CHANGE REALLY COMES FROM
One of the reasons that change is
so hard to come by these days is that the things that make it
happen have increasingly been forgotten, replaced, dismissed
or ignored. .Just as urban migrations have caused tens of millions
to lose simple but critical skills of rural survival, so the
tens of millions of Americans who have migrated into the purported
sophistication of post-modern politics have left behind many
of the habits, technique and skills that created democracy in
the first place and then sustained it.
Who needs community when you have
television commercials and the Internet? Who needs serious conversation
when you have tracking polls? Who needs the grass roots when
you can afford to lay Astroturf anywhere you want? Who needs
local organizing when you have huge national groups that can
raise more money in a few days than a nation of precincts once
could have in a whole year? Who needs the skills of a community
organizer when you can go to the Harvard Business School?
Except for one problem: the corporate
based system that has seized control of our politics lacks the
interest, imagination, integrity, capacity and soul to produce
positive change. Whatever the sign on the side of the political
machine says, whatever the TV commercial claims, how ever many
times the candidates chant the word "change," we have,
in fact, systematically been destroying the means by which we
once achieved what it is we say we want.
This fact is hidden because of the
language used by our leaders, the media and ourselves - and our
acceptance of it. We happily applaud a politician promising to
bring change without demanding to know what the hell the candidate
is talking about. We accept hope as an objective though devoid
of detail, dimensions or even simple description. We have become
a nation mainlining comforting nouns and adjectives as a substitute
for the social, economic and physical improvements that used
to be the goals of a good politics.
Another reason we find it hard to
recognize or talk about real change is that we haven't seen its
positive form on any scale in some time. Thus, it is not surprising
that many don't seem to realize that while politicians can help
to create change, they are rarely its source. Even the best politicians
need a community of creative and conscientious pressure to discourage
their response to those forces that have never succumbed to believing
for themselves the advertising slogans they foist on others.
Even the best president steps into the Oval Office surrounded,
beleaguered and manipulated by the most skillful organizers in
the country - those who organize the bankers, corporations, religious
extremists, polluters and other assorted hustlers - while well
intentioned but nave ordinary constituents of that president
assume their work was finished when they left the voting booth.
This is one major reason why the
Democratic Party has done so poorly in recent years. With the
election of Clinton, its liberal wing became subservient acolytes
at the altar of the most reactionary Democratic leader of modern
times. For the crowd on the inside, it was playtime.
Consider in contrast, Franklin Roosevelt,
constantly being pushed from the left by everything from communists
to socialists to Midwestern populists, or Lyndon Johnson, shoved
towards progressive politics by forces like the civil rights
Nothing like that exists today.
Instead we have change reduced to a matter of simple iconography.
In the 2008 campaign, for many a choice of a woman or a black
was considered change enough. The rest would take care of itself.
Of course, it never does, in no
small part because the bad guys fully understand that politics
is about real things, not cuddly symbols. And well before Inauguration
Day they are on the case, cutting the deals, writing the legislation,
and passing the bucks.
Yet one has to go back a decade
or more to find the creation of effective alternative models
such as the anti-apartheid movement, the anti-sweatshop movement
and the national Green Party. And back even further for the explosion
of truly revolutionary civil rights, women's, gay and modern
Today we have two illegal wars,
the greatest glacial melting in 5,000 years, the collapse of
constitutional government, a sinking economy and fraud at every
turn - yet the streets, communities and hearts of America slog
along largely unaware of their latent power to turn themselves
from victims to creators.
The origins of this civic impotence
are many. The rise of greatly segmented television programming
and the internet have tended to isolate us from a common sensibility
and each other; the Ipod earphone has helped finish the task.
The ubiquitous acceptance of the values, cliches and leadership
assumptions of big business have helped change our thinking from
that of citizens to that of mere aspiring corporate staffers.
People appear overloaded with the requirements of a life that
keeps them apart from others who might share their feelings.
Programs like the endless sportscasts and American Idol teach
us to think constantly about winning rather than working together
with others. Business and political machines have each conspired
to take the language and systems of democracy and turn them to
their narrow uses. For example, that icon of decentralized democracy,
the town meeting, is now a gimmick used by bureaucrats and politicians
who want to make their targets feel good without having any actual
power. And even Barack Obama, drawing on his community organizing
experience, altered the nature of this technique so it no longer
empowered the voter, but himself.
From the American revolution to
the underground railroad, to the organizing of labor, to the
drive for universal suffrage, to the civil rights, women's, peace
and environmental movements, every significant political and
social change in this country has been propelled by large numbers
of highly autonomous small groups linked not by a bureaucracy
or a master organization but by the mutuality of their thought,
their faith and their determination.
