Make It Local: An Organizing Tale
…we have just begun to touch the dazzling whirlwind of our anger
–Joy Harjo, Muskogee Creek poet
People are angry. I don’t just mean activists – it’s our “job” to be angry – I mean everybody. Unfortunately, many don’t know where to direct that anger and some haven’t even admitted that there’s a problem. But if you were to catch someone at the right moment, over a beer or glass of wine, alone in their cars with the radio off, on a night when they can’t sleep, off-guard, you’d get an earful.
The work of an activist is to harness all those justifiable negative emotions – anger, despair, hopelessness – and channel them to positive action. But for most people, it’s difficult to get a handle on the big picture issues that have such an influence on their daily lives. When one is trying to energize a movement around national and international issues, the most productive exhortation is to “make it local.”
For those of us in the social justice movement of Sonoma County, that opportunity was offered up on a platinum platter when bankster/thief Sandy Weill came to town in the guise of benevolent philanthropist. Weill dropped a cool $12 million on Sonoma State University and the school’s president returned the favor in the form of an honorary degree.
The result? A perfect forum. The Sonoma State University graduation ceremony on Saturday, May 12 offered students, professors, and local activists a golden opportunity to demonstrate their outrage at this shameful “transaction,” and to educate thousands about why it was wrong. A Coalition was formed; media coverage was assured.
In bestowing a Doctorate of Humane Letters on Sanford Weill, former CEO and Chairman of Citigroup, SSU President Rubin Armiñana asked the assembled students, families and residents of Sonoma County to ignore how Weill came to have so much money and to believe that ill-gotten gains can be called “philanthropy.” The Coalition said “not so fast!”
Sandy Weill has said that he retired from Citigroup because he needed to fulfill his “deal with God” by giving away a sizeable portion of his wealth. He failed to mention that the money he would be dispensing was obtained through a pact with the devil. (For details on his crimes, see shameonssu.org)
None of this bothered Armiñana. He acknowledged that Weill had some part in the economic crisis, but said “We are all sinners. That is part of the human condition.”
All of Sandy Weill’s corporate “sins” are public record, but not many people knew about them. Here’s how they found out.
In March of 2011, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat reported that Joan and Sandy Weill had donated $12 million to the Green Music Center, calling the Weills “nationally recognized philanthropists.” I did some quick research and was amazed that the explosive truth about Weill and his responsibility for the financial crisis was so easy to find, right under our noses.
I submitted an OpEd to the Press Democrat, in which I called Weill a thief, not a philanthropist. I contacted the paper every day and said I would continue to do so until they published the piece. In early April, they relented. It was very well-received by the progressive community, but there it ended.
Six months later, the Occupy movement burst upon the scene. Sandy Weill was a ready-made target for the movement, but I didn’t see his name anywhere. Most of the talk was about Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and Goldman Sachs. Weill was one of the first executives to hire a public relations company to protect his image and it had served him well.
But I work at the Peace & Justice Center of Sonoma County and we’re on Sonoma State’s press release email list. In late April 2012, we were informed that the university was awarding degrees to Weill and his wife. I had turned my back to Henry Kissinger in 1969 when Brown University awarded him a degree. I knew what I wanted to see and I knew that the Peace & Justice Center couldn’t be the focus of that work, nor could the local Occupy groups. That work had to come from within the Sonoma State community if we wanted it to have real traction.
I contacted Peter Phillips, professor of Sociology, and Shepherd Bliss, lecturer in Humanities. Eight people came to our first meeting, nine days before the graduation, to plan a protest. We dubbed it “Day of Shame on SSU.” By the next day, we had a website (shameonssu.org) and then our first press release. By our second meeting, we’d grown to twenty-five people with more on our email list. We got a Facebook page.
The amount of press coverage we received was an activist’s dream. Peter and Shepherd wrote OpEds which were immediately printed. The protest was covered for four days in the Press Democrat and Armiñana felt forced to respond. Letters to the editor favored our position. Our commentary appeared on numerous internet sites and there were interviews on many radio stations. The last issue for the semester of the SSU student newspaper, Sonoma State Star, carried the headline “Day of Shame at Sonoma State University.” Copies mysteriously disappeared overnight from the campus, to reappear when the faculty advisor formally complained. The faculty senate and the staff’s union weighed in on the controversy.
We issued a second press release declaring our commitment to nonviolence and our intention to protest Mr. Weill with back turning and silence and to honor the students.
On the day of the graduation, about fifty activists, including numerous SSU alumni, fanned out across the campus and handed out 4,000 explanatory flyers to a crowd of 10,000. To our delight, they were not dropped on the ground. We had the opportunity to speak with many people and received more favorable responses than negative.
When the degree was finally presented, close to 100 graduating students stood up and turned their backs to the podium. Many were in the highly visible second row. They were joined by faculty members on stage, and more than fifty people, organizers and the general public, in the audience.
One of the graduating students had written to the commencement speaker, Marc Lamont Hill. Mr. Hill did not respond, but he gave a barnstorming speech enumerating the sins of Sandy Weill (without mentioning his name), calling out the business graduates to do things differently, and asking the students to stand up for what is right even when others disapprove. He got a standing ovation and our profound gratitude.
Sandy Weill’s cover has been blown. The campaign to let the Weills know they are unwelcome in this county will continue and that will be our local hook for what is actually a global story – the story of an elite which is destroying everything we value.
Equally important, this rapidly convened coalition brought SSU students and faculty together with Occupy activists from Santa Rosa, Sebastopol Petaluma and Healdsburg for a successful action. We have owned our anger and discovered our strength.
There will be more opportunities for this group of people, many of whom were strangers a couple of weeks ago, to continue their work of changing the world by changing their community – a local community where more and more people can begin to realize that they are not alone in their anger. And that we are on their side.
The whirlwind is getting stronger.
by Susan Lamont