Sunday Jan 29

Winter 2022

Taking On The Slumlord: Organizing 101 - a docu-fiction

Moesha’s apartment building was located on Boston’s Boylston Street, just on the fringe of Jamaica Plain but still within the borders of Flynt’s Project.  It was large a nineteenth-century, brick townhouse that had been broken up into rental units.  The outside looked ok, but the inside was another story.  The door lock was broken and the big entrance door yawned open into a dark hallway—unlit and dank, reeking with the sharp odor of urine. 

The entrance hall had been wallpapered, but whole strips had sloughed off the walls—like a snake shedding its skin—leaving exposed plaster and visible lath. Slum housing was nothing new to Flynt. He had grown up in the projects and as the sole black man training as a block organizer in South Providence in the early seventies, he had seen a whole lot worse.

Flynt climbed the narrow staircase as instructed, made a right, and knocked on number eight. After a minute, the door swung slowly open and Moesha’s stocky form filled the doorway.  She was wearing a dashiki and a black apron; a dusting of white coated her dusky brown arms up to the elbows.

“Professor,” she said, with a broad smile, “You're early!  Come in and set yourself down.  I’m just finishing bakin’ up a mess of biscuits for the meetin'.”

 Flynt stepped over the threshold into a colorful oasis. He eyed the heavy, wooden baseball bat dangling from her right hand. “Nice to see you too,” he said, one eyebrow raised.

 “Oh, this?” the corners of her eyes crinkled as she laughed. “Yeah, well, since that lock been broken, we have been havin’ some problems with homeless dudes, you know, sleepin’ in the hallways, routin’ round like pigs.  The other night, I came home with Jessica.  Man in the hallway, you know, big dude, drunk.  Figures, he’s gonna get him somethin’ cheap.  Well, you know, Jessica is into that martial arts shit.  ‘Bout killed that man. Run him right out on ta’da street.” A neon smile lit up her face. 

Next day I went out and bought this,” she said, standing the bat next to the door.  “Once we get that door fixed, we are gonna set up a phone tree.  See how they like dealin' with three or four of us at once.” 

“Great idea, Moesha!”

Flynt glanced around the apartment. Moesha had a flair for decorating. The blue walls and yellow trim reminded Flynt of the Caribbean. The old wood floor was uneven and cracked in places. It was painted dark brown and covered with a colorful rag rug. The two visible windows were nicely curtained but looked like they were about to fall out of their frames. A large, vividly colored fabric covered most of one living room wall.

Moesha followed his gaze. “That’s a mudcloth, comes from some tribe in Mali, you know, West Africa.  A couple of the brothers have a shop in Central Square.  They import all kinds of tribal art.”

“Beautiful!  Looks like a piece of modern art,” Flynt said.

“Yeah, you think so?” She cocked her head, put her hands on her hips, and cast her eye over the fabric.

“Reminds me of something by Mondrian.”

“You mean that Dutch dude, Broadway BoogieWoogie?”

“That’s him!  You know your art!”

“Yeah—well—not really. I took Art Appreciation sophomore year,” she said, adopting a prissy pose. She puckered her mouth, held out one hand and let her wrist go limp. “But now that you mention it looks like that, but-- you know, professor--- Dutch boys can’t do no boogie-woogie!” 

Her laugh bubbled up from deep in her chest. It was infectious. It carried Flynt along with her.

 “Anyhow, sit down, sit down,” she said, motioning toward an old swayback couch with a colorful slipcover.  A beat-up old coffee table sat in front of it and several kitchen chairs completed a semi-circle around it. “Make yourself comfortable.”

  “The kitchen is just over here,” she said, jerking her thumb over her left shoulder.  “I can hear you jes’ fine, but I got to finish my biscuits before the sisters show up.”

“Mind if I watch?”

She shrugged. “No, but you gotta stand in the doorway; there ain’t hardly enough room for me and my big butt.”

“Yeah,” he said, peering through the doorway. “It looks a bit tight.” 

The kitchen had been wedged into what had once been a narrow closet. A small refrigerator sat at the far end.  An apartment-sized stove with an oven was to the left.  A big mixing bowl and wooden spoon stood soaking in an old-fashioned porcelain sink across from the stove.  

Moesha grabbed a pair of stained oven mitts.  She had to step to one side to pull down the oven door.  The homey smell of baking filled the room as she hustled out two cookie sheets with perfectly browned biscuits and kneed the door closed.  There was only enough counter space on one side of the sink for one of the trays; she slid the other onto the stove top, then opened a tall cabinet over the sink and took down two mugs. 

“Coffee?” she asked.

“Yeah, be great, thanks.”

Pouring two cups from a battered aluminum percolator set on the back burner of the stove, she gingerly plucked a couple of biscuits onto a chipped dinner plate.  “Come on, let’s sit ourselves down,” she said.

“Have you canvased all the tenants?” he asked, grabbing a chair and turning it back to front.

