History and the people who make it: David Thurston

David Thurston [T], DC-area gay rights activist, was interviewed by Robert Baez [B] in June, 2017.

This is the 48th in a series of transcript excerpts from the UF Samuel Proctor Oral History Program collection.

Transcript edited by Pierce Butler.

T: I was one of the principal arts organizers for the No Justice No Pride initiative, which is an ad-hoc collective of local queer and trans organizers and folks of color, people from the Movement for Black Lives, who came together to challenge Capital Pride’s collusion with nefarious corporations and institutions that are harmful to more marginalized sections of the LGBTQ community, and to other oppressed communities that should be our natural allies in challenging the agenda of the unmentionable president we have …

B: Equality March and Capital Pride, are those two separate things?

T: They’re very distinct. We went to two board meetings of Capital Pride, and we were like, why don’t we do what they did in L.A. and cancel Pride and call it a protest, and just make the Equality March Pride?

Instead the Equality March was relegated to nine in the morning on Sunday, which probably depressed turnout. I couldn’t make it out because I had a bunch of things on my plate. The Equality March at least attempted to reflect the diversity of the LGBTQ community, Capital Pride really did not. It attempted to impose upon more marginalized sections of our community, an agenda defined by an upper-middle-class, white, cisgender, gay elite.

We went to Capital Pride board meetings—almost all white: one or two women, one trans woman, two Black people—this city was once called “Chocolate City.”

I grew up in D.C., it was mostly Black. My parents bought a house in Dupont Circle before the neighborhood gentrified, for thirty thousand dollars. The other couple that bought the house, for a hundred thousand dollars for the upper floor five years later, that’s how I went to Columbia, that’s how my brother went to Brown. This city has gotten so astronomically expensive, and upper-middle-class, upwardly mobile white gay men are part of the gentrification.

Black and Brown people are being displaced and replaced with businesses that label themselves as queer friendly. I’m all for space for everyone to be out and proud, but we have to build real solidarity based on an understanding of the commonality of our different oppressions and the intersectionality of those things.

I was one of two local organizers for the National Equality March, we brought two-to-three hundred thousand people into the streets of D.C., right after Obama’s election.

That was a turning point in moving the debate on marriage equality and saying, we’re going to fight and win at a federal level—full equality.

But there are different ways of talking about marriage equality. There is a viewpoint native to upwardly mobile white gay people, like, “We’re just like you, let us have equality so we can inherit all our rights and I can get the hundred thousand dollars my partner makes, and we can have Fortune 500 jobs.”

Marriage equality is valuable for undocumented immigrants, it’s valuable for low-income Black people, it’s valuable for all kinds of people.

You can struggle for liberation, or you can say, “We want formal equality under the law under capitalism,” which is a very narrow viewpoint. Black people have long had formal equality under capitalism, but racism persists. The injustices of the criminal injustice system, the racism of policing, employment, indoctrinated things about self-hatred, about looking Black and Blackness, are deeply rooted in a white supremacist society, and the LGBTQ movement can’t be blind to other forms of oppression deeply linked to our own.

We live in a system based on preserving the power of a tiny elite that reaps enormous profits at the expense of the vast majority. It does that by dividing and conquering, and keeping people from seeing the potential to fight together for a different kind of society. There is more than enough wealth to make sure everyone is fed, housed, and clothed, but that doesn’t happen.

Trump promises to make America great again, bring jobs back. It’s a sham.

There’s a serious political crisis in our country, and this is a pivotal moment. Bernie Sanders gave a speech in Chicago and he was like, “This shows that if the Democrats in this country had a spine, or if we broke with the Democrats and built something else, we could actually challenge Trump.”

You can’t challenge right-wing populism with neo-liberal bullshit. Obama did some progressive stuff under pressure from activists, but it was a thin veneer of liberalism that existed where incredible war crimes were still going on, deportations escalated. Obama deported more people than Bush. The Trump machine benefits in a lot of ways from the things that Obama did around immigration.

It’s really important at this moment to build relationships of trust, understanding between activists, to build power, to build communities of resistance, and that’s what I’ve been part of doing in this city since the election. We had tremendous protests on J20.

The day of the inauguration, we had direct action at all these checkpoints on the parade route. People couldn’t get through, because there were Black Lives Matter lockdown, Future is Feminist lockdown, we blockaded the parade route. We had a huge permitted march of five-to-ten thousand people. It was overshadowed by the Women’s March the next day, that got all the liberals’ attention.

