Citizen K’s Democracy Project – “Let’s Call the Other Saul”

We interrupt this current spate of political demonstrations in order to re-introduce people to Saul Alinsky, the man who wrote the book on Political Organizing.

In 1971, Saul Alinsky wrote an entertaining classic on grassroots organizing titled Rules for Radicals.

Essentially there are two reasons for organizing:

  1. To get a specific resource needed to strengthen your community
  2. To develop leadership within your community by having them go through the organizing process

There is a third reason. However, as potentially powerful as it might be in the long run, it is incidental to the organizing process. This third reason is that when the outside world sees you successfully fighting back, they begin to have a little more respect for you, or at least a little more caution in dismissing you.

Before we go any further, I would say that rioting in your own neighbourhood, fighting police and marching on city hall aren’t particularly sound strategies in Saul’s scheme.

I’ll present Alinsky’s 11 Rules for Radicals and then afterward present a mock campaign:

Rule 1: Power is not only what you have, but what an opponent thinks you have. If your organization is small, hide your numbers in the dark and raise a din that will make everyone think you have many more people than you do.

Rule 2: Never go outside the experience of your people. The result is confusion, fear, and retreat. (Have your people find actions that they can understand and that they feel fit them!)

Rule 3: Whenever possible, go outside the experience of an opponent. Here you want to cause confusion, fear, and retreat. (Treat them differently than they expect to be treated, use tactics with which they don’t have experience)

Rule 4: Make opponents live up to their own book of rules. “You can kill them with this, for they can no more obey their own rules than the Christian church can live up to Christianity.”

Rule 5: Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon. It’s hard to counterattack ridicule, and it infuriates the opposition, which then reacts to your advantage.

Rule 6: A good tactic is one your people enjoy. “If your people aren’t having a ball doing it, there is something very wrong with the tactic.”

Rule 7: A tactic that drags on for too long becomes a drag. Commitment may become ritualistic as people turn to other issues.

Rule 8: Keep the pressure on. Use different tactics and actions and use all events of the period for your purpose. “The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition. It is this that will cause the opposition to react to your advantage.”

Rule 9: The threat is more terrifying than the thing itself. When Alinsky leaked word that large numbers of poor people were going to tie up the washrooms of O’Hare Airport, Chicago city authorities quickly agreed to act on a longstanding commitment to a ghetto organization. They imagined the mayhem as thousands of passengers poured off airplanes to discover every washroom occupied. Then they imagined the international embarrassment and the damage to the city’s reputation.

Rule 10: The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative. Avoid being trapped by an opponent or an interviewer who says, “Okay, what would you do?”

Rule 11: Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it. Don’t try to attack abstract corporations or bureaucracies. Identify a responsible individual. Ignore attempts to shift or spread the blame.
Okay so, if you want to organize successfully, here’s what you do:

You spend some time with the people you hope to help organize. You get them talking about their issues, all the while listening for one issue that they sound like they would be willing to put some effort towards. Don’t just jump on the first one.

You identify a small group of potential leaders and start discussing Alinsky’s rules and how they might be able to use these rules in coming up with an action plan.

Then you help them to organize the initiative using those rules. They must assume leadership. You have to resist the temptation to take over.

Okay so, let’s take a stab at a potential application of Alinsky’s rules.

I am going to skip ahead a little bit and say that your people made the decision that they wanted an end to unwarranted police “stop and frisk” incidents in their neighbourhood. Their plan is to target a specific municipal official who has the power to order the incidents to stop. If this official doesn’t meet their demands, your people are threatening to hold a mass “shit-in” demonstration in his home neighbourhood. This is scheduled to take place during the coming holiday season only a few weeks away.

Your group announces that, in preparation, they are beginning with a scouting program to determine the best routes and methods to move people to that neighbourhood enmasse. They are also stockpiling prunes.


  1. Remember how powerful the term “silent majority” became. This is vintage Alinsky. Your people pick elements of the issue with which many people can agree and keep saying “most people” when they talk about those elements.

