Thursday, April 24, 2008
On Doing What You Need To Do.
It was 1990. And a cold wind was beginning to blow. Things in Boston up til recently had been pretty good for homeless people. There were eight years of Michael Dukakis as Governor, and Ray Flynn, champion of the poor, was Mayor. The right to shelter was the well-established standard. If there were turn-aways, the supply of beds expanded.
But now Bill Weld was Governor, and he was about to go all Ronald Reagan on the state budget. We knew it was going to be bad. I was at Jobs with Peace organizing homeless people and their allies, and our direct action group had a phone tree going to get to the Statehouse for the budget announcement and do our thing. Our plan was to disrupt the press conference to the point of shutting it down when he announced the human services cuts.
We had helium balloons that said Tax the Rich - Don't Kill the Poor. We sat in the front row. There were about fifteen of us. There were homeless people, politicized shelter line staff, an MIT professor and her daughter, some Catholic Worker people and a few other God-types as well, and as soon as I gave the signal, we would all begin to shout "Tax the Rich. Don't Kill the Poor. Don't Cut the Budget, Anymore."
I think it was supposed to rhyme. Sometimes it's hard, I guess, to be disruptive without running some risk of sounding like an idiot. But that was our plan, and in its way, it was a good one.
The Governor's Press Secretary was at the podium. As he was working his way through his statement. Sue Marsh, the Director of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless came up beside my chair and knelt to talk.
"We just had a meeting, and things are in process. We might have a deal. Don't do this now."
OK, I said.
The list of cuts was read. It kept coming at us. People looked to me and I shook my head. We sat.
In the Statehouse parking lot afterwards, Sue was surrounded as she explained what she thought she had and why she asked us to do what we did. People weren't happy. Daria, who had worked for JwP to coordinate Housing Now! buses and had some history with Sue called Sue a bitch and Sue started crying.
This was not a day of proud moments.
The cuts kept coming after that. I don't know that disrupting the press conference would have changed anything. I kind of doubt it. But I do know that we missed an opportunity to make a very strong statement when it needed to be made.
Less than a year later, I'd watch Sue literally throw her body against a wall of cops to get into a room and force an arrest at the Statehouse. I loved her in that moment as much as I'd ever loved anyone in my life.
I forget how many were arrested that day. A dozen or twenty or so. There were two big CD actions that year at the Statehouse, and we worked closely on both of them.
At the press conference, Sue did what she needed to do. In her world, from her point of view, it made sense. We were allies, but we had different roles to play. The thing I learned that day and never forgot was that others need to do what they need to do as well.
We could have both been right that day, each of us in our own way, doing what we needed to do.