“Yeah, Jessica came over the other night, and we talked to just ‘bout everybody.”

“Good, you’ve got the issues nailed down!”

“Yeah, we made a list. Got it right here. Jessica did it up.  No surprises,” she said, sliding a neatly typed sheet across the table.

“How about your committee?”

“Yeah, I think so. Three women-- Gladys, Darnette, and Felicia-- are really pissed off, and they will all be here—leastways, they all said they would.”

“They all signed complaints?”

“Yeah, everybody but Felicia.  She said she would sign one tonight.”

“Talk is cheap, Moesha--in a half hour, you will know. Remember what we talked about in class. In any tenant group, there’s almost always someone close to the landlord, an informer, who works for him in return for small favors or is maybe behind in rent. You figure out who your rat might be?”

“Uh, uh.  You know I did, like you said, professor.  There is one girl, name of Gloria—ugly ole white woman. Lives on the first floor. She’s been here---like forever.  Retired or some such.  Anyways, when Petrovic has something to say to the tenants, he usually tells her, and she passes it along. You think she will tell Petrovic about the meeting?”

“Look, Moesha, I’m not a professor, okay? I don’t have enough degrees. The Urban Affairs program wanted someone doing street organizing to teach the course. Just call me Jed.”

“Yeah and I, hear black faces are in this year at the college,” she said, raising her eyebrows.

Flynt laughed and shook his head. “Yeah, you got it.” 

“So, what do we do--- about the rat, I mean?” she asked.

Flynt took a breath. “Like Brando said in The Godfather: ‘Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.’ Pretend to take her into your confidence. Tell her the things you want Petrovic to know.  Make sure the rat knows only what you want her to know.” 

Moesha smiled and then nodded thoughtfully. “Yeah, I remember that scene. Great flick! Ok, cool, I get it.”

“Right, ok, Moesha, you know this is serious business. Be prepared for a phone call or an eviction letter from Petrovic in the next day or two. Once you get the agenda together tonight, your next step is to organize a mass meeting and invite the man. The thing is, you have got to get Petrovic in front of the people. The people are your power, so if Petrovic won’t come to you, you’ve got to be ready to motivate those people to go to him en masse.      

“I understand. One of the girls mentioned this legal services lawyer; you think…?”

Flynt shook his head. “The very last thing you want is to get a lawyer involved.  People think lawyers can solve every problem--they can’t.  But everyone will defer to the man. The lawyer will make a speech and your group will dissolve right before your eyes.”

“Yeah, but…,”

“Don’t worry; Legal Services has a lawyer on standby in case we need him.”

There was a knock at the door. “That’s them!” she said, exhaling sharply.

            “You ready?”

She took a breath and smiled weakly. “Ready as I’ll ever be, I guess.” 

Moesha opened the door; four women—three tenants—with Jessica bringing up the rear, walked into the apartment.  Moesha hugged each individually, then directed them to the couch and chairs.  She ran into the kitchen and brought out a platter of biscuits and a tray with the coffee pot and mugs.

 “Y'all jes help yourselves; them biscuits’ fresh baked.  This is Professor, I mean Jed—he teaches the community organizing course I’m taking at B.U.  He’s here to help, and ya’all met Sister Jessica here. She’s a student in the class.”

Jessica, who had quickly stuffed a biscuit in her mouth, flapped one hand and made a noise. She had an angular face, full lips, almond eyes, and high cheekbones. Looks like a Nubian queen, Flynt thought to himself.

“Now, girl,” Moesha said, smiling, “you know better than to be talkin’ wit a whole biscuit in your mouth. You gonna choke?  Jessica is gonna have something to say as soon as she finishes her dinner---meanwhile, we best get down to business.”

Flynt smiled to himself.  He noted how Moesha slipped seamlessly between educated English and street talk.  Girl’s funny and charismatic and she’s got a talent for calming tensions.  Make a good organizer, except for the kid—tough with late-night meetings.  Speaking of the kid, where has she stashed her? Flynt wondered.

There was a lot of simmering anger amongst the group. Everyone wanted to vent, but Moesha kept them focused on specifics.  First, she clarified the demands.  Most centered-on repairs: insulating windows, rats, a leaky roof, and a wonky furnace. 

Her classmate, Frank Ruiz, had had a history paper to get in, so he couldn’t attend, but he had dropped the photographs off with Jessica.  Petrovic owned several run-down multi-families around Boston. The photos of his beautifully landscaped two-story colonial in one of Wellesley’s exclusive neighborhoods got the group’s attention, as Flynt knew it would.  He made a note to get Frank to look up the assessed value—that was bound to cause a stir at the mass meeting.

There were many questions. Gladys, a tall thin young mother with two kids, raised her hand. “What happens if Mr. Petrovic finds out about this meeting and sends me an eviction notice?”

