Monday, July 3, 2017

at the RI State House

by Duane Clinker

There are no more smoke filled rooms at the RI State House.  Smoking has been outlawed long ago.  But the games that used to be played out in those older rooms have never stopped.  

Perhaps that’s why two strong reform bills, one restricting guns in the hands of those involved in charges of domestic violence, and one giving a few days sick leave to workers, each of which had already won majorities in both the Senate and House, suddenly disappeared last week.  Under orders of the House & Senate Leadership the General Assembly of the State of R.I. simply shut down, before a final reconciliation vote on these bills, or for that matter the state budget itself, could be passed.  

The leaders, Sen. Dominic Ruggerio and Rep. Nicholas Mattiello, accomplished this feat through a complex maneuver at the last minute that left those community folks already celebrating their legislative reform victories stunned.  The two power-brokers accomplished this betrayal in an orchestrated, complex, way, but one mostly irrelevant in its details here.  Suffice it to say that it had little to do with the practice of genuine democracy.  

The Speaker of the House claimed he adjourned “his” legislative house without final votes because the Leader of the Senate had betrayed a handshake.  Was stopping the reform bills the reason for this play?  Or were the death of these bills simply an unexpected positive in a cat-fight between two ego-laden legislative leaders?  Either way the deed was done, and the powerful moneyed lobbies of the Chamber of Commerce and the National Rifle Association must be pleased with their politicians for the goal of stopping this legislation seems, for the moment, accomplished. 

It is all the worse because the reform bills received support among the majority of the legislators themselves.  They were fought for by thousands of Rhode Islanders, many new to political activity since the motivating election of Trump.  Hundreds made phone calls, and knocked on tens of thousands of doors.  They attended hearings, and many for the first time in their lives, raised their voices and spoke in the rooms of the powerful.  And they won.  Or, at least they had the votes to win, until they were played by the legislative leadership who suddenly adjourned the General Assembly for the season.   For the people, defeat seemed snatched out of the jaws of victory by a cynical power-mad leadership that gamed us.   

Some will see this just as one more heartbreaking, demoralizing loss after hard fought campaigns.  But, it could be something else.  It could be taken, not as a defeat, but as the start of a larger, more aggressive, and even winning stage of the organizing struggle, right now.  

This should be the time to escalate the campaign.  The Legislative Leaders have in fact, just given those who want change a kind of gift in the struggle to ultimately win.

Remember, the majorities of both legislative houses voted yes on these basic legislative proposals before the leaders of the House and Senate pulled the plug on the entire session.  Remember too, that thousands of Rhode Islanders are already involved in the campaigns favoring these legislative pieces.  Furthermore, the House Leadership just made the issue even bigger and more public by also cancelling the vote on the entire state budget, wreaking potential confusion and delays throughout state government.

There is an old-school organizing truism that in struggles like these “the action is in the reaction.”  What does this mean?  It means that the opponent here, (the House & Senate Leadership in particular), reacted to the imminent success of these popular reform bills by changing the game.  They realized they had the power to simply adjourn the Assembly rather than take those last final votes.  

There was an action:  the active public won the votes they needed for victory.  And there was a reaction:  the powers adjourned, imagining perhaps that their message would be received as:  “We have the power.  Case closed.  You lose.  Go home.”

But in organizing each “reaction” has the potential to be merely prelude to the next “action,”  until victory can be won.  Its a kind of dialectic.  Mattiello and Ruggerio slammed the door, but they exposed themselves and expanded the issue.  Their reaction can give the campaign new energy if we can see it and seize it, and move it to the next level.

The powers-that-be have just given to the activists, if they choose to grab it,  one of the most important gifts any organization can have in a seemingly impossible fight:  a bigger handle!  

Anything  can be lifted with enough people and a good handle.  

So far, however, the response, such as it is, among the leaders of multiple RI collaborations and networks of “the resistance” seems timid at best.  Perhaps the largest of the newly formed networks and collaborations is Resist Hate.  In an unsigned email, they suggest supporters call or email state legislative leaders, and urge them to return.  That’s not much of a campaign, acknowledging as they do in the letter that success in getting them to return is unlikely, and essentially acknowledging defeat.  They promise to turn to summer “house parties” to build their contacts, and to resume the campaigns whenever the state legislative leaders permit a do-over in the Assembly in which case they will likely have to start again from the beginning of the long process.  In other words:  this campaign is over for now. 

Other groups have yet to be heard from, except the Progressive Democrats who have called for the replacement of Ruggerio and Mattiello - a certainly deserved fate - but who have announced no path or organizational initiative to that end.

These responses from the RI resistance networks so far is sad because in truth, these are not normal times locally, nationally, or globally.  And, as of this writing, there seems no way to convene the regular people, who have been involved in one place to discuss their real options and to decide what to do.  Shall we stop now, or instead move this thing into unexpected state wide actions at every fair and festival over Rhode Islands summer?

Perhaps to do this, especially to let the hundreds of people who have actually worked on these campaigns, have a place where they can discuss, debate, and decide the ways forward themselves, we need more than “networks”  and “collaborations.”  Perhaps we need organizations - democratic places where ordinary people, in times like these, even at the most local of levels in the smallest state in the union, can learn in their numbers how to contend for real power, and how to see the internal dynamic that reveals weakness in the presumed powers of the arrogant.

We, the people, can’t win if we relegate ourselves to the rules of engagement which the powerful have given us, especially when the powerful can decide to simply cancel the process when they are at the point of losing.  We have to move beyond their permission giving.  And to do so we need organizations that we can control and direct for ourselves.

If we don’t build these things, we risk a sure slide back to apathy and fear among the majority.   We will soon find ourselves in a new “normal time,” left with mostly symbolic fights that unite dozens instead of thousands and tens of thousands.

