News & Politics

Chain Re: Action


Richard got the word on Friday from Ben up at Columbia–they’d only had one date, but Ben had e-mailed it to every gay man he knew in New York. Ben got it the day before, off a 495-person electronic mailing list run by Jesse through the Queer Student Coop. As for Jesse, he got it directly from Ana Marie, a writer from the Lower East Side who didn’t know him. Ana Marie fired it off to all the queer groups she could think of. She got a copy because she’d been at the planning meeting early Thursday night, and Sara–media coordinator of the “political funeral” for Matthew Shepard, and the organizer who actually wrote the “Action Alert” e-mail in the first place–had forwarded it to her.

All of which comes close to explaining just how Richard Spedale, a 26-year-old actor, ended up lying down on the sidewalk near Madison Square Park on Monday, October 19, surrounded by at least eight cops, screaming in pain as they dragged him off into a waiting van. Ben Ryan, 20, was standing next to Spedale when he got arrested. “It was our second date,” he says. Spedale spent the night in jail, along with 110 other marchers. Stunned, Ryan went home and immediately banged out a raging account of what had happened and e-mailed it to friends across the country. (“I thought things like this only existed in documentaries,” he wrote.)

As it did for many of the 5000 who were there, the Net triggered Spedale’s and Ryan’s involvement in the march. Spedale, who now awaits a court date for resisting arrest and disorderly conduct, says e-mail is largely what got him there in the first place. “I’m not the type to go to the Gay and Lesbian Center to find out what’s going on next,” he says.

The giant wave of electronic mobilization and sympathy–stoked by Web sites and chain e-mail–radically reshaped the size and character of the march, say those who were there. One protester called it “a massive forwarding event.” Notices from the ACT UP list-serv on down to performer Holly Hughes’s personal list brewed up a diverse crowd. “I’m not a huge fan of technology,” says poet Gerry Gomez Pearlberg, “but I looked at the size of the crowd and thought, This is an example of how the Net can affect democracy.”

It was a question of speed. The e-mail Alerts that went out the week before exploded the profile of the funeral almost overnight–it grew invisibly, to proportions larger than anything the organizers had imagined. Even they were “amazed.” “A lot of people, instead of picking up the phone, would put the Alert on their list [of friends] through e-mail,” says Kathryn Welch, one of the few organizers who actually has a computer. “You can make 40 contacts in one minute.” The vigil planners also benefited from heavy overlap–citywide wheat-pasting of posters got the word out, but heaps of redundant e-mails hammered it home. Ryan got the same Alert e-mail four times. And in the end, the march resembled the Net itself: immediate, chaotic, and moving wildly over a distributed network of fronts.

After the march, the Net became a conduit for group therapy. Because they had so little history together and barely a center, it was natural that the participants would hash out the center online, where a lack of center is the point.

It has also become, as usual, a conduit for serious disinformation. Since his first mail, Ryan has received many e-mails about Spedale’s arrest, distorted from his own dispatch. “I was hearing about my own experience eighth hand,” he says. In the original, Ryan described how Spedale resisted arrest by dropping to the ground. One of the later mails describes how “when one man [Spedale] exerted his First Amendment right to freedom of the press, he was tackled by the cops, with his head bashed into the pavement.”

Ryan wrote in reply: “We need to be responsible that our accounts of these incidents are not blown out of proportion based on our own personal biases towards gays and lesbians and/or against the police… If we are accurate in our reporting of how the police acted out of hand, we will receive more respect.”

The precedents for such online momentum are slim, but growing. In July of 1997, for example, some 6000 cyclists in the San Francisco activist group Critical Mass–organized almost entirely through e-mail–took over city streets during rush hour. There were over 100 arrests.

But many activists note that the electronic network is still a gated community. When you use e-mail to mobilize, says vigil organizer Suzy Lee Korn, “you’re organizing a specific tax bracket.” (She doesn’t own a computer.) But that’s changing–at least from the top down. Poor and minority communites by and large don’t have access, but many of their leaders do, says Andres Duque, who works for Mano a Mano, a network of Latino activists. E-mail, he says, “is the greatest invention since water.” The hosannas don’t stop there. As Spedale said last week at a march postmortem at the Lure bar: “Thank god for the Internet.”

New York Organizing Group

Wired Strategies

Sara Pursley,

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 3, 1998

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