Moesha’s eyes turned to Flynt. “You all signed the complaint letters, right?”  Flynt asked, holding one up. “The law says, once you sign a Health Department complaint, any attempt to evict you is considered retaliatory and the courts won’t allow it.  You’ve gotta get all the other tenants to sign up, either before or at the meeting.  Now, when you are having them fill out the complaint forms, make sure no one is behind in their rent, especially you ladies here. You’ll be his main target. Petrovic can’t evict you for filing a complaint, but he can evict you legally for non-payment of rent.“

“You sure ain’t lying ‘bout health issues,” Darnette said with a laugh.  “The rats in this building be complainin’ ‘bout the roaches, and something's gotta be done ‘bout that lock. Keep them bums outa’ them hallways.”  She was young with classic features and a full-blown afro.

Flynt watched Felicia, a stocky, older, light-skinned woman with tight cornrows, a freckled face, and Caucasian features.  He didn’t like her body language.  She had been sitting tight-jawed, arms folded across her chest. She finally spoke up. “I think maybe we should talk to da man before we get into this meetin stuff.  I think sending a letter to the city just gonna make that man mad.”

That elicited a collective groan.

“Felicia, we’ve all been complainin'. You know that.  I thought we all agreed.  You weren’t talking like this Wednesday night. Let’s follow Jed’s advice and protect ourselves,” Moesha said evenly.

“That’s your opinion,” Felicia retorted, “Ain’t him gonna get his ass evicted.”

Moesha looked surprised. “You heard the man. Nobody’s gonna get evicted. But, we should be prepared,” she responded with a sideways glance at Flynt.

“Uh, uh,” Felicia said, shaking her head vehemently from side to side, “I ain’t signin’ no letter, at least not yet!” 

“Ok, Felicia, it’s your ass,” Jessica said.

Half an hour later, Moesha closed the door behind the last tenant.  She walked back into the room and flopped onto the couch next to Jessica. “Whew, I’m tired.  This organizing is hard work.  I gotta say, I don’t understand Felicia.  The other night, that girl was hot-to-trot, sayin’ we gonna do this, we gonna do that.  She sure changed her tune since then.”

“I think you just found your rat,” Flynt said.

Moesha’s eyes widened. “No, Felicia?  You think so?”

“Maybe,” Flynt said, raising both eyebrows. “Could be she’s just a spoiler.”

“Spoiler?”

“Yeah, there’s always one. Usually talks about catching flies with honey.”

Moesha laughed. “Like that white dude in class. Always wears a tie?”

Flynt nodded.

“Yeah, I believe it. I don’t trust that fat-assed bitch,” Jessica said.

“Well, shit, just because she wouldn’t sign the letter?  And you know, girl, you don’t hardly trust nobody,” Moesha said.

“Right,” Flynt said. “The letter puts her on record and she doesn’t want to risk pissing Petrovic off.  She might just be scared or behind in her rent--but you notice she just sat there, kinda stiff-like, and didn’t say much of anything through most of the meeting?”

“Now that I think about it, yeah. Well, shit!” Moesha said.

“This means that you have got to move quickly. We should try getting some other students to door-knock Petrovic’s other buildings.  Frank Ruiz went inside to photograph. He said that they were all dumps.”

“That should piss off the motherfucker,” Jessica said.  She was leaning back on the couch, her head resting against a cushion with a tight smile spread across her face.  

“Yeah, we could use more troops, and the action is in the reaction.  You want to bait the enemy into doing something—hopefully, something stupid,” Flynt said.

“So, you want Petrovic to try to throw us all out?” Moesha asked.  She was leaning forward, her dark eyes staring intently at Flynt.

“Look, Moesha, he’s gonna try, but he’s gonna fail. You knew that coming in, right?” Flynt asked. 

She considered for a moment, then nodded. 

“Three possibilities, " Flynt said, ticking off his fingers:  “One, he will show up at the mass meeting; two, he will try to ignore you; three, he will threaten you, probably be the last two all at once.  Right now, you’re just a bunch of noisy women.  He figures he can handle you. Fact is, he’s been doing just that for years. You’ve got to do something unexpected to knock him off balance, rattle him so he’ll make a mistake.”     

“You get every tenant you can to sign a letter. That signature is a membership card.  It commits them and protects them from eviction. If necessary, we’ve got access to Legal Services. You might want to put together a delegation to go down to City Hall and file your complaints in person. That will build solidarity.

“It’s him against you. Not only is Petrovic guilty of a failure to correct illegal health and safety issues that threaten the health of you and your children or am I wrong?”

“No, you ain’t lyin. I told you ‘bout my baby. The doctor at the clinic said it was bronchitis. Cough hung on all last winter cuz of that window, those curtains blowin' in the breeze and it’s startin’ up again,” Moesha said, her face clouding.

“I get it. We take action, which causes a reaction, like in physics,” Jessica said.

“Yeah, but physics is subject to specific laws that make the reaction predictable, at least sometimes. In social action, the response may be neither opposite nor equal. The further you go beyond the enemy’s experience, the more extreme and irrational his reaction will likely be.” 

