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 movement.
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 environmental movements.
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 simple suppers."
We need to do this because, as Lau-tzu said:
Of the best rulers, the people
only know that they exist;
But of the best when their task
is accomplished, their work done,
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 from history:
- 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 all workers.
- The anti-war movement: Protests against the war pressured the government to end U.S. involvement in Viet Nam .
[Community organizer] qualities include:
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, way:
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.
"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 Training Center
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 in society.
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..."
- 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 for winning.
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 difficult explanation.
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
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.
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 this way:
"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 you do?"
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 major strength."
The organizers should insure that the community organization is significant in size and composed primarily, if not completely, of those people "with the fewest alternatives".
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 by organizers.
- 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.
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 take place?
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 making history.
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 years ago.
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 on fighting.
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. . .