Building Public Power

An Organizer's Guide to Citizen Action

There is a grim day of reckoning on the horizon next year for New York's city and state budgets. It is a subject about which the re-election-seeking Governor, George Pataki, dares not speak, and around which the businessman-turned-mayor, Michael Bloomberg, is still tiptoeing. The current bleak prognosis is that the city faces at least a $5 billion shortfall while the state's deficit will be at least double that figure. Already, the powers that be are pressing for that most regressive of tax hikes, a one-third increase in the cost of riding subways and buses. There are whispers about normally unthinkable remedies, such as closing firehouses. Those and other potential cuts are going to be the grit and substance of scores of as-yet-unplanned rallies and demonstrations, as New York's advocates and activists gird themselves for one more round of bitter protests.

All of which makes this a good time to consider the ways in which, in an age of corporate domination, everyday people successfully manage to get themselves heard and their agendas addressed.

That's the theme of a new book by Michael Gecan, a lead organizer for the Saul Alinsky-founded Industrial Areas Foundation, which helped launch the city's largest and most potent mass-member organizations. Going Public, released this month by Beacon Press, is a treatise on power for those whose goal is to make effective social change. It is a kind of manual of style for those who want to—at least once, just once—beat the bastards.

Industrial Areas Foundation's Michael Gecan
photo: Jay Muhlin
Industrial Areas Foundation's Michael Gecan

IAF is, as Gecan puts it, "a different type of organization." It rarely joins coalitions. It eschews single-issue causes. It generally avoids specific political campaigns (while at the same time advancing increased voter registration).

IAF's entry into New York neighborhoods in the late 1970s evoked suspicion and jealousy on the part of the city's veteran anti-poverty leadership. Its organizers were different: They wore business suits and earned decent salaries. They told church leaders, who were the first wave of recruits, that if they were serious they needed to forget about issues for the time being and begin raising money, from their own impoverished constituencies. Gecan and other IAF organizers spent months simply meeting and talking with people, from families coping with life in drug-torn housing projects to high-level officials like then lieutenant governor Mario Cuomo (who was uninterested at the time) and the late Brooklyn bishop Francis Mugavero, who became an ardent proponent of IAF's projects. These "public relationships," as Gecan calls them, are the crucial base for building a network of power.

It appears to have worked. Today, IAF-spawned groups in New York regularly turn out crowds of 5000 people—"leaders" as they're called by IAF—for their rallies and events. Hundreds of those members, overwhelmingly black and Latino and residents of the city's most blighted neighborhoods, have developed keen organizing skills that make them formidable figures in local and citywide battles. They have also forged a remarkable record of public-policy and brick-and-mortar achievements. IAF's most famous accomplishment is the Nehemiah housing program, the construction of 3000 low-cost single family homes on the scorched earth of East New York and Brownsville by its member group East Brooklyn Congregations. In the Bronx, South Bronx Churches constructed several hundred more homes and built two new schools. Another IAF organization, Lower Manhattan Together, won the reconstruction of East River Park. Along the way, the groups also won passage of the city's first living-wage bill.

IAF logged those achievements despite run-ins with official power at virtually every level. Early on, the East Brooklyn leaders stunned then Brooklyn borough president Howard Golden by resigning from local community boards, deeming them useless and ineffectual. In a stroke of unvarnished chutzpah, they demanded to meet with Golden's political boss, the late Meade Esposito. At one time or another, the organization has deeply infuriated three of the city's last four mayors (the organization has yet to seriously joust with Bloomberg). Ed Koch once became so incensed he stomped out of a mass meeting held by IAF's Queens Citizens Organization after group leaders insisted on setting the agenda.

The event so rankled Koch that, years later, at what was supposed to be a pleasant private dinner at Gracie Mansion to which Gecan was invited, he compared IAF's meetings to Moscow show trials and a Nuremberg rally. Gecan registered his anger by walking out himself, despite Koch's desperate entreaties to him to stay. Koch later sent a two-page letter of apology and a new dinner invitation, which Gecan declined. But despite the intensely personal run-in, the incident wasn't fatal to IAF's relationship with the administration, and it continued to work with Koch's commissioners where it could. Similar strains affected its dealings with Rudy Giuliani, who shut down the group's City Hall access after it pushed for the living-wage bill. But unlike other organizations that assumed a stance of permanent enmity with Giuliani, the IAF leaders viewed the strain as a temporary setback, and when Giuliani reached out to hear the organization's views after the fiasco of the police shooting death of Patrick Dorismond, IAF leaders held a remarkably frank meeting at City Hall with Giuliani, recounted by Gecan in his book.

Such public relationships, he writes, are predicated on mutual respect, seriousness of purpose, and sharp focus on the chosen goal, he says. The idea isn't to speak out, raise consciousness, or bear witness. It is to win.

"Intelligent action, even public confrontation, is at bottom an attempt to engage and relate," writes Gecan, adding, "Most activists fail to appreciate this. Bureaucrats seek to stifle it."

Sometimes the toughest demands aren't shouted, but whispered, as in an episode in the early '80s when East Brooklyn Congregations sought to jump-start the long-stalled restoration of a Brownsville park and public swimming pool. At a meeting, Alice McCollum, a mother of 10 who lived across the street from the park, thoroughly unnerved the self-proclaimed liberal who headed the city's office of construction by continually asking in a soft voice when he expected to finish the project. The construction director became enraged, screaming, "You people! You people!"—code words for minorities that were instantly understood by everyone in the room. The meeting ended on that note. But a few days later, work crews showed up at the park, and the renovation was soon completed. At the city's re-opening ceremony, McCollum approached the construction director and thanked him for his "prompt response and fine work" in returning to her children a place to play and swim. From that day on, IAF found the construction director a responsive and professional public official, Gecan says.

Gecan's worldview was shaped by his own early encounters with raw power growing up in Chicago. He saw mobsters shaking down his father, a tavern owner; local Democratic bosses extorting families for hundreds of dollars to get on the list for city jobs that never materialized; blockbusting real estate hustlers destroying once vibrant neighborhoods. In the most searing incident, Gecan watched as a deadly 1958 fire destroyed his Catholic grade school, killing 95 of his schoolmates and teachers. The catastrophe, he says, was brought on by a failure to build proper emergency exits—in a church school.

Merit and good-faith intentions matter only when informed by an understanding of how power operates, Gecan says. So it was that when he first visited New York City's old Board of Estimate with a church delegation, he immediately understood that the men in fancy suits walking nonchalantly through the doors that said "Do Not Enter" were not staff, as most rule-obeying citizens assumed, but favor-seeking lobbyists and developers. Meanwhile, the rest of those present waited patiently as the board moved through its interminable calendar. Brushing aside pleas from friends not to break the law, Gecan pushed through the forbidden doors himself, where he quickly learned from a city official that the matter his group was there to push for had been tabled until the next meeting. The church members packed up and went home.

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