“So, the harder we push him, the more likely he makes a stupid move?” Jessica grinned. “I like that.”

“Look, either you control the situation, or Petrovic will take control. You described it perfectly, Jessica when we talked about this in class. The man’s a past master at using threats and promises to deal with tenant complaints. You’ve done something he’s not used to. You are yanking his chain.  Of course, he may fool you. He may respond reasonably, in which case you meet with him and negotiate and reach a mutually satisfying solution,” Flynt said, smiling.

Moesha groaned. “Fat chance!”

“Yeah, right,” Jessica said.

------------------------

“Ok, so where are we?” Flynt asked, gazing around the classroom. Outside, large, beautifully formed snowflakes, their progress caught in the light streaming through the tall narrow windows, drifted leisurely down and carelessly accumulated on the ground. 

Moesha glanced at Jessica, who shrugged and opened her notebook.

 “Well, we had the two planning meetings at Petrovic’s other properties.  Me, Moesha and Frank were there. Katherine came to the second one, and so did Jim and Liz. They went off pretty well, I think.” Jessica looked at Moesha, then Frank, who nodded.  

“People are pretty pissed off at Petrovic,” said Frank.  “Same bitch, different day-- the buildings are fallen apart, and he ain’t fixin’ nothing.”

“You have added to the list of specific demands?”

“Uh, huh, the complaints are pretty much the same.  Got copies right here broken down by address.”

“Ok, pass them around to the class.  Does anyone have something to add?” Flynt asked.

“We all agreed. If Petrovic doesn’t show up at the meeting, we will go out to his house.  People are a little nervous about that,” Frank said.

“Yeah, nobody believes he’s gonna show, and as you suggested, I called Father Mackenzie over at St. Mary’s,” Moesha said. “He knows about Petrovic.  Says we can use the church hall for the meeting—says he’ll even drive the bus if the man blows us off.”

The soft buzz of conversation spread around the table. 

Flynt looked around and smiled, “Good! Anybody got a problem with that?”

Katherine raised her hand. She was young, white and blond. 

 “I have to admit,” she said, her jaw set, “I was against this tactic at first, but after seeing those buildings, I mean they are disgusting. I don’t understand how anyone can live in them. I’m ready to do what is necessary to see justice done.”

A few other students nodded.  Some remained silent, and some averted their eyes.

“Ok, let’s talk about it. Anybody?”

Tom Jefferson raised his hand. Jefferson had been critical of Flynt’s methods from the get-go. He always dressed for class. This night he wore a blue blazer with gold buttons and a club tie.

“It seems to me what you are doing is setting this gentleman up, Mr. Flynt. You invite him to come to a meeting and surround him with forty or fifty hostile tenants, and if he fails to attend, you load the whole group onto a bus and confront him at his home.  Where does this tactic come from?  You claim the issues come from the people, but you are deliberately agitating people to get them to do what you want them to do.”

Ruiz jumped up, his brown face scarlet. “Hey, white boy, you ain’t been listening, and you sure as hell ain’t been to any of the meetings. How can these people get that slumlord to fix up if he won’t meet with ‘em?”

Flynt chuckled to himself and raised his hand.  “Sit down and take it easy, Ruiz.  Jefferson has a right to express his opinion.”

“Shit,” Ruiz said, pivoted, and stared at Flynt. “I mean, what he’s sayin' is just bullshit, man.”

 “I said sit down,” Flynt said, meeting his eyes.

“It’s just bullshit, man,” Ruiz mumbled, shook his head, and sat.

“Ok, Mr. Jefferson, let’s take your points one at a time. I am an agitator, but the slumlord is setting himself up if he refuses to meet with his tenants. Let’s make a distinction here. I said the issues come from the people, and they have. You’ve got a copy of that list in front of you. Every item comes from one or more tenants who attended one of three planning meetings.  Am I right, Moesha?”

 “Uh huh, they sho-nuff did!” Moesha said, making big eyes.

The class laughed, breaking the tension. 

“Thank you, Moesha,” Flynt said. “Strategy and tactics are the province of the organizer.   Look, you took this class to learn organizing principles, am I right?”

Several students nodded. “Ok, point taken,” Jefferson said.

“All right, first principle, never mind—scratch that, the second principle— you want to build an organization, you’ve got to win.  We’ve discussed this before.  Poor people see themselves as losers, right? They’re used to losing. They’ve been losing their whole lives.”

“That’s pretty harsh, isn’t it?” another student asked.

“The man’s right! It’s the welfare system,” Jim said. “Handouts, man! Just keeps reinforcing dependence.”

“Ok, so the organizer’s job is to show them they can be winners by organizing themselves. The first step is about building people’s self-confidence. Let me share a profound psychological truth—people who believe in themselves can be winners, but those who can’t; are losers and will remain losers.  The organizer's job is to help the group develop a strategy and a series of tactics to win and build that confidence.” Flynt looked at Jefferson. “So you’re the organizer; tell me, what power do these people have?”

