How To Organize A Large Demonstration in Five Weeks
On December 5 last year, I heard a rumor that Newt Gingrich was coming to town for a Republican fundraiser at the Westin Hotel in Seattle. A few phone calls - to Newt's congressional and political offices in DC, then those of local Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R-Suburbia), confirmed that Gingrich was coming to Seattle on Wednesday, January 10th. (Through Dunn's office, we also requested press passes, which for some reason never materialized.) A few more phone calls yielded that other activist groups had also heard the rumors, but no-one had planned anything (yet). Lots of people liked the idea.
By Friday, December 8, I had set up a meeting for the following week to plan
a reaction. We chose a hall in the Labor Temple, and a daytime meeting, in
the hopes that: a) we could get more union involvement, especially with the
enormous solidarity effort that had gone into support of the recently settled
Boeing machinists' strike; b) we could establish and start publicizing an event before
people scattered for the holidays; and c) a daytime meeting would attract
larger groups with paid staff, the kind that could mobilize large numbers of people;
subcommittees, individuals and smaller groups, and others who could
mobilize on less notice, could be incorporated in evening meetings later. The specific
hall I booked at the Labor Temple came
through the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union Local 8, on the theory that their involvement would also give us an "in" for possibly disrupting the event at the Westin. I also called a friend in the stagehands' union, which would be responsible for microphones, sound system and other technical setup for any large event Gingrich spoke at.
I put the meeting notice on the Internet; I sent it to about twenty groups
electronically, posted it on Jean Buskin's local Peace Calendar and the University
of Washington Rabble Rousers activist list, and started making phone calls to
people I knew, people I sort of knew, people I didn't know at all, and the people
they knew. All sorts of people disliked
fairly or not, he has come to personify the class warfare and the assault on human dignity that has lately characterized U.S. politics. I talked to unions, to church groups, peace groups, social justice groups, folks fighting the cutbacks in welfare and inaccessibility of health care, anti-military activists, gay and lesbian groups, and so on. I talked with the Boeing machinists' supporters. I talked with planning committee members for the annual Martin Luther King Day march, which would be five days later, about coordinating our events. The number of groups that rarely talked with each other, getting in the same room for a month to plan this event, made it worth trying even if only twenty people showed up to greet Newt. That did not seem likely.
I talked with everyone except local Democratic Party officials; I didn't want an event where media coverage could focus on a Democrats vs. Republicans spat, rather than the effects that vicious policies have on real (and angry) people. Besides, as far as I'm concerned, Clinton's Democrats are complicit in many, if not most, of the things I want to protest and resist.
At the December 14 meeting, and a subsequent meeting on December 20, about twentyfive groups were represented; a couple dozen more had expressed interest but couldn't make the meetings. We had confirmed that Gingrich was holding a $1,000 a head fundraiser at the Westin, beginning at 7:00 p.m., followed by a (mere) $250 per plate dinner at 8:00 p.m. Their goal was to raise over $250,000 for reactionary Republican candidates for the 1996 campaign.
We decided on a two-pronged strategy: an "outside" and an "inside" event. Outside, we would hold a rally gathering a few blocks away at 6:00 p.m., marching to the Westin and picketing in time to greet (and inconvenience) people arriving for Gingrich's events. Inside, we booked a meeting space for a reception at the Westin under the name of a sympathetic consulting firm; this would get people with invitations into the hotel regardless of security, and would enable us to do direct actions inside the Westin during Newt's reception or banquet.
With only three weeks (two of them over the holidays) to plan these two
events, endorsements or creating a formal coalition was impossible, and it was hard
to get offices, staff people, boards, or volunteers involved. But by the first of
the year, we'd already gotten flyers out, a four thousand piece mailing to the lists
of several local groups, and had gotten additional mailings, flyers and phone
banking set up to help turn people out for the rally on the 10th. After the
holidays, momentum accelerated. Breaking events gave us even more help; the federal
government shutdown handed us unions of local federal (and state) employees
who held Newt, and his policies, primarily responsible for their furloughs.
Local media coverage of the shutdown focused
heavily on the personal stories of people dependent on threatened government services, which tied in nicely with our message.
By the end of the week prior to Newt's appearance, it was becoming obvious that we'd created a monster - or, more exactly, that the monster Gingrich had created was coming back to haunt him. We had commitments for people, groups and buses coming from Olympia, Bellingham, Port Townsend and other outlying cities; KVI (the Seattle Rush Limbaugh talk radio outlet, which fills the rest of its day with local reactionary ideologues) was urging its listeners to come and counter-protest, and to phone in harassing messages to event sponsors (we got dozens); CNN and local television and the dailies were calling even before we had a media committee formed; flyers, posters and handbills were out all over town, some from groups with no connection at all to the event. Polls nationally show Gingrich - and his policies - to be quite unpopular, but there hadn't been any widely reported street-level activism yet that reflected just how unpopular he was. We were starting to talk openly with groups and the media about this as an event that could have national impact: a turnout so large that national media and politicians would HAVE to recognize that, at least in Seattle, the right-wing assault on everyone was finally provoking resistance.