Whatever the source, it now takes
longer, requires more paper, and stirs up more intimations of
liability to do almost anything worthwhile than it once did.
While our rhetoric overflows with phrases like "entrepreneurship"
and "risk-taking," the average enterprise of any magnitude
is actually characterized by cringing caution with carefully
constructed emergency exits leading from every corner of chance.
We have been taught that were we to move unprotected into time
and space, they might implode into us. Every law office is a
testament to our fear and lack of trust.
The reporter risking status by telling
the truth, the government official risking employment by exposing
the wrong, the civic leader refusing to go with the flow -- these
are all essential catalysts of change. A transformation in the
order of things is not the product of immaculate conception;
rather it is the end of something that starts with the willingness
of just a few people to do something differently. There must
then come a critical second wave of others stepping out of a
character long enough to help something happen -- such as the
white Mississippian who spoke out for civil rights, the housewife
who read Betty Friedan and became a feminist, the parents of
a gay son angered by the prejudice surrounding him.
Too often today, we expect our leaders
to do our work for us, to save us, to redeem us. There is little
sense of the wisdom laid down by Eugene Debs: "Too long
have the workers of the world waited for some Moses to lead them
out of bondage. He has not come; he never will come. I would
not lead you out if I could for if you could be led out, you
could be led back again."
I put it this way once: "We
have lost much of what was gained in the 1960s and 1970s because
we traded in our passion, our energy, our magic and our music
for the rational, technocratic and media ways of our leaders.
We will not overcome the current crisis solely with political
logic. We need living rooms like those in which women once discovered
they were not alone. The freedom schools of SNCC. The politics
of the folk guitar. The plays of Vaclav Havel. The pain of James
Baldwin. The laughter of Abbie Hoffman. The strategy of Gandhi
and King. Unexpected gatherings and unpredicted coalitions. People
coming together because they disagree on every subject save one:
the need to preserve the human. Savage satire and gentle poetry.
Boisterous revival and silent meditation. Grand assemblies and
We need to do this because, as Lau-tzu
Of the best rulers, the people
only know that they exist;
The next best they love and praise;
The next they fear;
And the next they revile . . .
But of the best when their task
is accomplished, their work done,
A crib sheet for organizing
The people all remark, "We have done it ourselves."
from the bottom up
Community organizing is a process
by which people are brought together to act in common self-interest.
While organizing describes any activity involving people interacting
with one another in a formal manner, much community organizing
is in the pursuit of a common agenda. Many groups seek populist
goals and the ideal of participatory democracy. Community organizers
create social movements by building a base of concerned people,
mobilizing these community members to act, and developing leadership
from and relationships among the people involved.
Organized community groups seek
accountability from elected officials, corporations and institutions
as well as increased direct representation within decision-making
bodies and social reform. Where negotiations fail, these organizations
seek to inform others outside of the organization of the issues
being addressed and expose or pressure the decision-makers through
a variety of means, including picketing, boycotting, sit-ins,
petitioning, and electoral politics.
Community organizing is usually
focused on more than just resolving specific issues. Organizing
is empowering all community members, often with the end goal
of distributing power equally throughout the community.
Community organizers generally seek
to build groups that are democratic in governance, open and accessible
to community members, and concerned with the general health of
the community rather than a specific interest group.
Community organizing is a long-term
approach where the people affected by an issue are supported
in identifying problems and taking action to achieve solutions.
The organizer challenges those he or she works with to change
the way things are. It is a means of achieving social change
through collective action by changing the balance of power. .
"A single bracelet does
not jingle" - African proverb
Community organizing looks at collective
solutions - large numbers of people who engage in solutions that
impact even more people. These people usually live in the same
neighborhood, town or block.
Community organizing changes the
balance of power and creates new power bases. Groups that organize
do not have to be statewide or national in scope, nor do the
decision-makers have to be elected officials. Here are some examples
- Civil rights: The boycotts of
businesses and busses in the South brought about desegregation
and the Voting Rights Act.
- Labor unions: Strikes against
conditions in factories throughout the early part of this century
led to the 40-hour work week and better working conditions for
- The anti-war movement: Protests
against the war pressured the government to end U.S. involvement
in Viet Nam .
