Why politicians (sometimes) win and how we can stop them

An activist stands with a bullhorn outside Kiev's City Council, which was taken over by the opposition on December 1, 2013. (Flickr/Ivan Bandura)

An activist stands with a bullhorn outside Kiev’s City Council, which was seized by the opposition in Ukraine on December 1, 2013. (Flickr/Ivan Bandura)

During a feisty campaign for more affordable housing, one of the councilman’s aides leaned towards me and genuinely looked apologetic. “I wish we could move your legislation faster, but things take time.” He counseled, “Keep in touch with us, and do keep meeting with other council members to educate them and get them to move faster. But, alas, things just go their natural speed.”

The situation I found myself in is one common to many organizers and activists. After activists put pressure on politicians, politicians buy time by slowing down and obfuscating the process. They kick the can down the road. Again, and again, and again. Meanwhile, the grassroots campaign begins to wane as people grow restless, discouraged and fatigued.

This dynamic has many variations. In New York City, community groups wonder how far do we trust Mayor Bill de Blasio and his promises to change things? Do they stay in agitational mode or do they surrender to “the process” and try playing the inside game?

Or for Keystone XL pipeline activists disappointed to see another crummy State Department report and the march of construction, do we simply wait around for John Kerry and then President Obama to make announcements?

In short: Do we stay on the politicians’ timeline, or do we create our own?

Staying on your own timeline supports empowerment

One option is to plan for politicians to fit into your own timeline.

Unite for Peace was a faith group in Philadelphia wanting to take on the USA Patriot Act after its introduction in 2001. Along with dozens — and later hundreds — of municipalities we wanted to get Philadelphia to outlaw the use of local police resources for the Patriot Act.

We could have contacted supportive council members and started the process of getting a bill introduced. Instead, we picked a very different strategy — rooted in a belief that once a bill was introduced, people would want to follow the process of council hearings and bill introductions, instead of our own growth as a grassroots group.

So, early on in our campaign, we approached likely supportive council members with a request: “Don’t go anywhere near this. Don’t draft bills. Don’t even talk about it. We have a plan.” We made them promise to stay out of it until we asked.

Our plan was a series of organizing events that would allow us to build a strong interfaith community first. We reached out first to the Arab-American Muslim and African-American Muslim communities — two groups that were feeling politically vulnerable post-9/11. Of our six-month campaign we spent the first five months focused primarily on building relationships with them. During the final month we reached out to the Jewish community and we didn’t focus on Christian outreach until the last week.

Our strategy was to avoid a Christian-dominated interfaith group with a sprinkling of other religions. By building a culture rooted strongly first with more marginalized religious groups (including pagans and others), we ended up with a strong, tight coalition that was genuinely interfaith.

Around the fifth month we needled our opposition until they began to mobilize against us, with talk-radio attacking our “pro-terrorist legislation.” We were strong and our opposition was weak and scattered.

That’s when we went back to council members and said, “Now introduce the bill.”

When the bill reached the floor, we had set the pieces up in our favor. Our coalition was peaking at full-strength and able to carry out a series of massive rallies at council hearings and gatherings, especially targeting the remaining opposing council members. Meanwhile at hearings our opposition appeared to be one or two isolated people with hate-filled signs.

With that set-up, the bill sailed pass council — making Philadelphia the largest city thus far to have come out against the Patriot Act.

The lesson here, instead of getting caught up in someone else’s timeline, is build your own — allow pressure to build so your timeline becomes dominant.

Targeting, without targeting

In our case we directly targeted city council. But sometimes that’s not the best idea — especially when we don’t know if our target is actually rooting for us (friends) or if they’ll screw us (enemies). It’s the problem of political “frienemies.”

In Philadelphia, a grassroots group had organized against a deeply unwanted casino development project. The city council, though hostile, had reluctantly agreed to do most everything the grassroots groups wanted. But with a major deadline approaching, word on the street was that the council would cave.

One of the groups’ advisers counseled against targeting the council directly. “They haven’t actually screwed you. Using direct action against peoples who haven’t done harm to us is unfair and borders on an abuse of our power.”

The group decided to shift targets. Instead of going hard against city council, they built an action at a related regulatory agency, known for its sleaziness and incompetence — and for holding so-called public hearings where the public was not allowed to testify, speak to the board, or even ask questions. The group decided to carry out a public filibuster, a grassroots interpretation of the procedural filibuster.

At the regulatory hearing, local residents stood up one at a time and started testifying — just as if they had a right to (because they believed they did ethically). Each was gaveled down and told to be quiet by the chairwoman, who called an immediate recess. The three members who spoke were escorted out of the building and told they would not be allowed to return.

When the board reconvened after recess, the chairwoman warned the group not to continue to interrupt. The remainder of the group again stood up one-by-one and attempted to testify. Another recess was called.

When they reconvened again, the group again attempted to speak up. Finally, she shut down the entire meeting rather than allow people to speak. The result: Rather than risk another engagement like that, she allowed the public to speak at future hearings.

That drama received dozens of news articles, who described us as “soft-spoken, polite, and very determined” — in stark contrast with the regulatory body’s “months of exclusion.” And though the group achieved a win, their real win came with what they did next.

They took clippings of the lengthy news articles and summarized them into an eight-page document. Then they left copies on each council member’s desk just days ahead of the council’s vote. (Read more on this campaign at: www.strategyandsoul.org.)

The embedded threat was clear: We know how to get press that will expose you if you lock the public out. Cross us, and we’ll shut you down.

It’s one way to relate to “frienemies” — targeting, without targeting. Or, as one of the group’s members said, “There’s a million ways to say fuck you.”

This kind of “targeting, without targeting” is available to the more than 80,000 people who have signed the Keystone XL Pledge of Resistance, a promise to engage in civil disobedience if it appears the pipeline is to be approved. While they have structured a beautiful “if-then” threat, people may be anxious if they just keep waiting without doing anything. Waiting can be deadly to morale. So one option is to target the State Department’s corruption even while they wait. In this way they can send the signal that the smell of corruption will linger heavily on President Obama.

Take your stance

Back in the stuffy council member’s office, after the aide spoke he literally reached out and patted my hand, as if to comfort me.

I withdrew my hand quickly and leaned in close to him, almost conspiratorially, “Thank you for your concern. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. But this issue burns in our souls. So while I appreciate your advice, we can’t accept it. We’ll just have to teach you how things can move faster.”

The next day we organized another action. We didn’t follow his timeline or allow him to dictate where and when we do actions. If we had, it would have been a guaranteed way to lose. Winning means we stay on our own timeline.

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