We had decided NOT to apply for permits for the rally, both on practical
and political grounds. We didn't want the police telling us where and how we
should go, and we felt we'd have the numbers to be very hard to remove from
wherever we went. Moreover, we didn't want to be in the position of negotiating with
the City of the privilege of exercising our First Amendment rights. However,
with the specter of a massive turnout, heavy security, violence-prone
counter-protestors, an inside action, and limited
public space around the Westin, we had a lot of logistical problems. It wasn't clear
where, or whether, we'd be able to set up a stage. It was obvious we would be taking
over streets - we'd have far too many people to fit on the sidewalks, and there was
nowhere else for them to go. How to do this
safely, the effect on downtown traffic (likely to be disrupted for many blocks), whether to have moving pickets, have people sitting down in the streets for focusing and safety reasons, whether to spread people around the block-wide hotel or keep them on one side, how to deploy our peacekeepers, how to occupy our angry protesters and avoid a riot - all this happening in winter, in the cold and maybe rain, after dark - these were a few of our concerns.
By the final large planning meeting January 3, we'd delegated groups to work on stage logistics, peacekeeping, program, chants and songs, banners and signs, and media. An initial list, for press packet purposes, of folks participating in organizing and publicizing the rally included about eighty local groups. On Friday, Saturday and Monday I did three interviews on local public television and radio promoting the event.
Meanwhile, the inside action was being downsized. Over the holidays, and without being able to discuss details over the phone, we had a hard time recruiting folks; only about twenty showed up for the nonviolence training on Sunday, January 7. We decided to go ahead with the action, using a room and dinner reservations in the hotel rather than the (much more expensive) reserved reception room. The inside group started meeting and planning separately from the rally.
On Tuesday morning, the day before Gingrich's visit, we held a press conference with a number of community leaders (but not any Democratic party officials or politicians). The roster was a reflection of the amazing diversity of groups and constituencies we'd welded together on short notice: labor, environmental, youth, social services, health care, religious, community. By this time, we'd already been fielding a lot of media calls, and a lot of calls from organizations as well. The American Federation of Government Employees were sending a busload from Portland, OR; folks were flying in from the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane for the evening. We were ready.
The east coast was shut down by a blizzard, but it was dry and warm in Seattle for Newt's visit. The turnout was fantastic, and the rally happened - well, not flawlessly, but smoothly enough. Organizers estimated a turnout of about 3,000; Seattle Police estimated 1,500.
We far outnumbered the 300 or so counter-demonstrators. A wing of the rally faced off with them, separated by peacekeepers; another blocked the street in front of the main entrance, where we set up the stage; another clustered around a service entrance where Gingrich was ushered into the building (we had scanners monitoring police and Secret Service transmissions); another briefly blockaded the parking garage entrance; another occupied the valet parking area, and their loud chants, directed to dinner patrons entering from the parking garage, were audible in the hotel and reportedly scared away many of the would-be Gingrich attendees. It was chaos, made more difficult for organizers by the failure, early on, of our radios (for stage, peacekeepers and tactical team), but very effective for communicating our message. The signs, costumes, and noise, from an incredible array of groups and issues and from all over the Pacific Northwest, was something we hadn't seen in Seattle in years.
By morning, incidentally, local public radio stations KPLU and KUOW
had reduced the event to "outside the hotel,
a few hundred pro- and anti-Gingrich demonstrators shouted at each
other" I've never before even heard of media
low-balling a police estimate of crowd size
a factor of four! Local television was somewhat better, and though it was similarly distorted, we did get some of the national exposure we'd hoped for. (An aerial shot of the crowd on a CNN report supported our version of the crowd size.)
Meanwhile, inside, eleven folks managed to enter the fourth floor lobby leading to the ballroom in which Gingrich was speaking. Chanting "Stop the war on the poor," they were quickly arrested, held overnight and released the next morning. Happily, the arrests, at least, were reported accurately by the media. We announced the fourth floor interruption at the close of our outside rally (the two were connected by cellular phone, which we'd also used to monitor the counter-demonstration); that gave a nice capping to the euphoria most rally attendees - and us organizers - felt as we headed home.
With the rally and direct action, we made a lot of people feel good and gave them a chance to vent; we scared off some Republican donors, though they doubtless still paid their money for the dinner; and according to press reports we annoyed Newt and his handlers a bit. (Various reports had Newt and his camp blaming the rally on "organized labor" and "unemployed potheads".) Not only did we make them work a little harder for their quarter million dollars, but it will give people pause about attending a similar fundraiser next time.
More importantly, we got a lot of like-minded people, often isolated in
their different issues and circles, working to
gether, and many will probably work together again; and we vividly demonstrated that there are many, many angry people behind all those polls showing widespread opposition to every facet of the Contract With America, free trade, militarism, environmental destruction, social intolerance, and all the other arms of this country's oligarchal assault.
Most importantly, the event shows what first one, then a small handful of nonviolent activists with a good idea at the right time can do. I heard about Newt coming; I decided to try to organize a big, visible response, rooted in NACC and WRL's basic precepts of nonviolence and social justice; I called and e-mailed some people; we got in a room, agreed to do it, divided up the work, started calling other folks, and set to it. We assumed we'd make some mistakes, and we did; we also did not limit ourselves with assumptions as to who would or wouldn't help or be interested, and we made a lot of new allies that way. Enough of these sort of projects, and we just might have one heckuva movement. We'll do it again, as often as needed. You should, too.
Editors' note: The City of Seattle has filed charges of criminal trespass (and, in one case, obstruction) against the "Newt Eleven," and their pre-trial hearing has been set for February 28.
From: Nonviolent Action: newsletter of the Nonviolent Act Community of Cascadia, no.53, Spring 1996. 4554 12th Ave NE, Seattle, WA 98105. Ph. (206) 547 0952, Fax: (206) 547-2631, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org