. Ellsberg joked that perhaps it would be a secret location like where Dick Cheney had been holed up during the post-9/11 period.
San Francisco activist Lisa Geduldig, who had organized the original protest with Avicolli Mecca and Michael Petrelis, described the meeting as farcical and said the use of a Sharper Image speakerphone by the board’s attorney was more reminiscent of the set of a Charlie’s Angels episode than addressing serious complaints from an activist community.
Geduldig noted, "In the one minute I was allotted for public comment I said that the Pride parade used to be more political. It was more about gay politics and gay freedom, and I think we should stay true to that. Bradley Manning represents me more than someone from The L Word does."
Where Geduldig used her minute to plead for a return to activist pride rather than an increasingly corporate pride, Ellsberg used his to defend Manning.
"There were 10,000 to 20,000 American combat troops who would be in harm's way in Iraq at this moment, and some of them would already have died, if our president had had his way. It was due to Manning's revelations that they are not in Iraq right now. And hundreds of thousands of American troops had been put in harm's way. Over 4,000 had died, along with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis because no Bradley Manning in 2002-03 had existed at a high level to do what he did in telling the truth about ongoing policy, which was then lying us into a wrongful war."