[Community organizer] qualities
- Sense of humor
- Blurred vision of a better world
- An organized personality
- Strong ego/sense of oneself
- A free, open mind, and political relativity
- Ability to create the new out of the old
Experienced organizers know that
the process of organizing is seldom tidy; it doesn't always happen
in neat, predictable steps. It can be thought of as a process
guided by principles that repeat in a cyclic, rather than linear,
It's extremely important that you
get to know the community you will be working in and the history
of the issue you will address. Allow two to three months to become
familiar with the community, its history, make-up, demographics,
geography and political leadership. Continue to learn about the
community by going door knocking and conducting one-on-ones.
This will help you learn about the concerns of the community
and develop personal relationships.
One-on-ones are an important part
of community organizing, as they lay the foundation for all the
work that comes afterwards. The main goal of the one-on-one is
to listen and gather information. The organizer must learn what
community members concerns are, and find out what they identify
as problems, not tell the community what the problem is. That
is why an organizer meets first with people individually, rather
than try to meet everyone in a group.
Review your one-on-ones and invite
people to join your community action team (or committee, task
force, group). Ideally, teams should have up to 10 to 20 active
members so they are big enough to have representation from the
community, but not so unwieldy that the team can't make decisions/progress.
Try to build an action team of core leaders who have time, energy,
passion for the issue, possess a can-do attitude and represent
a diverse cross-section from many sectors of the community.
Work with your team to develop an
action plan. What problems has your group identified? What policies
would address that problem? What is the decision-making body
you need to impact? What other steps will your team need to take
to change policy? Break your work down into manageable steps
and tasks. Hold a meeting to discuss your plan of action and
include a timeline for when things will happen and identify who
is responsible. It should be realistic, feasible, and flexible.
NEIGHBORHOOD FUNDERS GROUP
"Organizing does two central
things to seek to rectify the problem of power imbalance - it
builds a permanent base of people power so that dominant financial
and institutional power can be challenged and held accountable
to values of greater social, environmental and economic justice;
and, it transforms individuals and communities, making them mutually
respectful co-creators of of public life rather than passive
objects of decisions made by others." - Mike Miller, Organize
Typically, the actions taken by
CO groups are preceded by careful data gathering, research and
participatory strategic planning. The actions are often in the
form of negotiations - with targeted institutions holding power
- around issues determined by and important to the organizations.
The CO groups seek policy and other significant changes determined
by and responsive to the people (that is, their "constituencies").
Where good-faith negotiations fail, these constituency-led organizations
seek to pressure the decision-makers - through a variety of means
- so that the decision-makers will return to the negotiations
and move to desired outcomes. CO groups continuously reflect
on what they have learned in their action strategies and incorporate
the learning in subsequent strategies.
The central ingredient of all effective
CO in the view of many involved in the field - what they believe
distinguishes CO most clearly from all other social change strategies
- is building power. CO builds power and works for change most
often to achieve social justice with and for those who are disadvantaged
CO encompasses other principles
that were described in a particularly thoughtful article jointly
written a few years ago by a veteran foundation official and
an experienced community organizer. The authors, Seth Borgos
and Scott Douglas, stressed that "the fundamental source
of cohesion of every strong CO group is the conviction that it
offers its members a unique vehicle for exercising and developing
their capacities as citizens." The authors also noted that
the most common usage of the term CO "refers to organizations
that are democratic in governance, open and accessible to community
members, and concerned with the general health of the community
rather than a specific interest or service function..."
According to Borgos and Douglas, the key principles of contemporary
- A participative culture. CO organizations
view participation as an end in itself. Under the rubric of leadership
development, they devote considerable time and resources to enlarging
the skills, knowledge and responsibilities of their members.
"Never do for others what they can do for themselves"
is known as the iron rule of organizing.
- Inclusiveness. CO organizations
are unlike other kinds of voluntary associations that, in most
instances, tend to draw their membership from a narrow social
base and their leadership from business and professional elites.
As a matter of principle, CO groups are generally committed to
developing membership and leadership from a broad spectrum of
the community, with many expressly dedicated to fostering participation
among groups that have been "absent from the table,"
including communities of color, low-income constituencies, immigrants,
sexual minorities and youth.
- Breadth of mission and vision.
. . Strong (but by no means all) CO organizations have proven
adept at integrating a diverse set of issues and linking them
to a larger vision of the common good. This is a holistic function
that has been largely abandoned by political parties, churches,
schools and other civic institutions.
- Critical perspective. CO organizations
seek to change policies and institutions that are not working.
In many communities, they are the only force promoting institutional
accountability and responsiveness. Because community organizations
take critical positions, they can be viewed as partisan or even
polarizing in some contexts, and an obstacle to social collaboration.