But that day of action in some ways set the stage for what we did yesterday, because in that action we had folks for Black Lives Matter showing up for racial justice. Groups in the city that hadn’t previously worked together or trusted each other, worked together on J20, and have continued to collaborate. Since then, we have a formation called Resist This! hosting spokes-councils once a month, where people from different activist groups come together, share our strategies, break down into clusters. We try to build power in the most horizontal way, minimize hierarchy and maximize de-centralization of discussion and energy.

B: You mentioned neoliberalism, can you speak on that and how that may be eroding these movements?

T: The neoliberal assault on the social safety net and on the labor movement began in the late ’70s, under the economic crisis under Carter. Then, it accelerated massively under Reagan, it was continued by Bush, Clinton. The economy grew so jobs were produced and people were more happy, but Clinton ripped apart the welfare state. Neoliberal politics have dominated both parties for almost twenty-five years in this country. Neoliberalism is a funny word because in this country liberalism means to the left of the right, but [neo-]liberalism refers to classical economics where it’s like bring back raw free trade, unfettered globalization, let corporations do whatever they want. It’s a host of things.

B: I see it in many social movements, where people think they’re making [a] difference, but it’s really just scratching the surface and they’re not truly understanding what’s going on. I see it in the academic institution, where people are, again, capitalizing off of ideas that may be harmful. Do you see that happening?

T: Neoliberalism, and its ascendency over the last three decades, put forward the notion that there is no alternative to the unfettered market. It leads to a poverty of ideas about how to challenge things. When the debate about healthcare comes up, it’s like, how do we best give people insurance?

I don’t need health insurance, I need healthcare. I live on the manic-depressive spectrum, and that’s why I took the street art name Bypo, and my platform name is Bypophoenix,  a play on the term bipolar. I depend on a number of medications to remain stable, and I luckily get Medicaid so I get some coverage. But, if I go out of state I have to worry about my coverage being there.

It’s so dysfunctional. We spend more on healthcare in this country than anyone in the world and we have less access to healthcare than most people in the world. Almost every other industrialized country has nationalized healthcare. It’s just the poverty of ideas. I identify as both a Marxist and an anarchist, but I think there’s a lot of different kinds of capitalism.

There’s social democracy where you establish some controls over corporate power and you establish a basic social safety net, and you nationalize certain industries central to the economy. There’s a range of ways in which countries under capitalism can function, and we have lived for the last generation with the notion that the only way to produce jobs is to give tax cuts to businesses and rich people so they’ll invest in jobs. It doesn’t work.

Rich people, if you give them tax cuts, will just hoard their money. If you give me a tax cut, I’ll probably go buy something nice, or for a drink, or to eat. If you put money in the hands of working-class people, like raise the minimum wage to fifteen dollars an hour like Bernie Sanders talked about, that produces real economic stimulus and growth. These very narrow-minded economic viewpoints blind us to the alternatives to capitalism that can be created in the face of the vicissitudes of capital society.

B: Did you participate in the marches … happening yesterday with No Justice No Pride? What was going on?

T: I was the arts organizer, so my main role was to get all the banners displayed and get all that out to everybody. Then, I was moving between blockades and supporting everyone’s blockades.

B: What were you blockading?

T: We took on three major targets: the first one was the police contingent in the parade, which we thought was an affront to especially Black and Brown communities in D.C., but also Queer and Trans folk of Color in D.C. who don’t view the police positively.

I have been threatened with imminent death by police in a state of a mental health crisis. I was manic once and I had a police officer come up to me and say, “Drop that now or I’ll shoot,” and it was a can of spray paint. If I hadn’t dropped that and gone into like, complacent Negro mode, I could have been shot.

I was threatened with rape by a guard in a D.C. prison. They were like, “If you don’t shut up, we have a guy who knows what to do with girls like you.” That’s what they said to me in jail. I remember it viscerally, even though I was manic at the time. It’s crazy. These are the things that happen to you when you’re Black.

Personally, I wouldn’t have a problem with LGBTQ police officers in plain clothes and in a parade saying, “Hey, we’re with you,” but when they put on their uniforms and march as a contingent, it conveys an adherence to the dominant narrative of police are here to protect and serve this community.

That resonates with upper-middle-class white gays, who would probably call the cops on me if I was putting up a tag in their neighborhood, or if they saw a Latino guy running. There’s a class chasm between the white gay elite, who often benefit off the exploitation of other queer folk, like gay bars and clubs populated by attractive, young, hip-looking—and it’s so dysfunctional. If you don’t look the right way you won’t get the job.

There’s this allure of, oh, we’re all one family, and you go out to drinks with your manager. But it’s exploitation, it’s capitalism. I would prefer local businesses who actually employ and serve local people.

Search for “David Thurston” at http://oral.history.ufl.edu for the recording of this interview.

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