Saul Alinsky on video

I am teaching about Saul Alinsky (with due consideration to both his strengths and his weaknesses). I enjoyed showing my class actual footage of the man at work–from a 1968 Canadian documentary.

In this excerpt:

[o:00 to 0:55] A Chicago woman complains about rats the size of cats in her apartment. This is not a “one-on-one” interview in which she tells her own story and displays her agency as a human being. It is a documentary filmmaker’s invasion of her apartment to demonstrate her poverty. However, it does reveal some of the problems that would emerge in a one-on-one.

[0:55-1:42]: Two Alinksy-trained organizers plan “direct actions,” including pickets and a rent strike. In the ideal model, they would choose the topic and target only after much consultation with residents in one-on-ones and house meetings. But sooner or later, they would have to deal, as they do here, with practical issues like babysitting the moms who picket.┬áBy the way, a rent strike is a classic collective action problem: an individual renter who fails to pay will be evicted, but a whole building can obtain relief from the landlord if they act together. Even a picket line works a lot better if everyone joins it. That’s why I enjoy this exchange between the organizers at 0:58:

How many tenants in the building?

Ah, the building has, I think something like 27-30 tenants.

Tell you what–why don”t we turn out all 30 of them?

[1:43-3:40] A dignified picket line and some interaction with police.

[3:40-5:15] A debate with a neighbor (a young White man) who doesn’t like to see picketing on his street. The resident seen earlier talking about rats in her bedroom expresses herself pretty effectively.

[5:15-6:41] Alinsky himself, trying to establish his credibility as an anti-racist organizer with a group, probably from Dayton, OH, that is considering hiring him.

[6:41-8:09 ] The committee deliberates on whether to employ him.

In the next segment, he argues with a Canadian hippie about building utopian alternatives. (Alinksy is against.)

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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