Decision Plus Demands Equals Action in ACORN

ACORN International Canada

Toronto           It had rained a bit during the night, but it cleared up quickly in Oshawa, Ontario, as organizers hit the doors doing wakeup calls, members hustled their bags out of their rooms, and then headed for breakfast after packing up the buses.  This great buzz of activity was not about making checkout or going home.  In ACORN conventions, Monday mornings are action days, always a highlight event.  Longtime members still reminisce about their favorite convention actions or marches in vivid detail.  After days of talking the talk, this is when all 250 get to the walk the walk.

The biggest concern was not the weather.  The clouds had disappeared, but talking to the bus drivers, there was a lot of worry about the traffic and getting to downtown Toronto during the extended Monday morning rush hour.  The original schedule had been a briefing on the action, and then leaving around 10 and hoping to hit the center city before noon.  There were gametime adaptations.  The briefing was moved to the cafeteria to keep the members from having to walk back and forth across the campus, and the new plan was to get the buses moving as fast as possible.  All were gone a bit after 9 am.  Scout cars left even earlier to look at the route and the conditions in the park.

These adjustments made all of the difference.  People were assembled and ready by 1130am.  Judy Duncan, ACORN Canada head organizer, had designed and mapped the route meticulously, and briefed the organizing staff at two nighttime, post-agenda meetings.  It was not a long march, but it was downtown on a tricky grid of streetcars, one-way, and two-way streets that we had to traverse.  Furthermore, we hoped to hit not one, but two targets if possible.  Leadership delegations had been chosen to get into both of the high rises where we wanted to deliver our message, so they were peeled off ahead of time.

ACORN had been invited to a number of sessions, some productive, with the federal housing authorities for the Liberal government.  We felt we were making progress, but more recently the pace had slackened, and their response had trailed off.  This was less a pure protest, than a rally of sorts with a show of strength, coupled with huge numbers of petitions of support, some gathered days earlier in Oshawa, for our demands for a national housing policy.  When we hit the building quickly, hardly 500 meters from the park, we hadn’t really attracted much public notice yet.  There were two sets of revolving doors, and we were quickly able to get everyone into the lobby, having already planted our negotiators on the upper floors.  There was chanting, sign waving, and drums beating, but only low-level bureaucrats were present, relaying communications to their superiors on the phone.  As the action wore on, a decision was made to leave twenty or thirty people in the lobby to support them, while moving onto the second target only a few blocks away.

By this time, we had bicycle police with us.  We marched the two blocks in the street with their escort, and then made the turn towards the fancy high rise, where our target was an apartment developer and their financiers, who were refusing to meet with us to resolve issues in Calgary.  As we neared, security was massing up to block the first revolving entrance doors, so I signaled the march to the next two.  We were able to get perhaps fifty inside before building security managed to lock the doors.  We now had people upstairs, people protesting in the lobby, and the rest of the members all around outside the building.  We got people with bullhorns up higher, positioned banners along the street and subway entrance, and let people rip it up with in chants and song.  In less than a half hour, word came down that we had won, and would have a meeting within days to resolve the issue.  People were giddy and wild with happiness.  Members could feel their power, and won’t ever forget it!

Later, walking to the train station, we ran into new chair, Alejandra Ruiz, who had led the inside delegation at the federal housing office.  She told us that at first the agency staff had refused to take the petitions, so she told her team to lie down on the floor to force the issue, and told the staff they weren’t moving until that got satisfaction.  She broke their back.  The pictures of them accepting the support petitions have been widely shared.  You can’t win without great leaders.

In one short morning, ACORN Canada proved the power of its membership to force action, and saw the brilliance of its leadership in seizing the moment.  It doesn’t get much better than that!