Jefferson rearranged his shoulders. “Well---the power of their numbers, I guess.”

“Exactly right,” Flynt said, “but how do you do that if the landlord won’t meet and the people don’t force the issue?”

Jefferson shrugged. “From what you have uncovered, the landlord is in violation of the State Sanitary Code. Law enforcement is the job of the government, not a group of tenant vigilantes. The tenants should file a report with the City or State housing department,” Jefferson said sullenly.

“Freedom of assembly. Freedom to petition for redress of grievances.  Did I mention the fact that the man is selling a substandard product? Have you seen those apartments, Tom?” Flynt turned to Moesha. “What did you say happened when you filed your complaint with the city?”

Moesha shook her head slowly back and forth. “Not a damn thing.”

“Half the tenants we talked to had complained to Petrovic, and several had also called the city inspectors,” Jessica said.

She got up and spread three 8x10 glossies in front of Jefferson. “Check these out!,” she said stabbing at the images with her finger. “Here, look at this one, those buildings are practically falling down. Check out that staircase? Sucka’s about to collapse. Shows years of neglect.”

             “Ok, Mr. Jefferson, you’re studying to be a social worker. What’s next? What do you advise your clients to do?” Flynt asked.

              Jefferson fidgeted, color rising in his cheeks.  He reached up and loosened his tie.  “I don't know. Maybe they could elect a committee of representatives and meet with him at his office.”

             Jessica groaned. 

            Flynt held up his hand.  “Tom, didn’t I just hear you say that the source of the tenants’ power is their numbers?”

            “Yes, but…” 

            “But what?  Now you suggest that the tenants dilute their power and meet Petrovic on his turf under his conditions?  Tactically speaking, that is a terrible idea!  In 200 B.C., the Chinese general Sun Tzu wrote The Art of War. He makes the following point:  

“‘When the enemy concentrates, prepare against him; where he is strong, avoid him.’”

         “I’m not sure I follow that, professor!” Jefferson said, sitting up straight.

         Flynt nodded. “Ok, picture any executive office, say the B. U. Dean of Students. The dean sits behind a broad expanse of desk in a raised chair. Visitors to his office sit in lower-slung chairs and must look up at the dean, who looks down at them. What is the psychology here?  Who is in the position of power, of authority?  Who is the supplicant?  Why do you think offices are set up that way?”

            “Consider the terms; land-lord and tenant. They go back to the Middle Ages when tenants were serfs. Your tactic would strip away the new organization’s only real power: their numbers. The people are already nervous because they aren’t used to questioning authority.  You would place them at an enormous psychological disadvantage.  Doesn’t it make more sense to force the man to meet with the whole group on their turf?  Make him uncomfortable. Shift the psychological advantage to your side?”

            “Remember, Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals #3:

            ‘Wherever possible, go outside of the experience of the enemy.’”

             “I don’ know nothin’ ‘bout meetin’ with no landlord, Miss Scarlet,” Moesha quipped. 

             Again, the class erupted with laughter.

              “Okay—okay,”—Flynt shaking his head. “Never mind, look---organizing is about mobilizing people-power. To exercise that power, you’ve got to get the enemy in front of the people.  So that’s the precondition.”

            Jefferson cleared his throat. “You’re still about to surround him with a mob of angry tenants, and what’s all this talk about the enemy?” Jefferson asked.                     

         Flynt shrugged. “In this case, the landlord’s actions will determine the tactic to be used.   The man has several options. Option number one, he can attend the meeting,” he said, ticking off his fingers. “The tenants will send a letter with the place, time and date.  If Petrovic wants to propose an alternate date, I’m sure the tenants would be amenable.” Flynt turned to Moesha, who nodded.  “Number two, he can blow the people off. You’ve seen the pictures. You know the man’s history. The slumlord's actions prove he is the enemy—get that straight.  The organizer’s job, your job is to analyze the enemy’s possible reactions and prepare a tactical response for each one. “

              “The tenant organization will send Petrovic a certified letter, followed by a phone call, inviting him to the meeting.  Either he will show up at the meeting, or he won’t—his choice, right, Mr. Jefferson?”

                  Jefferson looked down at his hands. Three other students raised there’s.

                 “Ok, I understand,” Flynt said, his eyes traveling from student to student. “Taking a group out of the slums to a nice suburban neighborhood and knocking on a man’s door may offend some people’s finer sensibilities. That is precisely what makes it such an effective tactic. The tenants will be going outside the man’s experience. All of you have seen the pictures. These severe conditions have created actual health and safety issues and risks. Why haven’t they been fixed? Why has he refused to respond to legitimate complaints?”

            “Organizing, my friends, is not like charm- school and the action is often in the reaction. You goad the enemy.  You insult him. You embarrass him. These are your weapons. You are like the matador in a bullfight. The bull has all the power. You shake your cape and stamp your feet to annoy him, to make him react and hopefully, charge forward without thinking.”

