by Gary Gordon
(from Catfish Alliance 101 and Beyond; A Series of Essays About Community Organizing, Activism, & Politics)
There is a line from a rock n roll song my friend Nancy used to sing: "I don't see no Saints around here."
It could be said about any gathering of politicians, activists, staff; it could be the opening words of a non-denominational prayer at any Council meeting.
If you read Tom Hayden, Norm Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Katha Pollitt and a variety of leftist writers you will know that the left has an extraordinary history of examining itself; the purity and humanity and morality and consciousness of its motives and goals and its strategies and tactics used to achieve its goals.
Then there's Mike Royko, the (now dead) Chicago Tribune columnist who suggested to NOW when they were trying to pass the Equal Rights Amendment in Illinois that instead of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on publicity and public relations campaigns, they should instead just bribe whatever Illinois politicians they needed in order to get the votes.
In my experience, political activism is both thrilling and shitty. There are uncommon and unequaled acts of heroism and devotion; and there are venal acts of betrayal and deception. And in-between there's alot of love, arrogance, generosity, self-righteousness, humanitarianism and fascism.
And the good qualities are not the sole property of the left, and the bad qualities are not limited to those on the right. (But we'll have to discuss this label stuff in another chapter.)
And in my experience, there's not a whole lot of victories, culturally or personally. It can be a weary road, and one must keep in mind General "Vinegar" Joe Stilwell's admonition: "Don't let the bastards grind you down."
And there are so many ways it can grind you down. I mentioned previously I first met Doris Bardon through her letters to the editor. I shudder to think what stamps cost then, but they cost a helluvalot more now. So do phones. So does rent. It takes more time out of your day to make a living, and it costs more than it used to to organize. On the positive side, they don't send out private goon squads very often to bust up private meetings. But the FBI, DEA, BATF and local police departments are always available to lurk, infiltrate, disrupt, frame and imprison activists who are perceived to be dangerous. (It isn't that long ago that CISPLA activists were threatened, and Leonard Peltier, framed for murder and railroaded into jail, still sits in prison. Read Peter Mathiessen's In The Spirit Of Crazy for an excellent account of the FBI's war against Native Americans and especially Native American Activists.)
The fact is, they usually don't need those techniques, because the more benign techniques often have their effect. Take the average physical set-up of the average city or county commission meeting room: the government officials are set higher than you, more majestic, imperial, clearly in the authority. It's intimidating, and it's no accident. Add to that the variety of rules and procedures that in many cases mystifies or diverts a citizen attempting to participate. Then add to that the time limits many governments set on presentations by public citizens. And in many cases, add the additional weight the governing body gives to their professional staff, and you become this small, insignificant, might-as-well-be-two-in-the-morning-public-service-announcement. But they probably do all smile and nod graciously, and you may even get a letter from the Mayor a week later, on City embossed stationary, thanking you for your participation and taking the time to do your civic duty.
Hogwash. (I say that in honor of Hogtown [Gainesville's original name].)
If you truly had some power, if you truly could exert pressure, they would either truly embrace you as an attempt to get you on their side, or they would truly reject you and probably attack you as the kind of person more interested in confrontation than in the commonweal.
Your job as an activist is to remember who you are, who you represent, and what you're trying to accomplish. Sometimes that means forming coalitions, sometimes it means maintaining complete independence. Sometimes it means you're in the distinct minority and you've got alot of convincing to do. Sometimes it means turning some of the council in your favor; sometimes it means defeating them at election time with your own slate.
And there are other ways governments have of dismissing you. In an email I wrote last spring to a councilmember in Santa Monica, I listed some of what I called gambits local government has at its disposal and practices all too frequently (adding some parenthetical explanations):
1) The Shifting Interpretations Of Public Turnout Gambit: When several people show up at a meeting endorsing something a Councilperson favors, s/he points to the group and says "The people support this". When several people show up at a meeting opposing something the Councilperson favors, s/he points to an imaginary wider group (the TV audience) and says "This group represents a small but vocal minority... the majority of people support me".
2) The Secret Negotiations gambit: (When the government is involved in secret negotiations with another governmental body or private group, usually unlawful, but also usually effectively shielded from "sunshine" laws with the cloak of "legal implications and threatened lawsuits".)
