Daniel Hunter: Strategy and Soul

IssueApril 2013
Review by Milan Rai

ImageIt was the most unlikely victory-and-a-half.

In October 2006, direct action trainer and activist Daniel Hunter got a call from a friend, Jethro Heiko, asking him to join a campaigning group trying to stop two multi-million-dollar casinos being built in residential areas in Philadelphia where they both lived.

The backers of the projects were billionaires, the political establishment was solidly in favour of the casinos, the ‘coalition’ he was being asked to join was really a handful of people (a ‘shell organisation’), and the two casinos were just months away from being granted their licences. Furthermore, as Daniel Hunter admits at the beginning of his gripping book about the campaign Strategy and Soul: ‘It was not an issue I cared about. I was not opposed to gambling or casinos. I knew nothing about development issues.’

$670m victory

Nevertheless, Daniel joined Casino-Free Philadelphia and played a critical role in its astonishing successes: cutting the SugarHouse casino complex from a high-rise mini-city on a 21-acre site down to a single supermarket-sized box; and stopping the $670m Foxwoods casino entirely.

It is an amazing story, a textbook example of using nonviolent direct action and community organising to defeat powerful economic and political forces and bring an element of democracy into urban planning.

I’ve read a few how-to books about campaigning and a goodly number about strategy. The book that tells the story of Casino-Free Philadelphia is a combination of the two, and much, much more. As a friend remarked to me, Strategy and Soul reads like a thriller, ‘but it’s better because it’s true.’

There are endless twists and turns, defeats that lead to greater victories, and a constantly escalating conflict, moving from confronting the licensing board all the way up to challenging the governor of the state.

At the heart of the book are Daniel Hunter, African-American campaigning genius, and Jethro Heiko, a gifted white community organiser. Daniel brings strategic thinking, direct action experience, and group process and media skills. Jethro brings skills in delegating/involving people and building relationships (the heart of community organising), and fluidity – a sometimes aggravating willingness to re-think.

Organiser, organiser

We’ve noted the difference before between what’s normally labelled ‘activism’, and union or community ‘organising’. (Dan Clawson wrote about it in PN 2485, based on his brilliant 2003 book, The Next Upsurge.) In Strategy and Soul, the difference between the two things comes across beautifully.

There is a wonderful story about a frustrating meeting of anti-casino activists with a Philadelphia council member, Frank DiCicco, who refuses to budge. Jethro shames him into contributing $1,000 but as the campaigners leave the room, Daniel writes, ‘it felt like a shallow victory.’

Outside, one of the residents threatened by the SugarHouse casino, Norma Van Dyke, expresses her disappointment with DiCicco, and volunteers to join a Casino-Free Philadelphia direct action. Jethro claps his hands: ‘See, Daniel? The meeting was worthwhile! Maybe, we just need everyone to meet Frank and see his hopelessness. Welcome aboard, Norma!’

Daniel had been focusing on the meeting as an activist, seeing a lack of movement from a decision-maker; Jethro focused on the changes in relationships between residents and activists.

On another occasion, Daniel and Jethro meet Paul Boni, a supportive lawyer, to talk about the campaign. Daniel is impatient to discuss the ‘No Way Without Our Say’ petition drive. Jethro instead looks out the window and starts a conversation about the historic neighbourhood, which brings up all sorts of background; Paul Boni’s love of history, his experience as a zoning and environmental lawyer and so on.

Daniel comments: ‘In classic Jethro style, our meeting had no definitive goals…. It was textbook organising: spending most of the time listening, finding out people’s values to understand what people most desired’ and only then talking about the next steps in the campaign.

Direct action

Strategy and Soul is a thriller, a behind-the-scenes first-person story of highs and lows, and a primer in group process, strategic thinking, tactical manoeuvring, media exploitation, action planning, movement development and more.

Daniel Hunter is a training elder with one of the world’s leading activist training groups, Training for Change (disclosure: I participated in a 10-day intensive that Daniel co-led in the UK in January), and it really shows.

Casino-Free Philadelphia made a rule, early on, that it would not hold a march or a rally, tired forms that get ignored. Instead they generated a host of new activities, including the shadow election, the document search and the public filibuster (a collective, drawn-out sort of heckling), and put a new twist on tried-and-tested tactics.

Combe Haven Defenders, opposing the Bexhill-Hastings Link Road in East Sussex, have lifted ‘the document search’ action almost word-for-word. Daniel’s ‘Operation Transparency’ has become ‘Operation Disclosure’, to be enacted at the Department for Transport in London on 8 and 9 April.

In the original version, Casino-Free Philadelphia demanded casino impact studies that the licensing board had refused to release. They had a number of warm-up actions, including a window-washing at one local office (‘transparency’) and another dressed up as ‘data miners’, before the final giant-magnifying-glass-bearing action at the board headquarters. In the event, 14 people were arrested, including Michelle McCandless and Karin DiNardi, wheelchair-using activists from the Disabled in Action direct action group.

All 14 were later found not guilty on all charges, and the judge castigated the gaming control board for ‘not working for the citizens of the commonwealth’.

This book is packed with a wealth of tips, there’s something valuable on every page. Before a direct action, build in a fairly long walk to the action site, as it is a good way for people to calm down. When leading a middling-sized or small march, slow down to avoid gaps appearing in the body of the march, to generate the best photographs and TV footage. When running a campaign, try to have two activities lined up, so that however you feel after the first one, you have to keep going for the second.

I can’t recommend Strategy and Soul too highly. Whether you’re new to activism or well burnt out, there is so much here to learn from, chew over or be inspired by.