However, research suggests that effective governance depends
on "civicness" - not consensus. A critical stance may
generate conflict, but it can also stimulate participation and
sharpen political discourse in ways that lead to deeper forms
of social collaboration.
- How CO differs from other strategies.
CO is one of many strategies for revitalizing disadvantaged neighborhoods
and communities and for pursuing social change on a broader basis.
But CO is the only strategy that invests all of its resources
and energy to build the power of the people themselves - low-income
residents, people directly impacted by the issues being addressed
- to work effectively for community change.
- [You want] broad diversity and
all inclusiveness, bringing as many relevant perspectives into
the thinking as possible. You want to invite everyone from the
neighborhood to participate and be included; everyone regardless
of age, nationality, race, religion etc.
- Using fear tactics is unsustainable
and eventually people get tired of it. They will much more easily
gravitate towards the virtue energy, as will you.
- Recruit ever more allies and [don't]
identify enemies or attack or embarrass any so called opposition.
There are always an infinite supply of potential new allies to
the cause and strengthening this aspect. With the commitment
and focus on making allies, it will make the work feel better.
Someone you might think is an enemy could easily one day become
another one of your allies.
People get tired of protesting wrongs
and find more joy in working on solutions. When people come together
and experience true teamwork with their neighbors then they will
be empowered to find other ways to come up with other solutions
to other problems they are faced with.
[Your goal should be] completion
and to win, not just be ethically or morally correct.
If you can see and feel the improvement,
then you can be sure that it has actually been won.
Give people a sense of their own
power. People should come away from the campaign feeling the
victory was won by them, not by experts or lawyers, or by the
mercy of policy makers. This builds confidence to take on larger
issues and loyalty by the organization.
As a community organizer for the
Festive Earthen Building Event you will start by creating a team.
Together as a team you will organize a successful event and project
according to your definitions and measurements of success. Your
team members will feel empowered by this and the other community
members / neighbours will also feel empowered through participating
and witnessing the event.
Building a strong organization creates
a new center of power that changes the way the other side makes
decisions, and gives communities greater influence over the changes
to be made to improve their lives.
Be worthwhile. Members should feel
they are fighting for something about which they feel good, and
which merits the effort.
The problem must not be so large
or the solution so remote that the organization is overwhelmed.
The members must be able to see from the start that there is
a good chance of winning, or at least that there is a good strategy
Ask who else has won an issue and
how, and then call on people with experience and ask for advice.
People must not only agree, but
feel strongly enough to do something about it. It is not enough
that many people agree about the issue and don't feel strongly.
Be easy to understand. It is preferable
that you don't have to convince people that a problem exists,
that your solution is good, and that they want to help to solve
it. In general, a good issue should not require a lengthy and
Be non-divisive. Avoid issues that
divide your present constituency. Don't pit neighbor against
neighbor, old against young, one race against another. Don't
be content to get the traffic or a drug pusher off your block
on onto the next block. Look down the road a few years. Who will
you eventually need to bring into your organization?
Build leadership. Issues campaigns
that meet most the criteria also build leadership if they are
planned to do so. Train and place people in leadership and decision
Set your organization up for the next campaign. In addition to
thinking about future issue directions, consider the skills the
group will develop in the campaign and the contacts it will make
for the next one.
Have a pocketbook angle. Issues
that get people money or save people money are usually widely
or deeply felt.
Be consistent with your values and
vision. The issues we choose to work on must reflect our values
and our vision for an improved society.
ALINSKY'S RULES FOR RADICALS
VANCOUVER COMMUNITY NETWORK In 1971,
Saul Alinsky wrote an entertaining classic on grassroots organizing
titled Rules for Radicals. Those who prefer cooperative tactics
describe the book as out-of-date. Nevertheless, it provides some
of the best advice on confrontational tactics. Alinsky begins
"What follows is for those
who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe
it should be. The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves
on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots
on how to take it away."
His rules derive from many successful
campaigns where he helped poor people fighting power and privilege
For Alinsky, organizing is the process
of highlighting what is wrong and convincing people they can
actually do something about it. The two are linked. If people
feel they don't have the power to change a bad situation, they
stop thinking about it.
According to Alinsky, the organizer
- especially a paid organizer from outside - must first overcome
suspicion and establish credibility. Next the organizer must
begin the task of agitating: rubbing resentments, fanning hostilities,
and searching out controversy. This is necessary to get people
to participate. An organizer has to attack apathy and disturb
the prevailing patterns of complacent community life where people
have simply come to accept a bad situation. Alinsky would say,
"The first step in community organization is community disorganization."
