Sunday, September 20, 2009

What Went Wrong on Saturday (...and Why "Community" Means Something More to Us)

Adam May has written a follow-up that calls out a point which I should have made much more clear. Click here to read his post.

Sorry, we didn't all attend Saturday's protest in front of City Hall, but not because of the rain. Well, maybe the rain had a little to do with it, but in reality, the fact that TV news media hadn't even set up on-street for video made it pretty clear that the message intended to be put into yesterday's rally was lost. Only 40-60 non-media attendees were there. Sorry to disappoint you, SoVo and Creative Loafing, I love you both, but I couldn't count anywhere near 100 people, even if I included members of the press and filled in all the spaces between umbrellas with ghost apparitions. Andy Towle was at least a little closer to the mark. [Edit: I admit there could have been a peak of 100 at some point, as I was quietly coming by periodically and was not there the whole time. On average, the total number was not that high.] Sadly, this was Protest Fail, though I had tried my best to avoid this situation.

My name is Todd Vierling, and most of you don't know me directly, as I'm usually in the background getting the grunt work done. The few of you who do probably also know that I'm an infrequent but continual patron of Atlanta Eagle, and I have some personal connections to their regular clientele. I was "the boring nasal guy" speaking from the steps during the Sunday, September 13 rally at Eagle; I'm a decent speechwriter and organizer, but a mediocre public speaker. I'm also the person who did nearly all the legwork between the morning of Friday, Sep. 11, and Sunday, Sep. 13 to make that rally the several-hundred-attendee success that it was. (Think all the rally attendees primarily use Facebook to find information about a protest? Google Analytics would beg to differ. For comparison, the Facebook confirmed attendee count for yesterday's protest was 431, just a wee bit higher than reality.)

While we were at Atlanta Eagle trying to help plan Saturday's protest, a man told off my partner and me, saying, "What business is it of yours? You're just going to move on to your next cause and forget about us, and we still have to deal with the consequences." I thought he was just being a prick at first, but later on I realized the wisdom behind this remark. Let's be honest with ourselves for a moment; most activists who have come together in support of the Eagle won't stick around forever. Eventually, the media and the business will settle down, and this too shall pass. We'll return to business as usual and things will be at peace again. So I tried to explain that I was more than just an activist in this particular case, that I was a real patron too, and I'm still not sure whether that message was understood.

Saturday's protest would have been a success too, had we actually collaborated openly and honestly on it. However, one particular person, Laura Gentle-Guerry, the person who happened to put up Facebook pages about these rallies, saw fit to wrest as much absolute control as possible out of others' hands for this protest. Gradually over the course of the week, we were cut out of important conversations in spite of our requests for open communication. I was explicitly relegated solely to the role of (blind) publicist, issuing a press release with little detail but a lot of flash, and bluffing my way through phone calls with major national media outlets. My partner was told outright to "shut up" and assigned solely to artwork for prepared signage, with no theme or direction, supplanted anyway by Gentle-Guerry's own questionable flyer. She had anointed herself as the hub of communication, ignoring our experience that brought media coverage not just to the Sep. 13 rally, but to two other protest events over the past year. (To her credit, she did give a great, rousing speech on Sep. 13.)

If that wasn't enough of a kick in the pants, we still knew of not one speaker who was confirmed for yesterday's rally as of noon Friday -- the day before the event. Acting as publicist, I depended on that sort of information, as well as information on general theme, talking points, and so forth. Since our previous requests for communication earlier in the week were met with dodges and excuses, I had to lay down an ultimatum that the speaker list be sent to me by 2pm, so I could issue the final press release. That was met with "your combative attitude has really just wasted important time..." and more dodging.

Once the speaker list finally arrived after repeated pressing, the protest theme had obviously spidered outward to various marginally related community groups. This included people who really didn't have a vested interest -- yet -- in a bar that (as APD Deputy Chief Carlos Banda openly admitted) was raided in much the same way that six other bars were raided over the past few months. The focus on the 62 assaulted patrons of Atlanta Eagle, the primary message, was long gone -- replaced by a blasé, unfocused theme about City Hall politics [video of Gentle-Guerry]. She did exactly what that man predicted in his short rant directed at me: left Atlanta Eagle, its terrorized patrons, and its staff far behind. (Even the "after-rally party" was as a different place, while the Eagle was open and had a charity cook-out going on by the time the protest was over!) As a result, my partner did not attend on Saturday, and I only came by briefly a few times to observe in silence. GLBTATL may have even lost a member thanks to this power-grab nonsense and its related spin-doctoring.

I wish to digress for a moment to make a comparison., as a pseudo-organization (it's unincorporated, meant as just a group name to give to the public, and a place to share information) was involved in a fair amount of the planning and preparation for January's protest of Rick Warren's keynote speech at Ebenezer Baptist Church. However, there came a point where we were trying to "volunteer" too much, and were justifiably told off about it by the African-American LGBT group leading the charge. In the context of King Day at Ebenezer, we were indeed the outsiders. So we backed off and moved back to a much more collaborative point of work, and generally that protest was well received by local and national media.

Laura Gentle-Guerry needs to learn this lesson at some point too. As much as it breaks my heart to have to put it this way, as I would rather not put her in the same group as someone so kind and loving as Judy Shepard: She is not one of us. She's the outsider here. Sure, she may well be a "heterosexual ally of the LGBTQ community for years" as she proclaimed at the Sep. 13 rally (after wheedling her way into a speaking position), but when all is said and done, my partner and I are two of the few who will still be here for Atlanta Eagle and its people. While she's off somewhere else trying to beef up her curriculum vitae, we'll still be here for the 62 (plus staff) who went through hell on September 10. A "community" protest cannot lock out the very community it claims to support. Teamwork cannot exist without a team, and a community cannot exist without organization.

I somehow feel validated for my skepticism early on, when I first saw Gentle-Guerry's public e-mail address: As some of my family might say, "There's just something not right about that."

So, now that I've blown off a little steam...

To the supporters who turned out Saturday for the protest, I applaud you, and I thank you most of all. No matter what happened with us over this event, your dedication to stand in pouring rain for this cause brought tears to my eyes. I wish we had the chance to help make this event something more dramatic and more eye-opening to the public.

To the patrons and staff of Atlanta Eagle, who are still the victims and the primary subject in this cause, my heart aches. I failed you this time. But I'm still here for you first and the broader community second. I made sure my priorities were in the correct order from the start.

We'll see where this goes. As GLBTATL, we'll continue to offer our help and resources to the business, staff, and patrons, as well as media, to get to the bottom of this outrage. We're not going to go off and talk for hours about unrelated issues and causes; we're going to keep fighting for the people who were detained, abused, and humiliated for no good reason on Thursday, September 10.

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