Oppression demands resistance.  It always has and it always will.  If not, greater bondage comes.

Effective organizing campaigns are multi-dimensional fights that go outside the box.  They shouldn’t be over, until the people in the campaign say they’re over.   House meetings and parties are critical to organizing.  But this is precisely not the time to accept defeat and start over.  

This is the time to haunt them.  This is the time to understand the handle they have given us.  They have made the fight about even more than these these two important bills.  They have made it also about the “honorables” Rep. Mattiello and Sen. Ruggerio, and their sabotage of reform and the democratic process in the service of egos and money.

But, to win we have to build organizations where ordinary people can see and discuss and decide for themselves.  

I am admittedly an old school radical.  Perhaps the days of democratic organizational process and flexible tactics, in multidimensional responses to arrogant power are over.  

But I don’t think so.  I have seen astonishing things, sometimes breaking loose beyond expectations.  

I think change can come.

And, with respect to what has just happened at the RI State House, I know an organizing gift and handle when I see one.  To see it too, you have to look at it from the angle of justice, not accepting the opponents presumed power, but instead using what he has exposed to you to throw him off his feet.  Your goal must be, not just the winning this or that specific and small need, but the building of humane power among ordinary people for real change.

That might be the most effective form of Resistance of all.

July 2017

Monday, April 3, 2017


by Duane Clinker

It is a gray, rainy Monday afternoon in March and I am on a median strip at a major intersection in Cranston, Rhode Island.  With about 40 others, I am trying to give leaflets and information to motorists stopped at the lights.  We are asking for their solidarity with panhandlers who are now prohibited from asking for help at key intersections in Cranston.  Today, by our actions we are ourselves violating that law.  

The new anti-panhandling ordinance was proposed by Mayor Fung, seizing the new Trumpian political moment to exclude the poor who have nothing left but to beg from the roadsides.  To many of us at the public hearings in Cranston before the vote, it seemed something basic was at stake.  It is this:  The power to ask for help when in need, and the power to give help when you choose, are foundational for the existence of society.  Without these two things, healthy community is unthinkable and in times like these, such basic rights must be defended.

However, it was clear in the response to the testimony at the hearings that nothing could open the minds of the Mayor’s five loyal councilmen, who dutifully obeyed him in this further act of grinding down the poor in this new ban on acts of free speech and charity in our town.   

So today I, and my new friends, stand by the public road with our signs determined to resist with our solidarity, the hardness of heart at Cranston City Hall.  From a distance, the police photograph our offering of leaflets to motorists, documenting our violation of law in the exercise of human rights.

For some of us, this is also a spiritual practice.  Actions like this are demanded from those who seek to follow the Way of Jesus.  His command was simple:  “Give to every one who begs from you.” (Matthew 5:42)  Against such a practice of Love and religion, the Mayor and his Council can surely make no valid law.  

The Roman Catholic Bishop Tobin disagrees.  He urges his people refuse panhandlers lest their actions help in sustaining “a very unhealthy and degrading lifestyle,”  worrying that by giving help on the street someone might be helped who is “without legitimate needs.”  

The Bishop argues that such direct aid is unnecessary because, “Our community has legitimate and structured means of helping the poor and needy.”  I hear that a lot but I can testify as a former Pastor of a church among the poor in RI, that our “structured” anti-poverty agencies are literally besieged and cannot possibly help everyone in a timely way.  Direct help is often needed, and those who choose to help directly should not be condemned, certainly by any who wear an icon of Jesus.  The Bishop’s denial of need because of the existence of “structured means of helping,” sounds a great deal like the response of  Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, when he rejects those begging for help with his cold, “Are there no workhouses; no poorhouses!?”  No, actually, Bishop, there are not enough “structured means” to help all who need it.  

Being present on the median strips and stop lights is sometimes required.

Thankfully, Pope Francis has, with his voice of sane love, already contradicted his local Bishop.  At the beginning of Lent this year he stated that giving to someone in need "is always right," adding that money should be shared without worrying about on what it may be spent.  Amen to that.  Religion can be strange.  But, I’ll take Jesus, and in this case Pope Francis, over the Bishop in the practice of mine.

On the median, the cold rain starts again, and the tension rises in me.  A woman with kids in an old car slows, and rolls down her window.  There are tears in her eyes when she recognizes what we are doing.  “Thank you,” she says as she drives by.  Some cars honk in support.

Still, others shout “Get a Job!”  Behind me a driver reaches out the window in my direction and yells something about “Die!” as he speeds away with his kids.  These acts of coldness are happening to a group carrying signs like, “Be Kind!”  I wonder what it is like for those solitary souls, already beaten down, that must do this daily just for basic survival needs?  

The light turns red again and a young construction worker in a pick-up slows.  I ask if he wants a leaflet.  He rolls his window down, stares at me, and says, “No.  You do not want to talk to me about this!  I don’t believe in what you are doing.”   

“OK,” I say.  “I get that.  I just hope this doesn’t happen to you.”  

“What?” he says.  

“I hope you never lose your job, and have to stand out here yourself.”  

I expect a sharp response, but he hesitates and doesn’t reply.  I think I see a moment of recognition in his face, perhaps of those darker things like job insecurity with which many of us secretly wrestle.  He rolls up his window and looks at me blankly.   

He knows. I think.  He knows exactly what I mean.  

The light changes and he drives away.   The police come, blue lights flashing.  They give us $85 tickets as they have already begun to do to the poor as well.

Our court dates are in June.


(Rev. Dr. Duane Clinker is a retired United Methodist pastor and community/labor organizer living in Cranston, Photo by Steve Ahlquist, R.I. Future).