My neighbor was sitting behind a folding table in the lobby of our condo building. She clutched a clipboard. She smiled big when she saw me enter. I didn’t know this neighbor that well. But I suspected that in the 1960s she was a hippie, based on her simple short hairstyle and her folk singer demeanor.
“I understand you’ve done some organizing,” my neighbor said to me. I said yes, that’s true.
“Well we may need your help soon. But meanwhile…” She revealed a petition attached to the clipboard. She explained that there was a plan to cram a new 20-story building within the tiny parameters of that abandoned parking lot on the south end of our building. The neighbors were organizing in opposition for the usual reasons—congestion, loss of privacy, decreased property values, etc. The petition demanded that the city halt the project. Would I be so kind as to sign?
I said, “Absolutely.” I signed. My neighbor thanked me heartily and reiterated that she would probably enlist me in the fight soon. I wished her luck, but as I waited for the elevator I knew she’d be calling on me sooner than she thinks, when the petition inevitably fails and it’s time to escalate. But I wasn’t sure how much help I would be.
I began organizing in the 1980s, when I joined with a bunch of disabled Chicagoans to demand full wheelchair access to public transportation. We skipped the petition part. We knew that was a waste of time, even if we got a million signatures. Instead we went straight to disrupting the meetings of the Chicago Transit Authority board of directors with noisemakers and bullhorns. We shut down CTA buses by surrounding them with our wheelchairs in the streets. After five years of being obnoxious like that, plus pursuing a human rights lawsuit, we finally won.
Eight years after our fight began, the first wheelchair accessible buses hit the streets.
But would my condo-dwelling neighbors be willing to throw themselves in front of the bulldozers? Would they go as far as to be so impolite in their quest to halt construction?
I didn’t see my neighbor again for a few months but when I did she was bursting with exciting news. The petition worked! There would be no building going up next door. I congratulated her. She congratulated me. All I did was sign my name, but okay. And then I had a fantasy of us back in the 1980s presenting a petition to CTA board and after briefly examining it the board chair says, “Well all right. You want full wheelchair access? You got it. All in favor say aye. It’s unanimous!” I laughed real hard to myself. How absurd.
But how did my neighbor do it? That must have been some sort of magic petition. And I realized why you never see hoards of Wall Street executives blocking traffic on Capitol Hill to get the attention of Congress. No one has ever organized a Million Fortune 500 CEOs March. There’s no need. Taking political action is a whole different ballgame when you’ve got money. Some people have to make spectacles of themselves to assert their power. But some people just have to sign a petition, or a campaign donation check.