Pedestrian Right-of-Way Becomes Interesting Tactic

Sofia   When walking the streets of Sofia with colleagues, as always I’ve been all eyes and ears to new experiences and amazing sights, but I have to admit, I’ve had trouble adapting to the cavalier way many of them approach street crossings.  Unless there is a clear light with a red or green “walking man” symbol, they see a crosswalk and seem to be oblivious of the traffic, often neither looking right or left, but simply bolting into the street with the full expectation that cars will stop for them.  Admittedly, I live in a city where the streets are “open season” on pedestrians and crossing can be a kill zone, so I’m always dragging a step or more behind colleagues as they brazenly jump into the street, and I tentatively hang back to see if I will have to pick up the pieces.

A journalist for a weekly paper, described as one of the few independent papers in Sofia, interviewed me at some link about community organizing and how it worked.  The session was several parts questions and several parts a debate, as he tried to sort out whether ACORN’s organizing model might be adaptable to a Bulgarian context.  Finally, as we neared the end of our session he rested his main skepticism of the “trust.”  He was a young man, but the legacy of Communism he argued was pervasive and that it had destroyed the people’s ability to trust.  He felt it would be impossible to have people join together in a membership organization such as ACORN because they would not trust each other.  I was mystified, because of all of the principles that hold people together, I would not have rested an organizing program on trust, as the essential ingredient or glue.  More profoundly, I was convinced that my friend needed to get out on the streets of the city more often.  On any street corner, watching people, almost mindlessly, jump into the intersections as cars come speeding forward in all directions towards them is an amazing popular manifestation of trust.

Visiting with several environmental organizers and activists for dinner the night before I had also heard an equally powerful tactical adaptation of this kind of community recognition of trust.  They had heard that a minister of government was seeking to meet with a banker about a development they opposed.  They convened with a small, less than 50, group of associates that they called a “flashmob,” in the busy streets around the Parliament near where they had information this might be happening.  The tactic they used was to break up in small groups and go back and forth across the streets, taking advantage of the pedestrian right-of-way so common to Bulgarians, and so crazy to me.  They were 30 and 45 minutes late for their meeting with us, because they had so succeeded in creating a traffic jam in the area at rush hour that they were unable to break through it themselves.

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Organizing Tips from Bulgarian Enviros and Justice for All

Sofia     Organizing is somewhere on the spectrum between craft, trade, and art, so to keep even, much less ahead, of developments in the work, it’s important to pick up tips and examine the “nuts and bolts” wherever you can.  Conversations and observations in Bulgaria were providing me a laundry list of lessons.

On a lunch break I was able to observe a demonstration in front of the Environment building in Sofia of between 150 and 200 protesting an attempted development of a ski resort in the mountains and calling for the government to Save Pirin.  The organizers had fabricated a large sign as the focus of the protest which was quite elaborately constructed, partially on the site, where the pieces were assembled, but individual protestors were allowed their own creativity.  One had made a hand puppet, which drew a lot of attention, clapping in unison with the crowd’s chants as a rooster with a Save Pirin sign.  Another was in a green getup that ridiculed the rich developer who was taking a loan from his own bank to finance the project.  Either the signs were homemade or didn’t exist.

 

I was fascinated as well by the sound system.  I can remember our own routine of borrowing a shopping cart and a car battery to hook up a speaker and microphone for marches and demonstrations.  Here I found a modification of high tech sophistication, complete with its own portable generator, portable hand microphones, giant speakers on stands, and enough gear that I thought any minute we might be broadcasting a local radio show, all of which had been approved by police permit, which was equally surprising.  Quite impressive.

Later in the afternoon, I spent a fascinating couple of hours with Atanas Sharkov, who was not only a tech and app developer, including for the very popular, Taxistars, used by independent drivers to compete with Uber, but also a sparkplug behind Justice for All, a coalition that has been trying to reform the judicial system.  Tactically, they had tried to introduce a referendum to get Parliament to allow a vote on their issue.  The requirements were relatively low, only 5000 valid signatures, but Parliament had the power to decide whether to accept the referenda proposals, which led to easy rejection.

 

We talked a lot about lists, which are part of the lifeblood of organizing drives.  Organizers were not allowed to retain a list of their signature signers or at least all of the information, but obviously they were able to keep a list of their petition circulators which potentially afforded a pool of volunteer organizers to deepen their national base, I felt.  They mainly organized through a Facebook page where they now had 40,000 likes, almost 5000 added in the last 4 months, so a very vibrant tool.  Since Atanas knew his way around the tech side, I was able to get quick affirmative answers on whether or not he had excelled the list and data matched to phone, email, and address records that could fuel an effort to build organizing committees around the country.  Additionally, he was knowledgeable and skilled in the area of predictive and autodialers that could also be invaluable for direct communication to support the  organizing.

Justice for All has the capability to embrace all of these tools to create a mass organization, if they were to decide to take the natural next step and go from social media to street work.  Posting is fine, but doorknocking is calling their names.

This was exciting!

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