Through a process combining hope
and resentment, the organizer tries to create a "mass army"
that brings in as many recruits as possible from local organizations,
churches, services groups, labor unions, corner gangs, and individuals.
Alinsky provides a collection of
rules to guide the process. But he emphasizes these rules must
be translated into real-life tactics that are fluid and responsive
to the situation at hand.
Rule 1: Power is not only what you
have, but what an opponent thinks you have. If your organization
is small, hide your numbers in the dark and raise a din that
will make everyone think you have many more people than you do.
Rule 2: Never go outside the experience
of your people. The result is confusion, fear, and retreat.
Rule 3: Whenever possible, go outside
the experience of an opponent. Here you want to cause confusion,
fear, and retreat.
Rule 4: Make opponents live up to
their own book of rules. "You can kill them with this, for
they can no more obey their own rules than the Christian church
can live up to Christianity."
Rule 5: Ridicule is man's most potent
weapon. It's hard to counterattack ridicule, and it infuriates
the opposition, which then reacts to your advantage.
Rule 6: A good tactic is one your
people enjoy. "If your people aren't having a ball doing
it, there is something very wrong with the tactic."
Rule 7: A tactic that drags on for
too long becomes a drag. Commitment may become ritualistic as
people turn to other issues.
Rule 8: Keep the pressure on. Use
different tactics and actions and use all events of the period
for your purpose. "The major premise for tactics is the
development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure
upon the opposition. It is this that will cause the opposition
to react to your advantage."
Rule 9: The threat is more terrifying
than the thing itself. When Alinsky leaked word that large numbers
of poor people were going to tie up the washrooms of O'Hare Airport,
Chicago city authorities quickly agreed to act on a longstanding
commitment to a ghetto organization. They imagined the mayhem
as thousands of passengers poured off airplanes to discover every
washroom occupied. Then they imagined the international embarrassment
and the damage to the city's reputation.
Rule 10: The price of a successful
attack is a constructive alternative. Avoid being trapped by
an opponent or an interviewer who says, "Okay, what would
Rule 11: Pick the target, freeze
it, personalize it, polarize it. Don't try to attack abstract
corporations or bureaucracies. Identify a responsible individual.
Ignore attempts to shift or spread the blame.
According to Alinsky, the main job
of the organizer is to bait an opponent into reacting. "The
enemy properly goaded and guided in his reaction will be your
HUNTER GRAY & JOHN SALTER
JR, OREGON SOCIALIST 2004
The organizers should insure that
the community organization is significant in size and composed
primarily, if not completely, of those people "with the
The organizers should insure that
active and potential community leadership is developed in such
a fashion that the organization is led primarily, if not completely,
by those people with the fewest alternatives.
The organizers should insure that
the organization functions democratically, and not in an authoritarian
fashion and that, among other things, formal rules of democratic
procedure are established and followed and that widespread grassroots
participation and decision-making in the affairs of the community
organization is a continuing fact; and that there is ever developing
local leadership. The executive and public meetings should be
well attended and organizers must insure that an atmosphere exists
in which the individual at the grassroots feels -- as is genuinely
the case --that he/she is an individual; that his/her active
participation in the organization is needed and welcomed; that
right from the very beginning, he/she can make their voice and
presence felt within the organization; and that, as the group's
endeavors advance, winning victories, his/her power and ability
to affect those forces out in the problematic/crisis environment
and beyond, which have been affecting his/her life, will be steadily
and proportionately increased.
The organizers should insure that
the youth are involved in the affairs of the community organization
-- either within it and with leadership participation, or in
a parallel and cooperative youth group of their own.
The organizers should insure that
the community organization, right from the beginning, is characterized
by maximum autonomy.
Although the initial formation of
the community organization may be around one paramount and pressing
local issue, the organizers -- not through rigid superimposition
but through diplomatic and effective teaching -- should insure
that, in the interests of the community organization's longevity
and effectiveness, the leaders and membership of the group become
aware of all issues directly and indirectly affecting them. The
organizers should insure, therefore, that the community organization
functions on a multi-issue basis whenever possible.
The organizers should insure that,
prior to reaching a decision on a particular course of action,
the community organization is aware of all relevant tactical
approaches and the various ramifications of each.
The organizers should insure that
the leaders of the community organization can effectively handle
the matter of publicity.
The organizers should insure that
the community organization can effectively handle the raising
and administration of funds -- including, when applicable, the
preparation of funding proposals, the negotiation of such, and
the effective administration of the money received.
