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Lt. Dan Choi and Capt. Jim Pietrangelo chain selves to White House
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Lt. Dan Choi and Capt. Jim Pietrangelo chain selves to White House

Pair arrested during 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' protest

by Shaun Knittel - SGN Staff Writer

Army Lieutenant Dan Choi is fed up. He is tired of waiting for Congress and the Obama administration to follow the will of the American people by repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT), the U.S. Military's discriminatory ban on Gays and Lesbians serving openly in the armed forces. In a moment of good, old-fashioned activism, Choi led a march of hundreds of people from a Kathy Griffin and Human Rights Campaign (HRC) DADT rally in Washington, D.C., down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. There, in an act of unscripted civil disobedience, he chained himself to the fence. Choi was arrested on the afternoon of March 18.

The events played out live on the blogsphere, play-by-play Tweets from GetEqual's Robin McGehee (until she was arrested), and cable news networks throughout the afternoon. The trouble started when Choi was told by HRC President Joe Solmonese that he could not speak at the HRC rally, which Solmonese dubbed "Kathy Griffin's rally." Choi, the poster boy for a DADT repeal, took the stage anyway and told Griffin that "DADT is not a joke."

Choi then addressed the crowd:

"Hello. My name is Lt. Dan Choi. I am being discharged from the US Army because I am Gay and dared to say it out loud. Today, I am here on a mission with Capt. Jim Pietrangelo, and we are asking you all to join us. We're calling you to action because we are at a turning point - a moment in time where talk is no longer enough, and action is required. Equality is not going to happen by itself. You have been told that the president has a plan. But Congressman Barney Frank confirmed to us this week that the president still is not fully committed to repealing 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' this year. And if we don't seize this moment, it may not happen for a very long time. Some may tell you that I am one of the lucky ones. I have been welcomed back by my unit with open arms. And it would be easy for me to stay quiet and hope that change will happen.

"What I was taught at West Point and learned in war is: hope is not a strategy. As officers, James and I both find it a dereliction of our moral duty to remain silent while thousands of our brothers and sisters are not allowed to serve openly and honestly. Capt. Pietrangelo was honorably discharged under Don't Ask, Don't Tell in 2004, and I will be subject to the same shortly. As officers, we are here today fighting for those in the ranks, and we need our Commander in Chief to do the same. Our fight is not here at Freedom Plaza; it is at the White House. We are walking to the White House right now to send the president a message. So & take out your cell phones and your cameras. Document this moment. Join us as together as we make history."


Choi led a march of hundreds of his supporters to the White House, where he and Captain Pietrangelo handcuffed themselves to the fence. Choi announced they would remain there "until we have full equality."

As Choi and Pietrangelo remained in place, the crowd surrounding the two activists began to swell. At first, the police did not try to disperse the crowd, but as the crowd became vocal and chanted, "Keep your promise, Obama," and "Repeal DADT," Robin McGehee, co-chair of GetEqual, was arrested.

Up until the time of her arrest, McGehee was sending out Tweets regarding the civil disobedience. She was taken into custody without incident, but was heard yelling, "Get equal! You want your rights? Then fight for them!" as she was led away by police.

Minutes later, Secret Service officers approached Pietrangelo and Choi to try to persuade them to end the protest. The two men refused, and the standoff between them and the D.C. police and Secret Service continued. Eventually, police informed the crowd that everyone must leave the sidewalk in front of the White House or be arrested. When Choi and Pietrangelo were the only two left, they were removed from the fence and placed under arrest.

As the two men were put into a police van, a large crowd of people reportedly cheered and applauded them as heroes.

A Washington, D.C. police spokesman told the Advocate that Choi and Pietrangelo would be held overnight and appear in D.C. superior court on March 19.

UNUSUAL LACK OF SUPPORT FROM GRIFFIN, SOLMONESE

For many, the actions of Kathy Griffin and HRC President Joe Solmonese are as confusing as they are offensive. Though Choi asked both Solmonese and Griffin to march with him, the two were nowhere to be found once the march and protest were underway.

Griffin Tweeted, "It was my honor 2 share th podium w Lt Dan Choi today. I understand he's been arrested in front of the White House. I dig that dude! Balls!" at 11:18 a.m. - strange after-the-fact support for someone who promised to stand beside Choi, then disappeared when the time came for solidarity.

