Empowering People, Not Elites
Interview with Saul Alinsky, Part Eleven
Saul Alinsky is, along with Thomas Paine, Henry George, and Dorothy Day, one of the great American leaders of the nonsocialist left.
Response to our earlier article dealing with Alinsky has been so great that we worked to obtain this extensive interview with him, conducted by Playboy magazine in 1972. It is, by far, the most detailed conversation with Alinsky that we know of. The interview will be appearing in weekly installments here at The Progress Report.
Part One Part Two Part Three Part Four Part Five Part Six Part Seven Part Eight Part Nine Part TenMore Tactics, More Targets
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 to TWO 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, particularly since we couldn't support Goldwater, which boxed us in politically. So we decided to move away from the traditional political arena and strike at Daley personally. 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 knew that was the place to get at him. But how? Even if we massed huge numbers of pickets, they'd be virtually lost in the thousands of passengers swarming through O'Hare's terminals. So we devised a new tactic. Picture yourself for a moment on a typical jet flight. The stewardess has served you your drinks and lunch or dinner, and afterwards the odds are you'll feel like going to the john. But this is usually awkward because your seat and those of the people sitting next to you are blocked by trays, so you wait until they're removed. But by then the people closest to the lavatories have got up and the OCCUPIED signs are on. So you wait a few more minutes and, more often than not, by the time the johns are vacant, the FASTEN SEAT BELTS signs are on, so you decide to wait until landing and then use one of the terminal restrooms. You can see this process in action if you watch the passenger gate at any landing airplane. It looks like almost half the debarking passengers make a beeline for the lavatories.
Here's where we came in. 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 TWO. 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"?
Now, imagine for a second the catastrophic consequences of this tactic. Constipated and bladder-bloated passengers would mill about the corridors in anguish and desperation, longing for a place to relieve themselves. O'Hare would become a shambles! You can imagine the national and international ridicule and laughter the story would create. It would probably make the front page of the London Times. And who would be more mortified than Mayor Daley?
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 TWO 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. Woodlawn is the one black area of Chicago that has never exploded into racial violence, even during the widespread uprisings following Martin Luther King's assassination. The reason isn't that their lives are idyllic, but simply that the people finally have a sense of power and achievement, a feeling that this community is theirs and they're going somewhere with it, however slow and arduous the progress. People burn down their prisons, not their homes.
Next Week -- The Struggle with Eastman Kodak
Alinsky's first book, Reveille for Radicals
Alinsky's second and final book, Rules for Radicals
Alinsky's biography is available here
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