                “After you get him to charge, what do you do then?” Katherine asked.   

               “You get out of the way! Earlier, we talked about what Saul Alinsky called social jujitsu. Jujitsu is a martial art that uses the force of an attacking adversary against him.  Let me give you an example.” 

                “A couple of years ago, I was working with a group of women trying to stop the shutdown of a free prenatal clinic in Southeast Massachusetts. I was consulting with this gung-ho feminist organizer.  She agreed to talk to me but didn’t want me attending any of her meetings,” Flynt said, raising his hands helplessly.

            “Big surprise,” Katherine said, grinning.

            Flynt grinned. “Right! Well, anyway, she organized a group of clients, mostly low-income who had no other access to care. They identified the decision maker, the clinic director, a doctor and invited him to a meeting---to my surprise, he agreed.  Now you know that doctors are, for the most part, treated with great respect.  Like priests, they are privy to secret knowledge, and their pronouncements are rarely questioned. I was worried that the women wouldn’t stand up to him.”

               “There were about sixty women, primarily poor, current and former patients. For backup, the organizer also sprinkled a few local feminists around the room. The doctor arrived.  It was immediately apparent that he came believing he could handle the women.  He was arrogant and patronizing.  He talked down to the women. What he wasn’t prepared for was a group of poor people who had done their homework.”

            “The organizer and the leadership group had thoroughly researched the issue. They made up a fact sheet and reviewed it, point by point, with the group prior to the doctor’s arrival. The women now turned the tables. They, not the doctor, possessed the secret knowledge. They raised legitimate points the doctor had not come prepared to counter. He tried to blame regulations, but the people knew it was his decision, he had the power to keep the clinic open. They even caught him in a couple of outright lies.”

                “When the doctor saw that he was getting nowhere with condescension and platitudes, he got angry.  As the organizer later described it: his face turned scarlet.  At one point, he became so frustrated that he called the women ‘stupid cows.’” 

                “Excuse me, professor, did you say this guy was an M.D.?” Katherine asked. 

                “Yes!”

                 “Well, I can’t believe a doctor would say such a thing. It’s completely unprofessional,” she said indignantly.

                “True, Katherine, but the point is a doctor is just a man, and the people needed to see that.  He said it. That did it—social jujitsu. The guy tripped over his own tongue.  He polarized the issue and that one remark provided the energy needed to win. Those women were so furious that they picketed that hospital day in and day out. It was late winter, cold and drizzly with that cutting North Atlantic wind. Still, they kept it up for weeks until the hospital administration capitulated and agreed to keep the clinic open.”

               “Throughout the campaign, wherever the group’s energy flagged, or people got discouraged, someone would go moo like a cow and those women stood up, shouldered their signs, and got back in line. That’s what I mean when I say that the action is in the reaction.”  

            “You are students, but in this class, you are training to be community organizers.  The power of the people? Whose side are you on?  It’s a simple question. Make your choice!”

-------------------------

Moesha stood at the floor mike in front of the assembled crowd at St. Mary’s church hall, smiled, and silently waited for people to quiet down. 

“Good evenin everybody. My name is Moesha Coelho, and I’d like to welcome you to the first meeting of the Zivco Petrovic Tenant’s Association. I live in Petrovic’s building at 2112 Boylston Street, and I’ll be chairing this meeting.”  Her voice echoed off the hall’s cavernous ceiling.

 Counting students, forty people were sitting in the four rows of folding chairs facing her, and a couple more were straggling in. It was a good turnout, but St. Mary’s Hall was built to hold several hundred, and the tenant group seemed pitifully small, clustered just in front of the raised, curtained stage. 

“I want to introduce Jessica, Frank, and Darnette,” she said, gesturing to the long refectory table just to her right. “Darnette Lopes is also a Petrovic tenant.  Jessica Santos and Frank Ruiz are students in Mr. Flynt’s Community Organization course at B.U. They helped organize this meeting.  Most of you have met at least one of us over the past couple of weeks, and I see some familiar faces from the planning meetings we held in Petrovic’s buildings on Blue Hill Avenue and a few students from the class.” 

“I’d also like to introduce Father Mackenzie, the pastor at St. Mary’s, and thank him for letting us use the hall tonight,” she said, nodding to the black-clad priest with the shock of white hair who sat smiling with his hands folded at the end of the table.

“As most of y‘all know, we sent a certified letter to Petrovic with a list of safety code violations in our apartments and invited him at seven-thirty this evening to discuss making repairs. We’ve got about half an hour, and I’d like to use that time to bring ya’all up to speed on some basic facts about Zivco Petrovic and his properties.  Y’all had a chance to see the pictures, and since most of you live in his buildings, I don’t have to tell you what condition those apartments are in,” she said. 

“Right on, sister,” one bone-thin young black woman spoke up.  She was sitting in the first row with her husband next to her and an infant perched on her lap.

