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A great campaigner gives advice from the grave to privacy advocates

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By Simon Davies

Anyone who survived through the soulless eighteen-year reign of Margaret Thatcher and John Major in Britain will probably recall the breathtaking mass-campaigns here against road development, airport extensions, live animal export and nuclear convoys. By 1997 – the Tory administration’s final turbulent year in office – television was feasting endlessly on images of entrenched tree protesters and flaming bulldozers flanked by thousands of activists in full battle formation.

Among the most dramatic coverage of these events was of tunnellers: campaigners who burrowed underground to prevent the movement of bulldozers and heavy vehicles. Seventeen years ago you couldn’t escape stories about tunnels: pregnant campaigners in tunnels; emotional trauma in tunnels; starvation, deprivation and true love in tunnels.

Swampy in action

Swampy in action

The Lord of Tunnels was a remarkable figure called Swampy – a fiercely committed young eco-warrior who embodied the spirit of resistance against Whitehall’s environmental vandalism. Secretly or not, millions of people wanted to be Swampy.

For a generation of young people Swampy and his friends became pioneers of the new democratic frontier. The Direct Action movement, as it was then known, became a potent political counter-movement that changed political consciousness.

Our history is replete with inspiring instances of direct action that offer a strategic foundation for present-day privacy and rights campaigners. Yet – unlike Swampy – the names of those responsible often disappear from view. One such name is mid-twentieth century American campaigner Saul D. Alinsky, whose legend has only in recent years been rekindled.

It was as a Chicago criminologist, working in the 1930s in the then grey area of social work that Saul Alinsky took his first steps into the arena of radical activism. During the course of his studies into the demography of organised crime he arrived at the South steel mills of Chicago’s west side. Here, in these immigrant stockyards of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”, Alinsky took the bland notion of community organisation and turned it into a rallying cry for social justice and equality.

Alinsky was a man of fierce imagination. He pioneered a generation of social and civil rights campaigning based on colourful tactics, ingenious resourcefulness and a radical approach. These tactics rested on a broader foundation: the development of a “civil society” based on strong community partnerships.

One such action took place in Rochester, New York, a town noteworthy for two features: the vast complex that serves as HQ for the Eastman Kodak corporation, and the city’s world famous symphony orchestra. Indeed, in 1963, Kodak, Rochester and its celebrated orchestra had become a ménage a trois. The Kodak magnates enjoyed a lavish lifestyle. They employed much of the town and kept some 40,000 people at as little cost as possible. Profits cleaved off the back of the black immigrant workforce were siphoned into Rochester’s innumerable middle class institutions.

Saul Alinsky

Saul Alinsky

Kodak had gained an unsavoury reputation within the emerging civil rights movement. One rights campaigner described the city as “a southern plantation moved north” and added “the only thing Kodak has given to race relations is colour film”. Throughout the previous year, Kodak had survived mass demonstrations, violent rioting and merciless lampooning in the national press, but its most formidable challenge came in the form of a conservatively dressed middle aged activist.

Alinsky, who had gained a reputation as a firebrand for workers’ rights, had been brought from Chicago to Rochester by local community organisations to bring Kodak to heel. Kodak was right to go to amber alert: Alinsky created trouble wherever he went, forcing corporations to do the right things by their employees.

Alinsky’s first strike against Kodak took place amidst the velvet surrounds of its directors’ favourite concert hall. As the bosses took their seats, they gazed in bemusement at the sight of a hundred black Kodak employees seated directly in front of them. As the Rochester Symphony struck the gentle chords of Beethoven’s Pastoral, a score of Euphonic blasts echoed around the hall. Thanks to a generous three-hour feast of baked beans, the workers loudly farted their way through the entire performance. The town’s elite was scandalised. Alinsky, seated anonymously in the back row, was delighted. He saw ridicule as a vital tool for beating the backsides of unyielding corporate bosses.

Thanks to a generous three-hour feast of baked beans, the workers loudly farted their way through the entire performance. 

The Rochester bean feast was the latest in a string of colourful Alinsky antics. Still fresh in the memory of corporate America was an action that went down as the most daring blackmail threat in Chicago’s history. At stake was the security of the world’s busiest airport – and the reputation of the entire Chicago administration. The threat was uncompromising and simple: either City Hall met the demands of the blackmailers, or a small army of urban guerrillas would bring O’Hare airport to its knees.

