Harvey Milk, community development and the digital balance sheet
For a very long time now, I’ve been inspired by the story of Harvey Milk, his serial failed campaigns for public office and his final, triumphant election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. (If you’re my age, or you’ve seen Jeff Spicoli’s wonderful portrayal of him in the eponymous feature film, you know what happens next: I refuse to use the word “tragedy” because of its implication that hubris called down what happened, and not a hate-driven murderer.)
What’s always been most impressive to me is the way Harvey nurtured a community through successive stages of self-consciousness, collective awareness, and conscious agency. It wasn’t just a matter of coming along (or out) in the right place, at the right time, though few of us will ever be lucky enough to have skills and potentials so ideally suited to our historical moment. It was sweat equity.
He built his constituency painstakingly, one engagement at a time. The late Randy Shilts, in his detailed history The Mayor of Castro Street, emphasizes that the eventual electoral success was built on a foundation of coalition-building maneuvers, like the early collaboration with the Teamsters on a strike against Coors Beer (thus securing the allegiance of ethnic and blue-collar voters who would not naturally have considered voting for an openly gay man) and the organization of the first Castro Street Fair (1974).
It’s always been clear to me that these engagements themselves grew out of Harvey’s situation — his sitedness — in the Castro. Harvey’s storefront base of operations, Castro Camera, served the community as drop-in center, political clubhouse and all-purpose social hub, which made it the nexus and catchment basin of multiple social networks. He made himself into a local character, turning nod-line encounters into conversations, and conversations into opportunities to press his case, epitomizing Jane Jacobs’ dictum that the “trust of a city street is formed over time from many, many little public sidewalk contacts.” Together, man and site comprised a notably effective intelligence collection and influence network, founded on street-level interaction.
All of this, of course, led me to wonder how one might go about building a contemporary equivalent. Putting aside for a second — understanding full well that truly, it cannot be put aside, that it was the very crux of the matter — the sense of urgency and personal existential threat his community lived under, how would you develop a Milkian enmeshment in a given place and its affairs today?
You would have to start, I figure, by considering the technosocial balance sheet, all of the things that have changed since the mid-1970s in the way people use their tools to communicate, construct their sense of themselves and organize themselves into larger collectivities:
- In the liability column, the practical difficulty-verging-on-impossibility, given their immersion in a world of texts and earbuds, of communicating with anybody on the street anymore. The mutual paranoia, hostility, risk-aversiveness and sense of stranger-danger we seem to have nurtured in our public spaces. The splintered nature of attention, the shattering of the public sphere into ever-smaller clades.
- On the other side of the ledger, the undeniable smart-mobby power of texting, Facebook, Meetup, and Twitter, especially when instantiated on mobile devices, as demonstrated in the Green, Orange and People Power II revolutions, even to a lesser extent the US Presidential election of 2008. The sense crystallizing around Foursquare and Gowalla that social services in general won’t really come into their own until they reckon with real-world locations. (My own conviction is that even so, they won’t produce anything particularly interesting until they come up with some construction richer than “venues,” but the direction is clear.) Everyblock, which in a single service gives you an unbelievably useful dashboard to place.
There’s no question that you can rapidly develop and then maintain an impressive, even godlike awareness of the things going on in a given neighborhood using these tools, even in the absence of richly braided interpersonal contacts. You can keep a weather eye on tides of concern as they sweep over a place, infer issues of interest from fact patterns revealed by data analysis. What does this suggest for politicians specifically?
The conclusion I draw from datapoints like Andrew Rasiej’s brave, unsuccessful candidacy for New York City Public Advocate (2005) is that the latter set of tools aren’t likely to be decisive in and of themselves. Rasiej ran a quasi-guerrilla campaign, notable for its reliance on what are still comparatively cutting-edge techniques of audience building and message dissemination, and garnered a disappointing outcome. (Then again, Harvey ran for public office on three separate occasions before securing his seat on the Board of Supes; maybe Andrew’s got an election or two left in him.)
There’s also a lot of daylight between getting a single person elected, no matter how emblematic of their constituency they may feel themselves to be, and mobilizing an entire community in the name of its own ongoing empowerment. I would like to believe that this can be done affirmatively, in the absence of some perceived external threat, but history (and my recent observations of the Tea Party) suggest that nothing fuses a disparate assembly into a politically effective whole like fear of the other. Perhaps the Coffee Party can do better — but reflect that they, too, are founded in negation.
The only thing that’s relatively clear to me in all of this is that anyone wanting to catalyze a community and channel its aspirations in these days is going to have trouble doing it the way Harvey did: at retail, as it were, stacked up one investment at a time. By the same token, though, they’ll have a spread of one-to-many tools of awesome power available to them — and for free, too! As powerful as these may be, they can’t be used willy-nilly: spamming potential constituents isn’t going to get you anywhere, nor is anyone much going to sign on to a campaign just because it’s all high-tech and buzzword-compliant.
What’s more likely to be pivotal is the canny use of the latter to leverage the former: ensuring that every casual contact goes into a database, every issue raised by a constituent (or inferred from a pattern of facts on the ground) is captured and tracked, everything that shows up in the gillnet of your feeds is exploited for its propaganda or organizational value.
And I keep coming back to situatedness, something a whole lot of the people I know got to spend some time thinking about this last volcano weekend. What does it mean to be in place, to draw your identity from an investment in locale? I can’t imagine that this is anything but crucial; if every Castro needs a Harvey Milk, every Harvey Milk needs a Castro Camera. A robust fan page on Facebook goes a long way toward replicating the functions of such a base, and indeed does a whole lot of things it can’t. But from what I can see, it cannot function adequately as a substitute for that base. Showing up is still half the battle.
In the end, of course, none of what made Harvey who he was is at all replicable. Would-be students can certainly draw inspiration and energy from his struggle, even a few canny, practical lessons. Thus far, anyway, our era of networked digital communications seems to be awaiting his equivalent — or maybe the message is that we’re all his equivalent, waiting for the moment our ten thousand tweets and status updates are sintered into a coherent voice.