The organizers should insure that
the community organization becomes connected with various relevant
public and private agencies and is able to negotiate and secure
the necessary services from those agencies without surrendering
its autonomy or compromising its basic principles.
The organizers should insure that
the community organization is able to function politically in
a realistic and sophisticated fashion without surrendering its
autonomy or compromising its basic principles.
The organizers should insure that
the community organization can utilize the services of professionals
without becoming dominated by such.
The organizers should insure that
the community organization is able to enter into functional alliances
with other groups without surrendering its autonomy or compromising
its basic principles.
The organizers should insure that
the community organization is aware of the use of effective and
rational protest demonstrations and, further, that it is fully
cognizant of the merits of tactical nonviolence.
The organizers should insure that
the community organization is aware of the effective use of legal
action approaches and is aware of public and private legal resources.
The organizers should build a sense
of the oft-visionary and just world of a full measure of bread-and
butter and a full measure of freedom -- and how all of this relates
to the shorter term steps.
The organizers, who at the outset
may well play a very key role in the function and affairs of
the community organization, must, on a step-by-step and essentially
pragmatic basis, shift increasing responsibility to the leaders
and membership of the group, to eventually:
- First, insure that the community
organization can function effectively with only occasional involvement
- And then, that the community organization
can function effectively with no involvement by organizers to
the point that, in addition to conducting its regular affairs,
the group can "organize on its own" --bringing in new
constituents and/or assisting other grassroots people in adjoining
areas in setting up and conducting their own community organizations.
interview with Saul Alinsky
From Playboy Magazine, 1972
PLAYBOY: You seem optimistic. But
most radicals and some liberals have expressed fear that we're
heading into a new era of repression and privacy invasion. Are
their fears exaggerated, or is there a real danger of America
becoming a police state?
ALINSKY: Of course there's that
danger, as this whole national fetish for law and order indicates.
But the thing to do isn't to succumb to despair and just sit
in a corner wailing, but to go out and fight those fascist trends
and build a mass constituency that will support progressive causes.
Otherwise all your moaning about a police state will just be
a self-fulfilling prophecy. . .
PLAYBOY: Can't your conflict tactics
exacerbate a dispute to a point where it's no longer susceptible
to a compromise solution?
ALINSKY: No, we gauge our tactics
very carefully in that respect. Not only are all of our most
effective tactics completely nonviolent but very often the mere
threat of them is enough to bring the enemy to his knees. Let
me give you another example. In 1964, an election year, the Daley
machine was starting to back out of some of its earlier commitments
in the belief that the steam had gone out of the movement and
we no longer constituted a potent political threat. We had to
prove Daley was wrong, and fast. . . The most effective way to
do this wasn't to publicly denounce or picket him, but to create
a situation in which he would become a figure of nationwide ridicule.
Now, O'Hare Airport in Chicago,
the busiest airport in the world, is Mayor Daley's pride and
joy, both his personal toy and the visible symbol of his city's
status and importance. If the least little thing went wrong at
O'Hare and Daley heard about it, he was furious and would burn
up the phone lines to his commissioners until the situation was
corrected. . .
So we devised a new tactic. . .
Some of our people went out to the airport and made a comprehensive
intelligence study of how many sit-down pay toilets and stand-up
urinals there were in the whole O'Hare complex and how many men
and women we'd need for the country's first "shit-in."
It turned out we'd require about 2500 people, which was no problem
for [our organization]. For the sit-down toilets, our people
would just put in their dimes and prepare to wait it out; we
arranged for them to bring box lunches and reading material along
to help pass the time. What were desperate passengers going to
do -- knock the cubicle door down and demand evidence of legitimate
occupancy? This meant that the ladies' lavatories could be completely
occupied; in the men's, we'd take care of the pay toilets and
then have floating groups moving from one urinal to another,
positioning themselves four or five deep and standing there for
five minutes before being relieved by a co-conspirator, at which
time they would pass on to another rest room. Once again, what's
some poor sap at the end of the line going to say: "Hey,
pal, you're taking too long to piss"?. . .
PLAYBOY: Why did your shit-in never
ALINSKY: What happened was that
once again we leaked the news -- excuse me, a Freudian slip --
to an informer for the city administration, and the reaction
was instantaneous. The next day, the leaders of Temporary Woodlawn
Organization were called down to City Hall for a conference with
Daley's aides, and informed that they certainly had every intention
in the world of carrying out their commitments and they could
never understand how anyone got the idea that Mayor Daley would
ever break a promise. There were warm handshakes all around,
the city lived up to its word, and that was the end of our shit-in.
