In an unusual scene on Thursday morning, an immigration activist interrupted House Speaker John Boehner as he was having breakfast at Pete’s Diner in Washington, D.C.
“Speaker Boehner, I just want to ask you why you want to break the dream of the DREAMers, of the students,” said Veronica Zavaleta, an activist with the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition and member of the Fair Immigration Reform Movement, in a calm but firm voice. “Can you please express your opinion about that? One second. Just one second. I really want to know why you have broken the dream of the Dreamers.”
At first Boehner appears to simply ignore Zavaleta, who is the mother of a Dreamer, and then remarks: “Whoa, whoa, whoa, that’s not very nice.” Someone in the background can be heard telling her to set up an appointment with him at his office.
With Boehner’s regular routine at his favorite breakfast spot disrupted — as it was by other immigration activists in November — he abruptly left the diner.
This type of confrontation with those in power, not at their offices, but as they go about the business of their personal lives is an underutilized, but powerful, tactic at activists’ disposal.
Politicians or executives who are targeted by such actions are not able to compartmentalize their lives as they would like. They are forced to face an injustice that they have a hand in perpetuating — or could play a constructive role in addressing — in places that they thought were safe, or off-limits.
This tactic can quite literally bring an issue home, as the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America, or NACA, did in 2009 when it organized a series of protests at the homes of individuals it called “financial predators,” like Morgan Stanley’s chief executive John Mack, who they saw as responsible for the housing crisis and epidemic of foreclosures sweeping the country.
By invading their personal space, these actions can have a long-lasting impact on those who are targeted, as one particularly provocative protest against war and nuclear weapons did in 1976. Three activists, including Phil Berrigan, were arrested after digging a symbolic grave in Donald Rumsfeld’s front yard, when he was President Ford’s secretary of defense. Rumsfeld felt compelled to retell this harrowing story and how it impacted his family in his memoir, Known and Unknown, which was published more than 30 years after the action.
“Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue,” Martin Luther King Jr., explained in his Letter from A Birmingham Jail. When the normal channels for effecting change aren’t working, confronting those in power in unexpected, uncomfortable places can help break the logjam.