2,500 Marriage Equality Supporters Petition City Attorney to Drop Charges
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
PHOTOS, top to bottom: Bringing in the petitions, Sean Bohac, Linda Perine, Dwayne Crenshaw, Michael Anderson and Brian Baumgardner, Chuck Stemke, Carmen Sandoval receives the petitions, “Drop all charges,” three crowd shots
More than a year after nine members and supporters of the San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality (S.A.M.E.) were arrested at the San Diego County Clerk’s office for sitting in to protest the clerk’s refusal to grant marriage licenses to three same-sex couples, over 50 members of S.A.M.E. and four of the so-called “Equality Nine” rallied outside the offices of San Diego City Attorney Jan Goldsmith and asked him to drop the charges against the Nine. After a short rally in the San Diego Community Concourse downtown, the participants went up to Goldsmith’s office with petitions signed by 2,418 people asking that the two misdemeanor charges against the Nine be dropped. The petitions were accepted by Goldsmith’s assistant, Carmen Sandoval, who asked the protesters to “keep it professional” and not chant in the hallway.
Speakers at the rally included four of the Nine — Sean Bohac, Zakiya Khabir, Chuck Stemke and Michael Anderson, who with his partner Brian Baumgardner was one of the three couples who tried to apply for licenses on August 19, 2010 and literally got the doors of the County Clerk’s office slammed in their faces. Dwayne Crenshaw, executive director of San Diego LGBT [Queer] Pride, and Linda Perine, director of the San Diego LGBT Redistricting Task Force and co-organizer of the “Communities in Unity” coalition that lobbied the city’s redistricting commission to add a second Latino-majority City Council district and increase the concentrations of African-Americans in District 4 and Queers in District 3, also spoke.
Bohac, who MC’d the event as well as being the first speaker, began with a tribute and a moment of silence for Tom Wilheim, who with his husband Richard had been active for Queer equality for over three decades. “Tom unfortunately succumbed to cancer on September 18, so we’re taking this opportunity to honor him in a way he would have been proud of: to honor his contributions to the LGBT community and to strengthen our resolve to fight for full equality for all people,” Bohac said. “Tom really believed in the good of humanity. He was convinced that if we could get everybody to see the humanity in every person, we as a society would reject rules like Proposition 8 and others.”
After the tribute, Bohac recalled how he and the other Equality Nine members were arrested. Inspired, he said, by U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker’s decision in the Perry v. Schwarzenegger case that Proposition 8, the initiative California voters approved in November 2008 to ban legal recognition of same-sex marriages, “we accompanied several couples who had appointments that day [August 19, 2010], hoping to celebrate,” Bohac recalled. “We knew that, just days before this day passed, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals granted an appeal on the decision, or a stay on the decision, that wouldn’t allow Gays and Lesbians to marry. But we believed there was a chance that the county clerk would be encouraged to follow the Constitution instead of the judicial process.”
Instead, Bohac said, “the county clerk didn’t even allow us into the marriage license office, wouldn’t respond to our questions about his responsibility to provide equality to the citizens of California, of San Diego.” So he and eight other people started a sit-in in the hallway of the clerk’s office — and the clerk responded by calling in 50 riot-clad sheriffs’ deputies to arrest nine unarmed, nonviolent protesters. “The case is ongoing, and it’s a little bit unusual,” he said. “We were involved in civil disobedience. We have been charged with two misdemeanors, fairly steep for civil disobedience, honestly. And so, for the last few months, we have been collecting signatures to encourage the city attorney to drop those charges. But he has continued to press the same charges, the same two misdemeanors.”
Perine added that the charges are dubious on their face because one of the laws on which they’re based specifically has an exemption for political activity. The city attorney, she explained, is prosecuting the Equality Nine “under a statute, Penal Code 602.1 section (b), ignoring completely the fact that 602.1 section (c) says, and I quote, ‘Section (b) shall not apply to any person on the premises who is engaging in activities protected by the California Constitution or the Constitution of the United States.’ It is my understanding that no one has ever been successfully prosecuted under section (b) of this statute when, as here, they are exercising their First Amendment rights. So why is our City Attorney continuing this prosecution?”
“I can’t believe that some 40-plus years after the death of Dr. King and the civil-rights struggle, when folks were arrested time and time again for fighting for basic civil rights, that we’re still arresting folks and prosecuting them for fighting for their civil rights,” Crenshaw said. “ I can’t believe that within days of the unveiling of Dr. King’s memorial statue on the Washington mall, that we are here still struggling for civil rights. I can’t believe that within the 90 days’ time frame, where I’m fairly confident that the California Supreme Court will uphold our right to marry, that we’re fighting for marriage equality right here in I can’t believe that eight days, just eight days, after we have the freedom to serve in the armed forces, that we don’t have the freedom to be married in California, and these nine folks are being prosecuted for their freedom, for their equality, for their civil rights.”
