Protests erupt over passage of Prop 8

November 7, 2008

Nicole Colson reports on why a same-sex marriage ban passed in California--and the protests that followed.

ELECTION NIGHT left millions feeling elated with the end of eight long years of Republican rule, but there was a bitter note at the end of the night--the passage of Proposition 8 in California, which bans same-sex marriage.

That bitterness erupted into demonstrations the next night in California cities as opponents of the ban voiced their anger at having had a hard-won civil right for same-sex partners to marry taken away.

The narrow victory of the referendum, by a 52 to 48 percent margin, was especially devastating to the estimated 18,000 gay and lesbian couples who have been married since the California Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in a ruling last May. In response, thousands of supporters of equal marriage rights took to the streets in San Francisco, San Diego, the Los Angeles area and elsewhere.

In San Francisco, more than 1,500 attended a vigil at City Hall called by Marriage Equality California. Some held signs reading, "I woke up with less rights than I had yesterday" and "Separation of hate and state. No on Prop 8!" One speaker told the crowd: "We will not discouraged, not be distracted, not be destroyed. We've come so far, [and] we will have victory and liberty for our community."

Demonstrations called after the Prop 8 same-sex marriage ban passed took to the streets
Demonstrations called after the Prop 8 same-sex marriage ban passed took to the streets

In West Hollywood, a similar demonstration called by organizers of the "No on Prop 8" campaign drew many as 5,000 people. Several spontaneous marches took off from the original protest and took over the streets, leading to confrontations with police. At least seven people were arrested.

Carlos, one of the first two peole to be arrested, described the mood in an interview:

It was supposed to be an official "No on 8" campaign rally that wasn't supposed to block traffic. It was supposed to be contained in two blocks. People were going to get together and hear speeches and go home. It wasn't meant to go beyond that.

Folks tried to block traffic once or twice. First, it didn't succeed, but then it did, and we blocked traffic all four ways in this busy Hollywood intersection...All along, the "No on 8" campaign was trying to be careful not to offend anyone. They even instructed us not to confront the "Yes on 8" people. But we didn't feel like moving off the street...People were angry, but also hopeful at being out there.

The victory of Prop 8--after a record-breaking campaign by right-wing groups, among them, the Mormon Church--hits personally with tens of thousands of people in California. "I just got married last Sunday," Jason Louis told Agence France Press. "We did it two days before the Election Day because I knew that 'Yes on Prop 8' could win. Now we don't know what's going to happen, but for sure, it will be a long, long legal battle."

The following day, another 3,000 protesters marched near a temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Westwood section of Los Angeles, to draw attention to the Mormon Church's bankrolling of the Prop 8 campaign. Other upcoming protests have already been scheduled for Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento--including a demonstration at the called by Californians Against 8 for the Capital Building in Sacramento on November 9 at 1 p.m.

Such demonstrations are not only a sign of the anger, but an example of people refusing to be silent in the face of injustice. As Carlos pointed out, however, such largely spontaneous outpourings have to be part of a bigger organizing effort to fight for marriage equality:

I think it makes sense to be more organized. We just needed to react. Now we need to think about our goals.

The "No on 8" volunteer network is huge. [At the protest] it felt like, "We've been doing this for months. It passes, and it can't be over." The guy I was taken to jail with made the connection with the Stonewall riots. One of the chants we did for awhile was "Gay, straight, Black, white--gay marriage, civil rights." People were aware that they couldn't just sit at home.

HOW COULD such a ban pass in a "blue" state that went strongly for Obama?

Initially, Prop 8 looked like it would be defeated handily--a reflection of the political shift on gay rights issues nationally. But opinion polls showed a tighter contest in the final weeks after massive amounts of money were put behind the measure.

In all, some $74 million was spent on the campaign around Prop 8, a record for a referendum. Some $22 million alone came from members of the Mormon Church. Other prominent supporters included the Catholic Church, evangelicals and other conservatives, who falsely claimed, as part of a massive ad blitz, that if Prop 8 failed, "gay marriage would be taught in schools" and churches that opposed same-sex marriage would lose tax-exempt status.

But money wasn't the only reason Prop 8 passed. If those who voted for Obama in the state had all voted against Prop 8, or at least abstained, the measure would have been defeated. But according to CNN exit polls, Black voters favored Prop 8 by a 70-30 margin. Latinos supported the measure by a slight margin, and whites were evenly split.

In other words, though huge strides have been made over the past several decades in terms of the growing acceptance of the rights of LGBT people, there is still a long way to go.

Another reason for Prop 8's success can be traced to the Democrats. While claiming to be the party of inclusion, few leading Democrats were vocal about the need to oppose Prop 8 in the run-up to the election, preferring to dodge the issue in the hopes that it wouldn't become a central focus of the national election.

Thus, for example, while the Obama-Biden campaign officially opposed Prop 8, one of the most memorable moments from the presidential and vice presidential debates was Joe Biden emphatically agreeing with Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, and insisting that "neither Barack Obama nor I support redefining from a civil side what constitutes marriage. We do not support that."

In the run-up to the election, supporters of Prop 8 sent out a mailer that targeted the Black community, featuring a large picture of Barack Obama with his quote, "I'm not in favor of gay marriage," backed with African American ministers in support of Prop 8.

Another factor undercutting opposition to Prop 8 was the strategy pursued by the "No on Prop 8" campaign itself, which chose to couch its arguments in somewhat vague terms of civil rights, rather than making a strong defense of same-sex marriage.

UNFORTUNATELY, CALIFORNIA was not the only state where anti-gay bigotry won the day when it came to ballot initiatives. Anti-same sex marriage initiatives passed in Florida and Arizona, and Arkansas voters approved a cruel ban, aimed at gays and lesbians, on unmarried couples being adoptive or foster parents.

Despite these setbacks, there were some victories over the right on other fronts.

In South Dakota, a draconian ban on almost all abortions, except those performed because of rape or incest or to protect a woman's health, was defeated. Colorado voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposal that would have granted the rights of a human being to any fertilized egg--outlawing not only abortion, but many types of birth control. And, in California, voters rejected a proposal that would have required parental notification and consent for women under the age of 18 seeking abortions.

Massachusetts voters rejected a right-wing proposal to eliminate the state's income tax. In Oregon, a right-wing proposal requiring school districts limit foreign-language instruction for non-English-speaking students failed.

Unfortunately, voters approved an anti-affirmative action initiative in Nebraska spearheaded by conservative Ward Connerly. The initiative will affect college enrollment, employment opportunity and race-based scholarships. As Socialist Worker went to press, it was still unclear whether an identical measure would pass in Colorado.

Jeff Boyette, Sarah Knopp and Jerald Reodica contributed to this article.

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