Occupy movements celebrated their 6-month anniversary this month. Over this period, Occupy RVA has been evicted from their spaces in Kanawha Plaza and the yard next to Mayor Jones’ home. Their Halloween eviction was especially violent, as the police rolled out riot cops, bomb squads, dogs, planes, horses, bulldozers, and undercover agents to forcibly evict the non-violent campers. This full-force police presence reappeared this past month when 30 protesters were arrested at the State Capitol as they peacefully protested new anti-abortion bills. New city laws allow police to enter a home if a party is too loud. RVA queer-clubbers report an increased police presence in the city’s LGBT-owned, themed, or friendly bars. The federal government made it an offense to protest in the space of a person under Secret Service protection. All of these events center on the common action of assembling; the freedom to assemble is guaranteed in our First Amendment.
This new assault on the right to assemble is nothing new to queers. Our peers, states and churches have historically attempted to prevent us from gathering. The first affront comes from our love making as governments pass sodomy laws to prevent our bodies from coming together. They legislated against gay bars so that we couldn’t converge in a social setting. Our schools prevent Gay-Straight Alliances from meeting. We weren’t allowed to join the military. We can’t live together as married couples or attend high school proms. Gay men’s blood isn’t allowed to enter blood banks. Queers plainly aren’t allowed to join mainstream society.
When we do come together, our opponents respond with violence: police bashing, school bullying, forced therapy, bashings, etc. Something about queers joining together in the physical is fearful. The Internet has taken away some of the physicality of our gatherings. Yet the Internet is already losing its freedom as SOPA and new laws are created. We haven’t continued to exercise our right to assemble, and like a muscle it has gone into atrophy.
Even as the state fights against us, queers have shown resilience and harness the power of bodies being together. We have organized marches, sit-ins, parades, meetings, and more events so that we occupy shared space. We hold annual pride parades so that we traverse our city streets together. Act UP used street theater, die-ins, marches, and protests to capture public consciousness. We pushed back against sodomy laws in Lawrence v. Texas, marched the streets in D.C. and established community centers and health service programs. Queers have been working to ensure that we can still assemble, especially in moments of love.
As time marches on, hopefully queers will continue to support movements and rallies like Occupy as they exercise their right to assemble. Governments are frightened when its citizens gather in protest. It begins to classify them as probable enemies, like the VA General Assembly’s declaration that feminist protests housed known terrorists. City planners are slowly designing away public spaces like Monroe Park. We aren’t even allowed to use sidewalk chalk in parks. As our society became car-oriented, parks, plazas, streets, and public spaces slowly began to be designed away. We are left with seemingly public space on the tree-lined sidewalks of Short Pump yet these are privately owned, policed, and guarded. We must again force ourselves into public space and ensure that we still have places to gather.
Our founding fathers recognized the power that physical gatherings hold. At these assemblies, we have our bodies, minds, and spirits joined together. The physical presence can be mystifying, terrifying, and magical. Attending candlelight vigils attest to the emotional and spiritual power that gatherings create. Occupy’s General Assemblies attested to a sense of hope and longing for democracy, as one sits and feels politics in action. Parades and marches gather people together as they revel in friendly company. Our bodies coming together signifies love, as we embrace each other and seek a deeper physical connection. This physical assembly presents great moments for actions, demonstration and politics, unlike the intangible feel of the Internet.
As times progresses, I hope my fellow friends, allies, and queers will continue to support any group as it exercises its rights to assemble.
Jon Henry comes from the small town of Washington, Virginia. Xe finished xes degree at the University of Richmond and was named GayRVA.com's Out.Spoken. Richmonder of the Year for 2011. When not in class, xe is either in the studio or rabble rousing with other queer activists. Follow xem on Twitter.
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