Most of Woodlawn's members don't know how close they came to
PLAYBOY: No one could accuse you
of orthodoxy in your tactics.
ALINSKY: Well, quite seriously,
the essence of successful tactics is originality. For one thing,
it keeps your people from getting bored; any tactic that drags
on too long becomes a drag itself. No matter how burning the
injustice and how militant your supporters, people will get turned
off by repetitious and conventional tactics. Your opposition
also learns what to expect and how to neutralize you unless you're
constantly devising new strategies. I knew the day of the sit-in
had ended when an executive of a major corporation with important
military contracts showed me the blueprints for its lavish new
headquarters. "And here," he said, pointing out a spacious
room, "is our sit-in hall. We've got plenty of comfortable
chairs, two coffee machines and lots of magazines and newspapers.
We'll just usher them in and let them stay as long as they want."
No, if you're going to get anywhere, you've got to be constantly
inventing new and better tactics. When we couldn't get adequate
garbage collection in one black community -- because the city
said it didn't have the money -- we cooperated with the city
by collecting all our garbage into trucks and dumping it onto
the lawn of the area's alderman. Regular garbage pickup started
within 48 hours.
On another occasion, when Daley
was dragging his heels on building violations and health procedures,
we threatened to unload a thousand live rats on the steps of
city hall. Sort of a share-the-rats program, a form of integration.
Daley got the message, and we got what we wanted. Such tactics
didn't win us any popularity contests, but they worked and, as
a result, the living conditions of Woodlawn residents improved
considerably. . .
PLAYBOY: How does a self-styled
outside agitator like yourself get accepted in the community
he plans to organize?
ALINSKY: The first and most important
thing you can do to win this acceptance is to bait the power
structure into publicly attacking you. In Back of the Yards,
when I was first establishing my credentials, I deliberately
maneuvered to provoke criticism. I made outrageous statements
to the press, I attacked every civic and business leader I could
think of, and I goaded the establishment to strike back. The
Chicago Tribune, one of the most right-wing rags in the country
at the time, branded me a subversive menace and spokesmen for
the meat packers denounced me as a dangerous enemy of law and
order. Now, these were the same forces that were screwing the
average Joe in Back of the Yards, and the minute he saw those
attacks he said, "That guy Alinsky must be all right if
he can get those bastards that pissed off; he must have something
or they wouldn't be so worried." So I used what I call psychological
jujitsu on the establishment, and it provided me with my credentials,
my birth certificate, in all the communities I ever organized.
But over and above all these devices,
the ultimate key to acceptance by a community is respect for
the dignity of the individual you're dealing with. If you feel
smug or arrogant or condescending, he'll sense it right away,
and you might as well take the next plane out. The first thing
you've got to do in a community is listen, not talk, and learn
to eat, sleep, breathe only one thing: the problems and aspirations
of the community. Because no matter how imaginative your tactics,
how shrewd your strategy, you're doomed before you even start
if you don't win the trust and respect of the people; and the
only way to get that is for you to trust and respect them. And
without that respect there's no communication, no mutual confidence
and no action. That's the first lesson any good organizer has
to learn. . .
PLAYBOY: Mayor Daley's presence
in Back of the Yards symbolizes what some radicals consider the
fatal flaw in your work: the tendency of communities you've organized
eventually to join the establishment in return for their piece
of the economic action. As a case in point, Back of the Yards
is now one of the most vociferously segregationist areas of Chicago.
Do you see this as a failure?
ALINSKY: No, only as a challenge.
It's quite true that the Back of the Yards Council, which 20
years ago, was waving banners attacking all forms of discrimination
and intolerance, today doesn't want Negroes, just like other
middle-class white communities. Over the years they've won victory
after victory against poverty and exploitation and they've moved
steadily up the ladder from the have-nots to the have-a-little-want-mores
until today they've thrown in their lot with the haves. This
is a recurring pattern; you can see it in the American labor
movement, which has gone from John L. Lewis to George Meany in
one generation. Prosperity makes cowards of us all, and Back
of the Yards is no exception. They've entered the nightfall of
success, and their dreams of a better world have been replaced
by nightmares of fear -- fear of change, fear of losing their
material goods, fear of blacks. Last time I was in Back of the
Yards, a good number of the cars were plastered with Wallace
stickers; I could have puked. Like so many onetime revolutionaries,
they've traded in their birthright for property and prosperity.
This is why I've seriously thought of moving back into the area
and organizing a new movement to overthrow the one I built 25
PLAYBOY: This process of co-optation
doesn't discourage you?
