Editorial— Rules for Radicals: Lessons for the May 2 Strike Committee from Saul Alinsky

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It’s easy to get cynical about student protests, but organizers of the May 2 SIU student strike— whi
Chris Wissmann

It’s easy to get cynical about student protests, but organizers of the May 2 SIU student strike— which really became more of a march and rally that attracted a couple hundred demonstrators— did a nice job of shining a light on some of the issues afflicting the university and showing that not all students are apathetic.

The May 2 Strike Committee (to which, for the sake of convenience, this column will refer as the protest’s organizers, though other individuals and groups contributed) decried rising tuition and student debt, racism, SIU’s investments in fossil fuels, sexism, and police harassment. Every thinking human would find that much of the Strike Committee’s platform easy to support.

Going forward, however, the Strike Committee might better acquaint themselves with principles laid out by the legendary activist Saul Alinsky, author of the amazing manual Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer.

To help their movement grow and succeed, Alinsky might tell the Strike Committee and their allies the following.

Reveal thyselves. The so-called May 2 Strike Committee made a huge mistake by keeping their members anonymous. Among other things, it made them easy to dismiss— how many people were really involved in it? It made them seem cowardly— did they really think, or care, to paraphrase the Violent Femmes, that this would go down on their permanent records? C’mon.

Moreover, by not identifying themselves, the Strike Committee made it possible for anyone to claim to be the Strike Committee— including vandals who tagged Faner Hall and, potentially, a hate group (or lone racist) that hijacked and subverted their movement on Youtube. (Or maybe that was actually a really bad would-be comedian who tried to parody it while disparaging the greek system. For the record: Not wishing to reward the attention-seeking behavior of a potential scumbag with my viewership, I didn’t watch the offending video.)

Narrow your focus. It’s not as if SIU needs to change only one thing. Even during the best of times and under the finest imaginable leadership, any institution as big as SIU will suffer from more problems than can fill a stadium. And this is hardly SIU’s greatest era.

Diverse agendas may in theory help make common cause with other disaffected groups, but in practice they tend to stop movements in their tracks.

Enormous institutions, even willing ones, are slow to change— particularly inert bodies like universities. Thus, the Strike Committee won’t likely solve two of the issues they identified before all of their members graduate and leave town. That prospect can prove incredibly disheartening.

Concentrate, then, on one narrow issue, win something more than attention, and parlay that victory into further action, perhaps in the service of solving those other serious problems.

Demand simple, explicit answers to the one specific problem. Identify real, workable provisions that the university’s trustees, president, or campus chancellor can enact. If the issue on which they settle is racism on campus, then the problem is too broad, and if their demand is the creation of a task force, that’s not a solution— it’s where their demands will suffer a slow death by endless discussion. Rather than hoping that committees will make expeditious, smart recommendations— a highly unrealistic expectation, especially in an academic setting— target one example of racism on campus and push SIU to institute the solution you choose.

(And this the Strike Committee did, in one instance, by calling for SIU to hire a professor of African American philosophy. But an unsympathetic administrator could take the Strike Committee’s broad agenda, however worthy its individual components, and use it to distract, divide, and conquer.)

Protest to people who actually matter, and where those people actually live. The problem of rising tuition and student debt doesn’t rest with anyone at SIU. It’s really controlled by the governor and General Assembly at the state level, and Congress and the president at the national level. State senators and representatives from, say north of Charles Road and south of Pleasant Hill Road (and that’s being generous) could care less if students at SIU are skipping class to protest tuition rates— and that’s if those legislators even hear about it, which most won’t. A U.S. Representative from Wyoming: much less so. These protests need to take place in Springfield, Washington, or the home districts of targeted politicians, not on the SIU campus.

Protest in a way that will actually force the acceptance of your proposed solution.

What? Students cutting classes for a day? When I was a student, we used to call that Monday. Or Tuesday. Or too damned early in the morning. (Say, 3 p.m.) And we didn’t need political motivation.

All jokes aside, if students don’t show up for classes, that makes every university employee’s job easier— they get paid the same but have fewer people to serve and thus less work to do. The goal of a protest, however, is to make a decision-maker’s job more difficult. In that way, the Strike Committee’s tactics were self-defeating.

 

The Strike Committee started something exciting. Though they disbanded, the individual members and their supporters put themselves in a position to build their movement and force SIU to change for the better. Here’s hoping they do so— and at the risk of presumptuousness, maybe the above suggestions, distilled from Saul Alinsky, will help.