Different Crowd, Different Questions about Organizing

Dusseldorf       On a quick turnaround, “The Organizer” documentary had been translated into Dutch for the showing in Amsterdam.  Meeting at a cultural center that was walkable from near the city center with meeting spaces, a hip bar, and an art cinema, there were more than forty organizers and activists that assembled remarkably close to on time for a showing of the film.  Having now seen the film perhaps sixty times, I sit near the back and bring something to read usually if I have the opportunity to sneak out.  I actually watched this one more closely not because of the content, but in order to follow the Dutch words that seemed aligned with English and the construction of the sentences to see how difficult the language might be for an English speaker, not that I really know anything about that.  Regardless, I found it fascinating.

This was a crowd dominated by activists within the Socialist Party of the Netherlands, the organizer of the showing and the translation, so in many ways an interesting audience for the film.  Ron Meyer, the party’s chairman, moderated the question-and-answer period, and asked the first leading questions, based on a deep familiarity with the film and even more so rooted in his deep knowledge my book, Nuts and Bolts:  The ACORN Fundamentals of Organizing, where he has become perhaps my most ardent reader anywhere in the world.  I had autographed his book days earlier in Amersfoort when visiting with the organizers at their headquarters and couldn’t help noticing that his copy was already dogeared with careful underlining on page after page.  Although this is hardly the heart of the book, the fact that he has repeatedly praised the chapter called “Dues and Don’ts” is something I can hardly wait to report when I return home since there were some, including the love of my life, who argued strenuously that I should omit that chapter as too much in the weeds, so I will use his close reading as proof that I knew “my audience.”  After all, a book called Nuts and Bolts is all about getting into the weeds!

But, I digress, because we are talking about the questions from the crowd watching “The Organizer,” not reading Nuts and Bolts.  Where often people comment on the excitement or the issues or the reach of the organization, there was some of that, but not surprisingly there was a deep interest in how politics and ideology were handled.  There is a line in the movie from a 1974 training video, where I say that in ACORN, we are not Democrats or Republicans, socialists or liberals, but something different defined by our own organizational experience and action.  Believe me, they wanted to dig deeper on that point.  They wanted to know where the Democratic Socialists of America stood in the array of parties.  They wanted to know whether leaders and members talked directly about capitalism.  In a very Dutch question, as explained to me later, one woman wanted to know whether there was anyway I could image an organizing model that sought “harmonic convergence” between our members and our targets, to which I answered, no, it was unimaginable to me.

The audience couldn’t have been kinder and more receptive, but when it came to the question of whether organizational experience and action shaped ideology or whether ideology shaped organizational experience and action, there were no easy questions or answers.

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Forty-Nine Years and More of the Story Emerges on the Springfield Riot

Source: Instagram #scspirituallife #springfieldcollege

Springfield     Before the showing of “The Organizer,” the organizers of the screening and Q&A has put together a small dinner for some of the professors and their star students.  As people put away their plates, Rick Paar, a Springfield College psychology professor, said that since I was there he wanted to tell the story of how I got him arrested almost 49 years ago.  I was all ears.  I knew that about 50 members of the Springfield College Black Students Union had gotten arrested for joining the welfare rights members after they had voted for the students to leave and for the police to arrest them, but I didn’t really appreciate that the rush of the police into the demonstrators might have caught some other white supporters as well.

Paar told the story from the perspective of a 19-year old Springfield College student caught in the drama of the day.  He had been at the Vietnam Moratorium Day rally in downtown Springfield that day in Court Square, and like many others, including the students of all four area high schools that were then built cheek to jowl at the bottom of the hill.  At the time there was a bus strike so everyone was making their way up the hill.  At the top was the Springfield Welfare office housed in a former supermarket in this largely African-American neighborhood across from Springfield College.  Paar mentioned having heard Barbara Rivera, the chair of the North End WRO, our delegate to the rally, speak about ending the war on the poor as well, and call for support for our demonstration and sit-in at the welfare office.  The confluence of all of these events, coupled with the police action, was combustible, and a riot broke out.

Long and short, he was caught in the sweep with some of his buddies from school by the police.  He told about the bottles flying, which I also remember clearly from my trip to jail.  He felt safer in the paddy wagon.  In a side bar he mentioned seeing his father, who was then a college professor, trying to pull a coat over his head while he let air out of the tires.  Eventually, we all ended up in the York Street jail, which is now where the NBA Hall of Fame is located after the jail was demolished.  My friend, Dan Russell, mentioned I can now say I was in the Hall of Fame.

Anyway, Steve Bardidge, the MWRO lawyer, had always told me he was able to negotiate my arrest down from an inciting to riot charge to simple a nolo contendere plea on simple protest with a 2-year probation because he was able to get me packaged into a deal being demanded by an influential Springfield College professor who was trying to spring his son.   Now, almost 49 years later, I discover that was Rick Paar’s father.

He ended the story before the documentary began, saying “You can thank me now, Wade.”  And, I did, and here it is again, “Thanks, Rick!”  Better late than never.

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