“Ok, I’m gonna ask Frank Ruiz to step up and give us all a rundown of Petrovic’s properties.  Like I said, Frank is a student at B. U., and he has been helping us with the research, Frank!”

“Thanks, Moesha,” Frank said, standing.   He stepped out from behind the table and stood next to her.  He was dressed in skinny black slacks and a matching cardigan. He looked like a man hoping his nervousness didn’t show.

Frank cleared his throat. “Ok, we surveyed Petrovic’s three properties and documented over one hundred and fifty specific violations of the Massachusetts Sanitary Code.  Some of these violations are serious; rats, roaches, leaking pipes, raw sewage in your basements, and broken, frayed electrical wiring. These conditions are illegal, dangerous, and violate state law. Fact is, Petrovic’s properties are firetraps.”

A murmur spread through the crowd.  

“A lot of you told us that any time you complain, Petrovic cries poor mouth and threatens to raise the rent, am I right?” he asked, his eyes scanning the room.

“You got that right, brother,” one tenant said, and other heads nodded in agreement.

 Ruiz grinned and nodded. “Thank you, my brother. So, we did a little research and we found out that Zivco Petrovic grosses about fourteen thousand, four hundred dollars a month from his forty-eight apartments and that totals one hundred seventy-three thousand dollars a year.” 

A tall black man stood up. “What he be doin’ with all that money?”

“Good question,” Frank said and grinned at the audience. “One thing we know for damn sure, he ain’t using none of that green to keep his apartments up to state code,” he said and paused as appreciative laughter washed over and warmed him.

“Hold on now,” he said, gesturing for silence. “You all checked out the picture of the dude’s house or, should I say, his mansion out in Wellesley?” Frank said, pointing at the poster on an easel with 8x10’ glossies of Petrovic’s home pasted on it.  “We researched that too.  While you are all living in substandard buildings, Zivco lives in a fourteen-room mansion with a whole bunch of bathrooms and a three-car garage. Dig this—the place is assessed for nine hundred sixty thousand dollars.”     

The hall buzzed like a hive of angry bees as people began talking all at once.  Moesha stepped up to the mike, “Ok, look over the list, and let us know if we missed anything.  Petrovic is scheduled to be here in fifteen minutes.  Our demands are on the back of the fact sheet with the list of code violations. Like we all agreed at the planning meetings, we demand that Petrovic begin work within one week and correct all the items on the list within sixty days.  We also demand that he agree to set a date for a second meeting in one month to evaluate his progress. We got an agreement right here for him to sign,” she said, waving a sheet of paper for everyone to see. “So, anybody got anything to add?”

Several hands went up, and Jessica was busy making notes for the next ten minutes.

Finally, a short, stocky woman in the last row struggled to her feet. “Y'all just wasting y’all’s time; Petrovic ain’t coming to no meetin’,” she said,

Several tenants started talking at once.  Moesha tapped the microphone. “You sure about that, Sadie?”

“Sure, I’m sure,” Sadie said, “Didn’t I jes’ talk to that man yesterday?   He comes around drivin’ that old truck and dressed like he been painting or fixin’ up or somethin,’ and he told me so hisself.   They said if anyone wanted to talk to him, they should call and make an appointment.  So, what’s y’all planning to do now?”

Darnette stood up. “I’ll tell you what I plan to do, seeing that turkey won’t come down here to the church to meet with us; I’m going to see him at that mansion in Wellesley.”

“Right on,” Ruiz said, pumping his right fist up into the air. “Dressed for painting and fixing up.  Anybody here ever see Petrovic fix anything?”  Everybody laughed. 

“Right!  Well, I got some big news, shouldn’t be a surprise,” Ruiz said, “the man’s been gaming you. You know that old truck. He keeps that truck in the parking lot back of his office. He’s got a brand-new baby-blue Caddie Escalade that he drives back and forth from Wellesley, and his wife drives a black Mercedes that costs about seventy-five large.  He might be actin' poor, but he is livin’ high.”

The buzzing got louder. “That no good son-of-a-bitch,” one tenant bellowed.

“How you plan to get out there?” Another tenant asked; he was an elderly white man bent over like a longbow with thin strands of white hair plastered across an otherwise bald pate.

“Well,” Moesha said, looking at her watch, “it's 7:40; Mr. Petrovic did not respond to our invitation. He ain’t here, and Sadie says he ain’t coming. I’ve got a stack of flyers with pictures of Petrovic’s slums. I think his neighbors out in Wellesley should see a list of repairs that need taking care of. Father Mackenzie here says he will drive us out on the church bus.  I am sure gonna get up on that bus and take a ride out to that mansion in Wellesley. Who is going with me?”

A few people began to stir. Another tenant raised his hand: “What about the law,” he asked.

“What about it?  Man’s got a doorbell, right?  Ain’t no law says I can’t go up to the man’s house and ring that sucka’, and there ain’t no law that says that I can’t take thirty or forty of my friends with me,” Moesha said, grinning. “We ain’t plannin’ no violence. We ain’t breaking no laws.”