These momentous affairs at the time were known to only a handful of people, and negotiations were confined to two parties. On the one side was Mayor Richard Daley, head of a vast and corrupt city administration. On the other, Saul Alinsky.

Daley faced a stark choice. Either he reformed the City’s perverted housing policy or Alinsky would give the green light to a thousand waiting supporters to squat in every cubicle and urinal in the airport. With its facilities blocked for an hour, the Great Hub of Chicago would be a zoo; within two hours it would become mayhem.

At the eleventh hour, the administration caved in. The mere threat of the shit-in was sufficient to guarantee meetings to discuss improvement of the slum areas of Chicago. Ed Chambers, then Alinsky’s right hand man, recalls: “we knew that power was not necessarily what you had or what you did, but what the enemy thought you had. If they think you are going to destroy the plumbing system or the Beethoven symphony, then they will have to act”. The Kodak and O’Hare actions galvanised Alinsky’s reputation as the most innovative community activist in recent American history.

Forty-one years after his death, Alinsky’s vision of a sustainable society for everyone continues to shape the modern world. To a generation that sees direct action as either Pre-Swampy or Post-Swampy, it may come as a surprise that Alinsky did time in the tunnels in an age when the motorcar ruled the world. In 1969, with a battalion of community activists, businessmen and local citizens, he put a stop to Chicago’s billion-dollar Crosstown Expressway. Protest camps, tunnels, treehouses, lock-ons and trenches were shored up along the route even before any tarmac had been laid. Strikes brought the road contractors to their knees. And thanks to myriad legal objections, the bureaucrats ended up swamped with paperwork. Alinsky did not live to see the Expressway finally buried, but his arch-enemy Mayor Daley was left cursing him from beyond the grave. 

When asked how to force a bank to honour its outrageous public statements, he recommended “middle class guerrilla attacks”. Thousands of new clients then opened $5 accounts, and pushed the financial czars into overload.

The magnitude of this victory can hardly be overstated. To defeat the mayor’s pet project required a very special type of tenacity. Alinsky synthesised this tenacity in a set of tenets that later became known as the “Rules for Radicals”. His advice to campaigners struggling against an anonymous bureaucracy was “Identify the target, isolate it, personalise it, and polarise it”. And borrowing lessons from General William T. Sherman’s famous March to the Sea, Alinsky propounded “Wherever possible, go outside the experience of the enemy” (rule number three). The fifth rule – “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon” – was Alinsky’s hallmark, as the Rochester Bean Feast so eloquently testified.

But the most devastating element of Alinsky’s manifesto was rule 4: “Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules”. When asked how to force a bank to honour its outrageous public statements, he recommended “middle class guerrilla attacks”. Thousands of new clients then opened $5 accounts, and pushed the financial czars into overload. Rule 4 also forms the foundation of Shareholder Activism. Alinsky packed out the Kodak AGM with more than a thousand black workers who had bought shares in the company. In Britain today, shareholder activists make their presence felt at Shell and British Aerospace AGMs.

Alinsky’s fight in America’s industrial slums and immigrant communities continues today. The Industrial Areas Foundation, which Alinsky formed in 1940, now has more than sixty branches throughout the world. The Back of the Yards, which he formed in 1939, motivated Chicago’s Polish, Black, Catholic and Jewish workers to ditch their differences and start isolating a few common objectives. Community leaders were pulled in, and a campaign agenda was struck up. Local businesses started showing up at the Yards meetings, bringing funds and resources with them. Alinsky bounced groups and individuals off against each other, warning that they would miss the lead on this great community enterprise. The Back of the Yards emerged as a potent model for mobilising people into action. This blueprint spread out of Chicago over the 1940’s and 50’s, and People’s Organisations cropped up across America. The Citizens Alliance and groups around the world carry this Alinsky tradition of community activism.

In 1997, 25 years after Alinsky’s death, the British seaside city of Brighton played host to the world’s first action against CCTV. Teams of activists climbed camera poles, did a May pole dance and staged street theatre under the cameras to reclaim a bit of community space from Big Brother.

For Alinsky, direct action was all about community space, and he might well have been in Brighton that day – indeed his name and his rules were cited in the planning meeting that preceded the event.

One Brighton organiser, Joe Makepeace, told the meeting “We need to look deep into the archive of direct action to deal with the challenges of the twenty-first Century”. Judging by the increasing ingenuity of recent information-related campaigns, modern-day privacy activists are taking this advice.