Alinsky Tactics 'Disrupt the Blind State of White St. Louis'

Demonstrators interrupted the St. Louis Symphony's performance of Brahms’ “German Requiem” on Saturday to protest the August 9 shooting of Ferguson, Missouri ‘s Michael Brown.

After the intermission, as the conductor came to the podium, a middle-aged black man stood and sang, “What side are you on friend, what side are you on?” Soon a white women stood up from a few rows away singing, “Justice for Mike Brown is justice for us all.” About 50 protesters scattered throughout Powell Hall then rose out of their seats at different times and joined in the singing. A chorus ensued. 

More protesters in the balcony flung 15-foot banners over the rails, one stating "Racism Lives Here" pointing to a picture of the St. Louis Arch. After a few minutes the group chanted "black lives matter" while red paper hearts reading "Requiem for Michael Brown" fell from the balcony to the lower auditorium.

Sarah Griesbach, a 42-year-old white woman who lives in an upscale neighborhood of St. Louis organized the well-rehearsed, 5-minute protest. She explained, “It is my duty and desire to try to reach out and raise that awareness peacefully but also to disrupt the blind state of white St. Louis, particularly among the people who are secure in their blindness.” A publicist for the symphony listening from backstage stated that the chorus of demonstrators had “lovely voices."

Derek Laney, a member of Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE) said this was an attempt to “speak to a segment of the population that has the luxury of being comfortable... You have to make a choice for just staying in your comfort zones or will you speak out for something that’s important?"

Taking the protest to "comfortable" white people in a random venue such as a concert hall sounds like a Saul Alinsky strategy. Are Laney and Griesbach familiar with the famed community organizer's specific tactics?

In the 1960s Alinsky was crisscrossing the country targeting big companies like Eastman Kodak and their labor policies toward blacks. He talked about it in a 1972 Playboy interview. Except for Alinsky's signature vulgarity, the organizers of Saturday's protest followed the Chicago radical’s playbook.

From the Playboy interview:

But my next major battle occurred in Rochester, New York, the home of Eastman Kodak... Kodak's self-righteous paternalism makes benevolent feudalism look like participatory democracy. I call it Smugtown, U.S.A.... The city's black minority, casually exploited by Kodak, finally exploded in a way that almost destroyed the city.

Kodak naturally refused to discuss such outrageous demands with us... Well, that meant war, and we dug in for the fight, which we knew wouldn't be an overnight one. We realized picketing or boycotts wouldn't work, so we began to consider some far-out tactics.

Another idea I had that almost came to fruition was directed at the Rochester Philharmonic which was the establishment's -- and Kodak's -- cultural jewel.

I suggested we pick a night when the music would be relatively quiet and buy 100 seats. The 100 blacks scheduled to attend the concert would then be treated to a preshow banquet in the community consisting of nothing but huge portions of baked beans. Can you imagine the inevitable consequences within the symphony hall? …Rochester would be immortalized as the site of the world's first fart-in.

PLAYBOY: Aren't such tactics a bit juvenile and frivolous?

ALINSKY: I'd call them absurd rather than juvenile. But isn't much of life kind of a theater of the absurd? As far as being frivolous is concerned, I say if a tactic works, it's not frivolous.

...Demonstrations, confrontations and picketings they'd learned to cope with, but never in their wildest dreams could they envision a flatulent blitzkrieg on their sacred symphony orchestra.

(In 2013 Rochester, New York was listed as the 5th poorest city in the United States.)

As a member of the hated "smug" upper class Griesbach decided not to go with an all-black cast suggested by Alinsky. She mixed it up with white college professors, white college students, white women, black activists, and a few Hispanic-looking members. All were ticket holders and sang on pitch, claiming they had rehearsed a few hours prior to the demonstration. Griesbach, whose upscale neighbors were probably in the Hall, also nixed the baked beans.

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