How to Get a Bunch of 80-Year-Olds Arrested

Ivy HestHow-To, Skills and Principles, StrategyLeave a Comment

“Let’s occupy the Governor’s office!”

“What?”

“Yeah!  Let’s do it!”

“What?  No!”

The public transit authority in Boston had decided to increase prices for transportation for seniors and people with disabilities by 100%, and in some cases 150% by July 1st.  Members had been mobilizing and organizing for almost a year, without any response from the public transit Board.  We knew it was time to take things to the next level, and were discussing what our next steps would be.

Me: “We are NOT occupying the Governor’s office.”

Cheryl: “This is a grassroots organization.  You’re supposed to listen to us!”

There was some chatter and discussion of other ideas.  But Cheryl went back to occupying the Governor’s office.

Cheryl: “We’ll stay in the Governor’s office and we won’t leave until they drag us out in handcuffs.”

Me: “What would you demand of the Governor?  At what point do you decide to go home?”

Cheryl: “I’ll go home when I get a ride from them!”

We talked about who could give us what we wanted.  The answer, of course, was ‘not the Governor’.  Or rather, ‘the Governor is an important player in this issue, but there are complications to whether he would support us or not.  But ultimately, he’s not going to have the power to lower the fares.  That decision rested in the hands of the public transit Board.’  We talked about how, since the Board wasn’t listening, we could start putting pressure on our allies who have remained silent so far- but when we hadn’t confronted the Governor previously, it didn’t make sense to target him so dramatically before first giving him a chance to support us.

I was able to talk them off of their ledge, but there was something that stuck out to me about their plan.  There was an anger there- a deep anger at that- and a desire to make a big splash and get the attention of the media.  We needed to channel our energy in a way that would have the biggest impact.  Having a small, enclosed protest inside one office of the State House may not have been the best way to get there, but if we wanted media attention to spark a more public conversation about the issue, there were ways of doing this.

Keep us covered by health insurance!

Keep us covered by health insurance!

In this organization, the culture was public, eye-catching actions that often used humor to make their point (like the one shown here).  But we were also known for the strategy and goal-setting that went into the actions.

Our Executive Director reminded everyone of the goals we had established.  We needed to put pressure on the public transit Board, but had gotten no positive response from them for months prior.  We knew there was a legislative vote coming up (that we knew would lose) to increase funding for all public transit.  All decision makers were giving the excuse that their hands were tied because of budget cuts.  We needed to jolt the public and the decision makers into remembering the impact of this decision.

The members were out for blood.  They were feeling the real impacts of the decision, but their struggles were falling on deaf ears.  The key was going to be to harness that energy, that anger, and that desire to get everyone involved into an action that was strategic and powerful.

So how could we get media attention, shame the legislators who were voting against public transit users, and get the message to the transit Board?

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Organizing is always a juggling performance.  Everything seems urgent.  It’s so tempting to do an event for “public awareness” (I’ll discuss my dislike for awareness campaigns in a future post), because we feel that if everyone just knew, if they understood the problem, they would all come to our side and fight with us; and if these decision makers only knew the impact of their choices, they would change their mind!

And so, when we get a no, we’re ready to storm in, guns a’blazing.  We are ready to go Rambo on any decision maker who will lend an ear, assuming that if they haven’t yet stepped in, they are our enemy.

The temptation to escalate quickly is a strong one.  But to be effective, we must be strategic.  And to be strategic, we need to determine our goals and stick to them.  Anything that serves a different agenda, or “wouldn’t it be great if the puppy activists got involved too”, should be scrutinized, and probably dropped.  Everything you do has to work toward this goal.  When you have too many goals, your central message gets weakened, your power diluted.

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We decided that the best way to achieve public and media attention was to do an action outdoors, in a place that would be disruptive to every day life.  We also wanted our location to have significance.  We couldn’t directly hold an action outside of where the Board meets, because it would involve the state police, notoriously more aggressive than city police.

Ultimately, 6 members and allies blocked a very busy intersection directly outside of the State House in the middle of the day.  We chose the day that the big vote about increasing public transportation funding would fail, giving the press strong visuals.  The city police allowed the members to block the intersection (illegally) for 45 minutes before they had to arrest them.  The event itself was hugely successful; we mobilized 300 affected people to attend a rally supporting those committing civil disobedience, received television and print press from every major newspaper in the region (you can see a compilation of all the television press here!), and saw that the Senate President and Speaker of the House both went to their balconies to look at our protest.  The Governor intervened shortly after and demanded that the public transit Board meet with our membership to discuss the changes proposed.

We did not win our campaign because of this event.  In fact, it was over 6 months later and after another civil disobedience action that we finally saw a victory (which happened a month after I had left the organization!)  But we had set in motion the pieces we identified as necessary to jolt the issue out of limbo and into public discussion.

The event was successful because we stuck to our goals.  We were clear about who our target was and what we wanted to accomplish, and we were able to still tap into that anger and have an event that felt satisfying for everyone involved.

The next action we planned, one member started off the conversation with “Let’s write our goals on the board, so we all remember them while we plan this thing”.  

My Name is Not Saul Alinsky, and Neither is Yours.
Learning How to Lose

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