Jessica stood up. “Moesha’s right; we checked this out with a lawyer. Having a doorbell means we got a right to ring it.  If he orders us off his property, that’s something else; we leave peacefully with no fuss.  Some of us can fan out, circulate through the neighborhood and pass out the flyers. I doubt that his neighbors know how Petrovic makes his money. The idea here is to embarrass the man.  The bus is warming up outside, and the father is willing to drive us. So, I say, let's go,” Jessica said and stepped around the table.

Moesha looked around and took a deep breath. “Listen,” she said in a voice that reverberated around the hall. “Y’all know the conditions we are living under, and you know for damn sure Petrovic ain’t going to fix things up just because we ask him. Most of us have been down that road. We wrote him a polite letter asking him to meet with us and y’all can see how he disrespected us.  It seems like we are good enough to pay rent but not good enough to meet with him. Well, I’m through being nice. The time‘s come to take action. What it comes down to is this; how many of you are willing to keep on livin’ with rats and roaches?”

Moesha gazed about. This was the moment. Flynt had warned her, and she could feel it. “I don’t see nobody raisin’ their hands.  Seems that we got a choice.  We can go home and live with those rats and roaches, or we can go outside, get on the bus and show Zivco Petrovic that we are finished takin’ his shit.  How many of you are coming with me?” she asked, raising her hand. “C’mon, put your hands in the air!” 

About twenty people raised their hands. The others looked around at their neighbors, and slowly, tentatively, ten more hands went up. 

“Good, this here meetin’ is temporarily adjourned.  We be bringing the meeting back to order in about half an hour on Zivco Petrovic’s front doorstep,” Moesha said.  With a nod to Frank, Jessica, and Darnette, she strode towards the door.  With the three other leaders in her wake, she flowed like a strong downstream current, drawing most of the tenants through the door and up the steps into the idling school bus.

It took the best part of an hour to get out to the landlord’s home on a well-lit street in suburban Wellesley.  It was pitch dark when the yellow bus, with St. Mary’s Parish School stenciled in big, black block letters along its side, pulled up in front of the landlord’s home and disgorged its cargo of angry tenants who fanned out, rang doorbells, and handed out the glossy pictures that illustrated the conditions of Petrovic’s Boston properties to the residents of the neatly manicured, oversized ranches and fake colonials that lined both sides of Petrovic’s Street.

“How did you do?” Moesha asked one of the tenants—assignments carried out, who reassembled on the lawn in front of Petrovic’s home. 

“Ok, I guess.  I went to three houses, and you could tell when people answered the door, whatever they mighta’ been expectin’, it sure as hell wasn’t me, that’s for damn sure.  How ‘bout y’all?” one woman said.

“Well, some of them didn’t answer or just slammed the door in our faces, but most took the flyers with the pictures and Petrovic’s home phone number,” Jessica said.

“Sh-i-t, you should a seen the look on a couple of those lily-white faces when they opened their front door and saw me,” Darnette said, walking up to the group with a grin, “I mean, they didn’t give a motherfucking damn ‘bout the issue. They just wanted my black ass off ‘a they doorstep,” she said, grinning.

“Ok, everybody let’s go,” Moesha said, addressing the group, “it’s time to talk to Zivco Petrovic. I’m sure some of those rich white folks have had a chance to call, so he sure knows by now that we have arrived.  Remember why we are here.  We want a signed agreement, and we ain’t listening to nothin else.  Everybody ok with that?  Let’s go and ring that doorbell and see if ole Zivco is at home.”

-----------------------------

“From what I hear,” Flynt said, gazing around the classroom, “the Petrovic Tenants Association had a big win. Congratulations, you all did a great job.”  

“Yeah, it was a thing of beauty, all right,” Jessica said.

“Right, soon as that sucka’ came out on the front porch, Frank started popping flashbulbs in his face like he was some newspaper photographer,” Moesha said.

“Sorry I missed that,” Flynt said.

“Yeah, man, that was a great idea. You should have been there, Jed.  Light goes on and Petrovic comes partway outside with his back to the open door. Like he is getting ready for bed or something. His shirt was half out of his pants and he was wearing slippers.  Anyway, he’s standing there and his wife pushes that door shut, leaving the dude alone with all of us gathered around him,” Frank said, laughing. 

“We held the meetin’ right there on his front porch, and you could hear his phone ringing inside the house the whole time,” Moesha said.

“I thought Petrovic was gonna’ cry when we threatened to show up at his church and distribute flyers after Mass or whatever them Orthodox folk call it,” Jessica said.

“Did he sign the agreement?” Flynt asked.

“Oh yeah, and he’s already started work.  That turkey would’ve signed anything to get us out of his face,” Moesha said. 

“Yeah, well, people sometimes do the right thing for the wrong reasons,” Flynt said.


Richard Wise is a former organizer, decades ago, and author of Redlined.