Likewise, Solmonese, who was seen giving Choi the "thumbs-up" when asked if he would join, later released a statement through a spokesman as to why he was absent:

"There's been some confusion about Lt. Dan Choi's role in the rally. As Joe Solmonese was walking to the stage, Lt. Choi asked Joe if he could have a speaking role. Joe explained that it wasn't his sole decision to make on the spot given that there was already an established program that included Kathy Griffin, other organizations, and veterans. After Choi then spoke with Kathy Griffin, she agreed to bring him up on stage and speak to the crowd during her remarks. Lt. Choi in his speech called on the crowd to march on the White House. Joe Solmonese along with Eric Alva and others felt it was important to stay and engage those at the rally in ways so they can continue building the pressure needed for repeal. This does nothing to diminish the actions taken by Lt. Choi and others. This is the nature of social change and everyone has a role to play."

An AmericaBlog writer said, "That is simply untrue. I was there, standing next to Dan, about 10 feet from Kathy Griffin and Solmonese. They were behind a rope line, to keep them from the rally attendees. They looked over at Dan when he asked them, for the second time, to come with him to the White House (mind you, they had no idea that he was planning to handcuff himself), and they just stared back at him. They were not helping engage the rally about how to build pressure - the rally was over, they were already off the stage, behind it actually, getting ready to leave behind a secure rope line to separate them from the crowd. I'm sorry, but this statement is flat out untrue. They were getting their photos taken. Unbelievable."

The actions of HRC and Griffin come during a time of contention between the LGBT community and the organization. Many believe that the older national A-list Gay organizations have lost touch with the community and are no longer an effective way to reach equality.

The simple truth is that DADT is dead in the water as far as the American public is concerned. As the Pentagon prepares to survey soldiers about President Obama's decision to repeal DADT, a new poll of military personnel who served in the Afghanistan or Iraq wars finds that sexual orientation is "not a burning issue that overwhelms veterans' lives."

NEW POLL FINDS ACCEPTANCE AMONG SERVICEMEMBERS

The new poll, commissioned by The Vet Voice Foundation and conducted jointly by Republican and Democratic pollsters, finds that most veterans are "comfortable around Gay and Lesbian people, believe that being Gay or Lesbian has no bearing on a servicemember's ability to perform their duties, and would find it acceptable if Gay and Lesbian people were allowed to serve openly in the military."

Fifty-eight percent of veterans said they served alongside Gays or Lesbians, and 22% thought they had not. Sixty percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans believe that being Gay or Lesbian "has no bearing on a servicemember's ability to perform their duties." Only 29% disagree. Seventy-three percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans say it is "personally acceptable to them if Gay and Lesbian people were allowed to serve openly in the military." Only a quarter (25%) would find it unacceptable. Seventy-three percent Iraq and Afghanistan veterans say "they are personally comfortable in the presence of Gays and Lesbians." Only a quarter (23%) is uncomfortable, and hardly anyone is very uncomfortable (only 7%).

The survey, which sampled 45% self-identified Republicans and just 20% Democrats, suggests that military personnel are more comfortable serving alongside openly Gay and Lesbian troops than previously thought. The poll also contradicts the findings of a widely circulated Military Times survey, which reported that 58% of respondents are opposed to efforts to repealing DADT, and undermines the claims of some conservative lawmakers who argue that lifting the ban would undermine the primary goal of the military.

"Simply put, our military is the most professional organization the world has ever known. Not only will service members abide by a repeal, but they'll largely accept it and move on to the task at hand. For all of the hyperbolic rhetoric from those opposed to a repeal, today's military really doesn't see an issue here," said Jon Soltz, chairman of the Vet Voice Foundation.

Indeed, the survey concluded that veterans under age 35 lean toward favoring allowing Gay and Lesbian people to serve openly (41% favor, 35% oppose), while veterans over age 35 lean toward opposing by five points (31% favor, 36% oppose).

Poll after poll points to the same conclusion: Americans, including those currently on active duty service, want the military, Congress, and Obama to allow Gay men and women to serve openly.

The real question is, will Obama, Solmonese, and the lame-duck Congress listen?

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