Monday, March 7, 2011



Was it really forty years ago when campus guerillas like Mark Bonokoski fed the student unrest of the budding university of Ryerson, and the giant of community organizings, Saul Alinsky, could see as his  life ended that the sit-in technique that had blossomed under his inspired leadership was already dated as a weapon.
My musings are prompted by a question from John Cosway, the diligent steward of the Toronto Sun family blog. He was quoting from an Internet item about Bono, the veteran Sun columnist, who when he was a student at Ryerson and helped run a renegade student newspaper, was involved in sit-in confrontations with the university president.
Cosway wondered when was the last good Toronto student sit-in. I bet there are aged radicals who have their favourite but they all started to blur together for me. We had the angry brawling between supposed students and rough Toronto cops at the U of T education experiment known as Rochdale. Not a sit-in but more a drug party during a raid. The cops went too far but it could be said that the whole situation baffled them.
 Hardly the often brutal stuff of the anti-war protests on American campuses. The famous sit-in at the Columbia president's office, the senseless deaths at Kent State, the awful Chicago cop assaults on convention demonstrators, the nation-wide bonfires of flower power, draft cards and flags, it seemed every day brought another campus confrontation that filled jails. Sit-ins were everywhere.
Bono and the grouchy protesters at Ryerson mirrored what was happening on the streets just outside.  The community organizing that had become a major political force in the U.S. under Alinsky had a Toronto version with John Sewell and Karl Jaffary, both lawyers who had had all the advantages, fighting developers with sit-ins in condemned houses or in front of the bulldozers. Both became aldermen and could fight evil from inside the system, and Sewell even became a dismal one-term mayor and then a voice calling endlessly from the wilderness.
Alinsky was the most famous community organizer in the modern world as he tackled every ghetto. (Some argue that Jesus was really the first.)  Typically, Hilary Clinton quoted him in her university thesis. William F. Buckley Jr., the articulate conservative, praised him. There were Toronto councillors like Gordon Cressy who could quote from Alinsky's manual for fighting the system.
But now we have a community organizer from Chicago who turned his back on an impeccable legal background and became president of the United States. I'm sure that Barack Obama also quotes from Alinsky even though he died in 1972, just as Bono graduated and Ryerson settled down.
There are many who want to pin everything bad about Alinsky on Obama, but they can't ignore that Alinsky called himself a non-socialist left winger.
It was Alinsky, quoted in a Playboy interview (I did read it for the articles,) who warned activists that sit-ins would no longer work because North America had adjusted. Alinsky was being shown the executive suite of a new corporate headquarters. There were two lobbies for the CEO's office, and it was explained to him that the one for the sit-ins came complete with a washroom and change tables in case any of the demonstrators brought along babies.
It was Alinsky who devised the technique (publicized by Toronto's own Arthur Hailey in the bestseller Wheels) that forced a Detroit bank to stop discriminating against black customers. Blacks lined up at every window and started a new account with a small sum. Then they went to the back of the line and withdrew the money.  Again and again. This went on until bank officials begged for mercy.
Alinsky also forced one of the world's largest airports, O'Hare, to end its discrimination against blacks by working out a scheme to place a black bum on every public toilet in every terminal. For the entire day. A black standing in front of every urinal. He was working out the logistics such as how many buses and how many volunteers were needed for what really was to be a shit-in when he had a brilliant idea. He told the airport managers what he was planning to do and they caved. He got everything he wanted without having to block one of the thousands of conveniences.
Occasionally today, you have a handful of protesters occupying some politician's office for  hours, hoping for  publicity. There is no bonanza for them because the politician stays away, and the protesters are what the media call the "usual suspects." (The term comes from the movie Casablanca.) There is also the reality that's it all rather silly. After all, the typical leader, whether of politics or industry, moves around with a cell phone and often a laptop. In the age of texting, occupying an office is just a waste of time.
Today's campus radicals are given seats on the university boards and can tell the president across the big polished table what they think about any subject under the sun. And they do. And do. I suspect that some days the president thinks the sit-in was easier.

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