ALINSKY: No. It's the eternal problem,
but it must be accepted with the understanding that all life
is a series of revolutions, one following the other, each bringing
society a little bit closer to the ultimate goal of real personal
and social freedom. I certainly don't regret for one minute what
I did in the Back of the Yards. Over 200,000 people were given
decent lives, hope for the future and new dignity because of
what we did in that cesspool. Sure, today they've grown fat and
comfortable and smug, and they need to be kicked in the ass again,
but if I had a choice between seeing those same people festering
in filth and poverty and despair, and living a decent life within
the confines of the establishment's prejudices, I'd do it all
over again. One of the problems here, and the reason some people
just give up when they see that economic improvements don't make
Albert Schweitzers out of everybody, is that too many liberals
and radicals have a tender-minded, overly romantic image of the
poor; they glamorize the poverty stricken slum dweller as a paragon
of justice and expect him to behave like an angel the minute
his shackles are removed. That's crud. Poverty is ugly, evil
and degrading, and the fact that have-nots exist in despair,
discrimination and deprivation does not automatically endow them
with any special qualities of charity, justice, wisdom, mercy
or moral purity. They are people, with all the faults of people
-- greed, envy, suspicion, intolerance -- and once they get on
top they can be just as bigoted as the people who once oppressed
them. But that doesn't mean you leave them to rot. You just keep
PLAYBOY: Spokesmen for the New Left
contend that this process of accommodation renders piecemeal
reforms meaningless, and that the overthrow and replacement of
the system itself is the only means of ensuring meaningful social
progress. How would you answer them?
ALINSKY: That kind of rhetoric explains
why there's nothing left of the New Left. It would be great if
the whole system would just disappear overnight, but it won't,
and the kids on the New Left sure as hell aren't going to overthrow
it. Shit, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin couldn't organize a successful
luncheon, much less a revolution. I can sympathize with the impatience
and pessimism of a lot of kids, but they've got to remember that
real revolution is a long, hard process. Radicals in the United
States don't have the strength to confront a local police force
in armed struggle, much less the Army, Navy and Air Force; it's
just idiocy for the Panthers to talk about all power growing
from the barrel of a gun when the other side has all the guns.
America isn't Russia in 1917 or
China in 1946, and any violent head-on collision with the power
structure will only ensure the mass suicide of the left and the
probable triumph of domestic fascism. So you're not going to
get instant nirvana -- or any nirvana, for that matter -- and
you've got to ask yourself, "Short of that, what the hell
can I do?" The only answer is to build up local power bases
that can merge into a national power movement that will ultimately
realize your goals. That takes time and hard work and all the
tedium connected with hard work, which turns off a lot of today's
rhetorical radicals. But it's the only alternative to the continuation
of the present system.
It's important to look at this issue
in a historical perspective. Every major revolutionary movement
in history has gone through the same process of corruption, proceeding
from virginal purity to seduction to decadence. Look at the Christian
church as it evolved from the days of the martyrs to a giant
holding company, or the way the Russian Revolution degenerated
into a morass of bureaucracy and oppression as the new class
of state managers replaced the feudal landowners as the reigning
power elite. Look at our American Revolution; there wasn't anybody
more dedicated to the right of revolution than Sam Adams, leader
of the Sons of Liberty, the radical wing of the revolution. But
once we won the fight, you couldn't find a worse dictatorial
reactionary than Adams; he insisted that every single leader
of Shays' Rebellion be executed as a warning to the masses. He
had the right to revolt, but nobody had the right to revolt against
him. Take Gandhi, even; within ten months of India's independence,
he acquiesced in the law making passive resistance a felony,
and he abandoned his nonviolent principles to support the military
occupation of Kashmir. Subsequently, we've seen the same thing
happen in Goa and Pakistan. Over and over again, the firebrand
revolutionary freedom fighter is the first to destroy the rights
and even the lives of the next generation of rebels.
But recognizing this isn't cause
for despair. All life is warfare, and it's the continuing fight
against the status quo that revitalizes society, stimulates new
values and gives man renewed hope of eventual progress. The struggle
itself is the victory. History is like a relay race of revolutions;
the torch of idealism is carried by one group of revolutionaries
until it too becomes an establishment, and then the torch is
snatched up and carried on the next leg of the race by a new
generation of revolutionaries. The cycle goes on and on, and
along the way the values of humanism and social justice the rebels
champion take shape and change and are slowly implanted in the
minds of all men even as their advocates falter and succumb to
the materialistic decadence of the prevailing status quo. . .