3) The "I'd love to help but our hands are tied" gambit: (When the Councilperson pretends some vague county, state or federal law prevents them from acting.)
3-B) The "I've supported this for years but I can't tonight but I really do support it" gambit: (Always keep handy the Supreme Court phrase from Brown V. Topeka Board Of Education: "with all deliberate speed", and be ready to ask the basic civil rights question "If not now, when?")
4) The "but that's not the way we do things" gambit: (The false tradition approach to government-- all policy is made policy so just because things have been done a particular way is no excuse for continuing that way. Plus, this excuse makes the argument about policy-making and diverts it from your issue at hand.)
5) The "it's too late, you should've talked to us about this months ago" gambit: (If they haven't decided and tonight's the vote, then it really isn't too late and this person is bullshitting you.)
5-B) The "if you'd only talked to me when I didn't have time" gambit (otherwise known as the Major Major Major Major gambit).
6) The "if you'll just trust me" gambit: (Up to you to know whether you should or not, based primarily on the person's past record and your knowledge of them through working with them.)
7) The "but our professional staff says" gambit: (Staff NEVER has the same agenda as any citizen group. NEVER. They are there to advise and make decisions work, but they are not there to make policy decisions. That's the governing body's job, and your job as a citizen activist is to influence the governing body and remind them, if necessary, that staff does not make policy.)
8) The Roman gambit: ("we have to crucify you for the greater good.") (The proper response is: If you crucify me tonight I will come back in three days and haunt you for thousands of years.)
9) The "so what if you've got petitions" gambit: (An ignorant yet actual remark made by people who actually want to get re-elected. Remind them people who sign petitions can be mobilized to vote.)
10) And of course the denial of conflict of interest gambit: (Under every rock... Or, as a fellow political activist and office holder once said to me: "Show me a fundamentalist minister who isn't perving with little boys or diving into prostitutes." Remember, I don't see no Saints around here.)
On top of the above, along with the decrease of real press coverage, another insidious gambit has swept the nation. It's similar to the The Rich Are Miserable And The Poor Are Happy gambit, the That'll Never Happen gambit, and the You Can't Do That gambit, but it's been more insidious, more pernicious.
It's The People Are Weary Of Confrontation & Want Cooperation Gambit, and it goes like this:
The people are weary of confrontation; they want cooperation. Who can work best cooperatively in this arena? The person who can be most cooperative should be the most desirable.
Goldstein once told me all life begins in tidepools because that's where the friction is. Without friction, no birth, no life.
Name a social/political/cultural movement that ever started and succeeded through an approach of cooperation.
Our system of justice (such as it is) is based on the adversarial approach. Our sciences teach the way to truth is Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis. The Socratic method is constant questioning with the fullest use of language and meaning available to seek truth. "Are you now and have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?" is not a cooperative question. "What did he (the President) know and when did he know it?" is not a cooperative question. "At long last, have you no sense of decency?" is not a cooperative question. These questions are challenges, all framed appropriately in the quest for truth. (The question of whether or not a person should be compelled to answer a question from a governing body about his or her political affiliation is a different question, but it is one, I assure you, that was never and never will be dealt with in the framework of cooperation.)
I raise this because chances are you will be accused of being disruptive, adversarial-- of being a confrontationalist "at the very time this community needs cooperation."
And it is tiring to be adversarial. It takes enormous energy to confront. But how are you going to cooperate with a government that is allowing the polluting of your air and water (or whatever is your issue). You must run the risk of being labeled confrontational, and you must step forward and continue to fight your fight, because as much as Americans now seem enamored of this foolish cooperation decoration, they are still primarily enamored with fighters, with people who stand for something.
And your job, as an activist, is to stand for something, and to enlist others to your cause, to influence the governing body if necessary, and to win.
The more successful you get, the more pressure there will be on you to Join The Club, Fit In, "appreciate what you've accomplished so far... (and let the rest go). And if you run for office and are elected, the pressures are enormous. You don't truly understand til you feel them. And it is then that most people, because they don't really know who they are, cave.
When I was asked why I didn't win re-election, my first answer was "because the other guy got more votes". But among my answers was this: "I never learned how to be a politician. I never learned how to kiss ass."
And even if I learned how, I never would.