| 5 | Thursday October 16, 1986 --public meeting
Manuel had us practice the “dream meeting” in advance with each of us playing roles, and we wrote an agenda. He suggested we go all-out to produce. “This is where you show your power,” he said. We phoned the people on our sign-in sheets, taped signs on the street light posts, and canvassed door-to-door. On the days just before October 16th, we visited La Progresiva at pickup time, handing out flyers and talking to parents and staff. We drafted a press release, and sent it out to all the local media.
The meeting attracted a large crowd—we counted 250 in attendance. La Progresiva had produced. But then came a surprise; out of a taxicab stepped Sylvia Herrera, an elderly Hispanic woman who was one of 11 members of the Park District’s Board of Trustees, an honorary position, appointed by the Mayor. She said she would be filling in tonight for Jesse Madison, who had another engagement. “Hold on,” said Manuel, waving us to come together. “We need to caucus”. Ms. Herrera waited for us while we went off to the side to have a discussion. People were still streaming into the church and signing in.
In the corner of the foyer Manuel told us: “OK, you have to make a big decision here. You either let her talk, or throw her out. Your problem is, she’s got no power; she was sent out to pacify the community. She’s got a speech ready. If you let her give it, you’ll lose control of your issue, because your job will be to wait for the Park District. They’ll delay, at least until after the election, and they may do nothing. Then, you’d lose momentum. You’ve got a good crowd--you should really strike tonight.
“So your other option is to not let her speak, and ask her to leave. The Park District has given you an opening here, but you’ve got to seize the opportunity. You’ll have to confront her on stage; explain why you are doing it, so the audience will support you.
“Here’s how it could go. First, Delia, you introduce her, and express dissatisfaction about Jesse Madison not showing up. Then, ask her if she has the same power as Jesse Madison, to give us what we want. This is the key question. Don’t give up the microphone; hold it in front of her. She’ll say “no”, and start to explain. As soon as she says “no”, pull the mike back. Don’t let her start with her speech. At this moment you’ll need a friendly suggestion from the audience that we ask her to leave the meeting and that we go downtown and see Jesse Madison ourselves. Anna Lilia, can you stand up and make this suggestion from the audience? You have to anticipate Delia’s key question. Then as soon as our guest answers “no”, you have to stand up and be really loud, so everyone hears you, OK? So, the audience will react to Anna Lilia’s suggestion, both for and against. But Delia, don’t open discussion. Accept Anna Lilia’s suggestion and say ‘we expected Madison; you wasted our time; you have to leave.’ Then tell the audience we’ll take a bus next week to Madison’s office. Tonight’s meeting will be over in about 15 minutes.
“Now, if you do this, you’ll create big controversy, but you’ll keep control of the issue, and you’ll give the community some hope of winning. But you have to be decisive and lead the audience into this option; if you let them debate it, the sympathetic ones will prevail, and you’ll wind up letting her speak. But if we throw her out, we probably get Madison to come out from behind the screen. If he re-schedules, all these people will be back. They’ll feel like they have power.”
Ernesto shook his head. “Why don’t we just hear what she has to say?” But Manuel had spoken persuasively, and we trusted him, so we voted 6-1 to ask her to leave.
Then Manuel asked Miguel, who was muscular and self-confident, to stand at the foot of the stage, and told Delia and I to hand Ms. Herrera off to him after we asked her to leave. “Miguel—you’re the sergeant at arms…that’s a fancy name for a bouncer.”
“I can do that,” said Miguel.
“So just take her hand,” said Manuel, “Help her down, then walk behind her, down the aisle, and usher her out the door. Act protective, but get her out of the building as quickly as possible.” Before we took the stage, Manuel looked at me and laughed: “Joel, you’re skeptical. Look, you can’t be too respectful here. I know lawyers are always respectful to their adversaries. But she was sent out by the real bosses, as a decoy, a diversion. This is just Round 1. Our job tonight is to establish our identity and create pressure.”
Delia and I and Ms. Herrera walked up to the stage. Manuel took a seat in the front row, right in front of us. The microphone was attached to the church’s sound system on the side. Delia took the mike and made introductory remarks, explaining our previous contacts with the Park District and Jesse Madison’s commitment. Then, she translated her remarks, as a large part of the audience was more comfortable with Spanish. Then I spoke briefly, about the original agenda. As I was speaking, a man from CBS-TV news walked down a side aisle, carrying a minicam. He began videotaping the meeting. Miguel stepped up to the front of the stage. Then Delia took the mike and asked Sylvia Herrera, “Ms. Herrera, do you have the same power as Jesse Madison to commit to fix up our playlot?”
Delia held the mike out to Ms. Herrera, who shook her head and said “No, you don’t understand how the process works.” Delia pulled the mike back. Anna Lilia raised her hand from the rear of the audience.
“I am very disappointed in the Park District”, said the diminutive Anna Lilia in a thunderous voice that shook with passion, “For wasting our time by sending someone with no authority. We should ask her to leave; let’s just go downtown and see the Commissioner ourselves!” There was a spontaneous roar of approval from a portion of the audience.
Manuel, legs crossed, arms tightly folded, frowned up at us from the front row and chided us audibly, “Throw her out! Come on! What are you waiting for?”
Delia then spoke to the audience authoritatively: “This was supposed to be a meeting with the Commissioner of the Chicago Park District. We’ve already had many meetings with the staff.” She turned to face Ms. Herrera. “These neighbors are here tonight to see the Commissioner. You don’t have the power to give us what we want, and the Park District has wasted the time of the people here tonight! I’m sorry Ms. Herrera, but we are going to have to ask you to leave the meeting! We are going to talk among ourselves about meeting with Mr. Madison.” [Insert defender photo without article]
There was audible murmuring and great tension in the audience now, as our intentions became clear. As Delia translated, I moved over next to Ms. Herrera and said, just to her, “Here, come on, I want to help you get to your car.” She walked willingly with me to the steps of the stage, where Miguel was waiting. The audience was speaking out, arguing with each other and making suggestions to us. I said to her: “Here, Miguel is Delia’s husband. He’ll see you to your car. We’ll call Mr. Madison tomorrow. I’m sorry it turned out like this.” Miguel helped her from the stage and walked behind her, down the aisle, and out the door. The minicam was capturing everything. Delia was taking questions in Spanish.