Most people don’t want to be hassled by the police. Most police don’t want to be stuck in this situation. Most people don’t want to feel intimidated by police yet often do feel that way. Most police don’t want to continue with a system that puts their lives and safety in jeopardy and could result in their killing somebody.

Most people, if they know their history, will find that their own people faced this kind of treatment by those in power. Most people don’t want bullying. Most people want to be good guys.

Now this “scouting program” means that you are going to send a few of your people on bus and taxi rides, maybe taking some pictures and making notes. Others may be asked to pick up a bunch of mass transit schedules in outside neighbourhoods and distribute them around your neighbourhood with certain locations marked. Somebody will check out large transport vans. This may involve very few people, yet they will be seen as the vanguard of a potential invading horde. Plus who knows whether or not all those other people on the bus who look like your people aren’t part of your organization.

And really, how many new cans of prunes need to be sold before someone starts asking questions and drawing the wrong conclusions?


2. Most of your people will have taken a bus or taxi someplace new in the city. So this action is part of their experience. It’s not complicated and won’t take long to learn or implement.

3. Those in authority have gotten used to being shouted at and/or having to listen to buzz word chants. So your people have decided to be pleasant and silent, mostly silent, almost secretive.

4. Your real opponents, which incidentally may not actually be that municipal official, are usually “rules and regs” people. Your people aren’t going to bother talking about rights and freedoms, or appeals to the emotions. They will just keep mentioning the importance of following the constitution. This will likely cause the opposition to argue against their own rules. And when they do, your people will point this out.

5, Ridicule is not making fun of some disability or deformity. Ridicule is making someone else’s position laughable. Your group is going to find ways to gently make their opponents seem uninformed at the very least and pompous asses at the most.

Chuckling and saying “my, my” and repeating the other’s arguments with eyes rolled are the order of the day.

Your people are going to pity the powerful. That will really piss the powerful off.

6. Again, going for a bus or taxi ride to a new part of the city and not getting off the bus or out of the taxi might be a rather nice way to spend an afternoon. And it will likely be even more fun, when your people think that it may be causing their oppressors some discomfort. And they are not being asked to do anything illegal. They will be sent out with a feasible alternative reason for being there. If they are stopped from getting on the bus, they will innocently call a cop.

7. There are some other tactics that can be added to your scouting activities or natural digestive facilitation projects. So your people plan to be quite creative in keeping people energized.

8. Your group is going to publicize each successful excursion and perhaps even set up some decoy excursions on a regular basis. They won’t worry about proving whether or not these excursions actually happened. They will take selfies at certain places, even if they have to photoshop them. Remember you haven’t broken any laws … yet.

9. Your people actually don’t want to have the demonstration in the municipal official’s neighbourhood. If it looks like it is going to come to that, your people will bail. They will just publicize that they have found an even better target, so they are going to focus on that for the time being. They just won’t announce their new target yet. That will keep the opponents guessing.

10. By choosing their target well, your people will just keep pointing out that they don’t have to come up with the solution as to how to make their demands a reality. If the target says that they can’t do this, then this is pointed out as an admission that this official doesn’t know how to do the job and has no business being in that position. Your people just keep saying “This is what we want. Make it happen or else.” And this fits in with rule 11

11. Stop and frisk abuses can be stopped virtually overnight if a person of sufficient authority re-arranges resources. It only takes one person to order police to stop certain procedures immediately and set up a disciplinary tribunal to deal with any complaints against individual officers who refuse to comply. You might be surprised how much silent support that you may have within policing to get out of this muck. Your people are not going to let that official pass the buck or stall the process or put the responsibility back on them. They will keep the focus on that one municipal official.


Okay, so this is just a quick outline of what a potential organizing initiative could look like. You can probably do it better.

And it doesn’t look much like what I am seeing out there at present.

Let’s get creative people. Let’s call Saul!


A posting from Kevin McGill’s The Possible Ks

Canadian Satire, Poetry, Social Justice Commentary & Inspiration

Creative Commons Copyright – Share. Just give me credit for my work, don’t make a profit from my work, and don’t change the content.


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