Crenshaw compared City Attorney Goldsmith to the bullies who drove Queer teenager Seth Walsh to suicide. “On that day, today, we’re being bullied, you’re being bullied, by our own city attorney,” he said. “It’s wrong, and today has to be the day that it stops! Two thousand, four hundred and eighteen folks have signed that petition. If you’re in earshot today and you haven’t signed, sign. If the City Attorney doesn’t drop the charges today, get on the phone and call tomorrow. Say you don’t want your taxpayer dollars wasted to prosecute nine people who just want the right, like everyone else, to be married.”
S.A.M.E. and the Equality Nine received letters of support from Congressmember Bob Filner, a candidate for Mayor of San Diego in the 2012 election, and Lorena Gonzalez, secretary-treasurer and CEO of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Central Labor Council, which were read at the rally. “The civil disobedience we practiced during the civil rights movement and the Freedom Rides lives on today in protests like that of the Equality Nine, who are fighting for their rights.” Filner wrote. “Discrimination based on who you are or who you love is still discrimination. I would urge that the charges for the Equality Nine be dropped.”
Gonzalez’ letter, addressed directly to City Attorney Goldsmith, read, “In the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Cesar Chavez and Rosa Parks, the labor movement supports the Equality Nine and their nonviolent civil disobedience in standing up for their fundamental right to marry. The San Diego/Imperial Counties Central Labor Council calls on the City Attorney’s office to drop these misdemeanor charges against the Equality Nine.”
Equality Nine members Michael Anderson and Chuck Stemke, both active socialists, took a more radical line than the other speakers. Anderson argued that marriage equality is mainly an issue for working-class Queer people, since wealthy Queers can essentially buy themselves legal rights and protection from anti-Queer discrimination. “Class: this is really why we’re here today,” Anderson said. “What are the demands of the Queer movement? One demand is the end of housing discrimination. However, renting property or being denied housing due to one’s gender, preference or orientation is not an issue of the one percent who own nearly half the wealth in this country. The end of employment discrimination: this is an issue for the working class. The rich are not affected by the fact that Queer people can be fired in more states than not, simply for who we are or how we are perceived to be, who we and I are.
“We fight so that our partners have access to health insurance,” Anderson added. “This, again, is only an issue if you cannot afford to purchase private insurance. This is not an issue for the one percent. This is an issue for us, the 99 percent. We demand Social Security benefits for surviving partners, but I know people on Social Security and it is a pittance, crumbs, a few hundred dollars for our elderly to barely survive on. Are rich people concerned with their partners having access to a few hundred dollars a month after the death of one partner? Hell, no! Four hundred families have nearly half the wealth of this country. As long as there is an upper class and a lower class, as long as there are rulers and ruled, there will be a struggle between those classes. The ruling class will use religion, they will use police intimidation, as we were subjected to, among many other tools at their disposal to divide and conquer the lower class, us. This is why we are here.”
Being part of the Equality Nine is something I’ll never forget,” said Stemke. “I’m so proud of it, and I’m so proud to see all these people out here who’ve come to support us. To me, what this shows is that the support for the Equality Nine, the number of people who want to keep fighting Proposition 8, is growing, not shrinking, not getting tired but growing and getting stronger.” He noted that Proposition 8 literally went into effect the day it was passed, while Judge Walker’s decision that it is unconstitutional still hasn’t become effective over a year after it was handed down.
“Just as we had feared a year ago, justice delayed is justice denied,” Stemke said. “When Proposition 8 passed, the next day same-sex marriages stopped. No appeals process, no stay. But when Proposition 8 is found to be grossly unconstitutional and injurious to Gay people, then the people behind it were given an apparently indefinite timetable to regroup and appeal. What kind of system is this which automatically defaults to the side of bigotry and hatred? What kind of system is this which will hem and haw while your rights are being violated? It’s a system that will hold you down as long as you allow it. And it’s time for this charade to end.”
The next court date for the Equality Nine is Monday, October 17, 9 a.m. at the San Diego Superior Court, Front Street and Broadway downtown. A press conference with the Equality Nine is scheduled that day at noon outside the courthouse. For more information, visit the S.A.M.E. Web site at www.samealliance.com