Then Ernesto stood up from his seat in the middle of the audience and said: “Let us talk of other things, other issues.” Joe Mariano from LSNA, sitting in the back row, wearing a baseball cap, reacted immediately and shouted: “Stick to the agenda!” Delia heard Joe, decided against Ernesto, and told the audience: “We are now going to talk about next steps.” Then she looked over at me with an anguished expression; I could see she needed a break. Order had broken down. People were shouting.
Manuel then leaned forward from the front row and told me calmly: “Joel, you handle the next steps. Explain why we asked her to leave, but very briefly. Then say we’re taking a bus, and adjourn the meeting immediately!” “When’s the bus?” I asked. “Next Monday, at 4.” he said. So I took the mike from Delia, and said: “Before we adjourn; remember, this meeting with the Commissioner, was scheduled long ago. If Mr. Madison won’t come to see us, we can go to see Mr. Madison! We’ll have a bus Monday, between 3 and 4, right outside the church. Ride with us, and we’ll all go see Mr. Madison. The bus will bring us back. If you can’t make it, please sign in; we’ll contact you. The meeting is adjourned.” Delia had recovered; she translated.
The CBS newsman interviewed and videotaped Delia and left the church. Then Chinta Strausberg, reporter for the Chicago Defender, a black-owned daily, interviewed Delia. Manuel said to meet him across the street in the LSNA office. Neighbors lingered, anxious to talk. Reactions varied. One woman, whom I had seen at community meetings with the police, said she was outraged by the way we manipulated the meeting, not letting Ms. Herrera speak. A Hispanic couple said we should have shown more respect—Ms. Herrera was our elder, she was a dignitary. An elderly woman told me we had desecrated a house of worship. Others cheerily promised to be on the bus, or asked us to keep them informed.
Delia then went over to apologize to Reverend Acosta, who smiled and told us not to worry, that he supported us, “if this is what it takes.” Efrain Perez, a church trustee, was also there. Acosta and Perez promised to mediate any negative feedback from church members.
On the street, Miguel had found a taxicab for Ms. Herrera and had paid the driver. We staggered into the LSNA office, on the first floor of a brick two-flat, across the street from the church. The lights were on; Manuel had made coffee. He lit a cigarette and pointed to chairs around a table in the meeting room. Joe Mariano joined us.
Joe Mariano had been hired two years earlier by the local residents who sat on the LSNA Board. 1
Originally from New Jersey, Joe had both community and union organizing experience, including working with the United Farm Workers of America, in California. It was Joe that had recruited, hired and trained Manuel and another LSNA staff organizer. In 1986, LSNA’s annual budget was about $150,000--mostly foundation grants--which paid the office rent, 3 organizers’ salaries, a part time secretary/bookkeeper and office expenses. Joe opened the meeting with a soft chuckle: “So they tried a bait and switch, and you threw her back. Alinsky wrote about this very tactic.”
Delia looked at me: “Joel, I’m sorry I pooped out on you up there.” She laughed nervously and shivered. “I was so afraid to ask her to leave! I thought God was going to strike me down!”
“People felt empowered,” said Joe. “Not everyone--you’ll lose some people, but don’t worry. You’ve got plenty of support, and the people you keep after this meeting are going to be strong supporters. So just go forward and worry about winning.”
Manuel reproved Ernesto. “What was the idea of changing the subject?”
Ernesto shrugged, and laughed: “Aw…we had this big crowd; it’s a shame to waste the moment and send everybody home. We got crime, rats….”
Manuel responded tersely: “This was a critical moment. We needed total unity among the committee. Our objective was to adjourn immediately, to move our issue. When meetings drag on, people walk out, one by one. Better to leave them focused and hungry for more. There was media waiting to interview leadership. Ernesto, we can find another representative for Schubert if you’re going to free lance.”
“OK, OK, I get it.”, said Ernesto.
We realized we were very lucky to get media attention, and we were anxious to get home to watch Bill Kurtis and Walter Jacobsen on the 10 PM Channel 2 news. We agreed to meet at 7 PM the next night, to plan the bus trip. Nobody hesitated about giving up their Friday night.
Standing on the corner of Kimball and Wrightwood was Jim Mulligan, the local precinct captain, a large man with a white beard who worked as a bridge-tender for the City. He had waited for us to leave LSNA, so he could heckle us. I slowed down and started to talk with him, but he didn’t want a dialogue, he was just yelling, so I kept moving. “You should be ashamed of yourself; you acted like a bunch of communists!” he snarled, as I passed. “We don’t have meetings like that in Dick Mell’s ward!”
We made the 10 PM news. Bill Kurtis read his copy with his quizzical, bemused voice: “Park District Commissioner Jesse Madison was scheduled to appear at a local parents meeting, but sent a replacement. The parents refused to let Park District Trustee Sylvia Herrera speak, and insisted she leave the meeting!” (The video showed Delia talking animatedly, and Miguel walking Ms.errera Herrera out of the building.) Kurtis concluded: “Jesse Madison, reached tonight at a west-side benefit, said: ‘Those parents acted just like rabble rousers. So we won’t be going back.’” My heart sank when I heard that.
1. Appendix p 8 ( profile of Joe Mariano from LSNA “Eagle”, 1986)