Unfounded Fear

ONE DC (Organizing Neighborhood Equity) and its partners recently organized a community block party and a tent city which were intended to publicize DC's affordable housing crisis. The block party took place on Saturday, July 10th and was immediately followed by the setting up of the tent city, which is about to enter its fifth day. However, the process of organizing these events wasn't an easy one.

I traveled to New York City January 27th through 29th of this year to meet with about 40 other activists from 13 U.S. Cities and to help organize the May Month of Action during which people would perform various direct actions in their respective cities. Our intent was to raise the social consciousness of people and bring attention to the issue of housing as a human right. In February, I met with Rosemary Ndubuizu of ONE DC and we began to contact others who might want to help organize a direct action around the right to housing. We had our first planning meeting with others on March 4th.

Rosemary knew that ONE DC wouldn't be able to organize an action by May and decided to shoot for June. Then, as a previous blog post indicated, she and others were apprised by a group of lawyers of the legal risks involved in doing a direct action. So ONE DC decided to come up with a Plan B. That Plan B turned out to be a community block party during which we would ask those in attendance who wanted to be involved in the direct action. Due to the length of time that it can take to acquire a permit, we would need to schedule the block party and direct action in July. Well, now that the tent city is underway, we are beginning to see what went well and what didn't.

Going into this, we had a two-pronged goal. On the one hand, we wanted to call out Mayor Adrian Fenty on his broken promise to put 94 units of affordable housing on a vacant lot known as Parcel 42 and to get other local politicians -- those presently seated as well as those who might win in the upcoming election -- to commit to making good on this broken promise if the present (outgoing, if I have my way) mayor won't. On the other hand, we wanted to do some public education concerning Washington, DC's affordable housing crisis. Councilman Michael Brown visited our campsite on the evening of July 12th. Apart from that, we haven't had much luck with the politicians. Nonetheless, we have had plenty of media coverage and have spoken to many passers-by about why we are there. All in all, we've done quite well in the public education department.

Nonetheless, I'm left to wonder just how much better we would have done if it weren't for people's unfounded fear. Throughout the organizing process people emphasized that they didn't want to publicize the tent city which we intended to erect. They were afraid that the police might be alerted and shut us down before we even got started. They got upset with me for putting information about the tent city into my mass e-mails, even though I let them know that I wasn't sending any sensitive information to anyone in DC Government. As it turns out, the police arrived shortly after we erected the tent city, but have yet to shut us down. They've spoken with us on several occasions and asked the exact same questions as the previous groups of cops, due to the fact that the previous groups of cops hadn't communicated with them. The apparent lack of organization or communication among police (in spite of them being hierarchical) coupled with their "war of attrition" (waiting us out, in hopes that we'll just get tired and go home) has worked in our favor and proven people's fears to be unfounded. (This doesn't mean that the police won't shut us down in the future.)

During the organizing, it was said that there would be one police liaison and that no one else would speak to the cops. This was to make the cops' jobs as difficult as possible and to keep them from finding out too much. It would also serve the purpose of reducing tensions between us and the cops, as many people speaking to the cops can make for much confusion and cause the situation to escalate. While people kept the rule, we were hit with an unexpected situation that no one was prepared for.

On the evening of July 13th, an employee of the property management agency that oversees that property showed up and threatened to return on the 14th to throw us out. Of course he would need to call the cops who already knew about our presence on the lot. But the group had not discussed how we would handle it if the property manager showed up. With the police liaison having not been present at the moment, various people spoke to the property manager and the discussion became somewhat heated. However, as of 1 PM on the 14th, no action had been taken to remove people from the lot. (That's when I left to take care of other business and to do this blog post.)

The one thing that stands out to me in all of this is the permeating fear. The fear of being shut down before we even got started or shortly thereafter never materialized. It is my guess that, had we publicized the tent city and its intended message throughout the time that we publicized the community block party and had we juxtaposed the events on the same flier, we would've had a larger turnout for both. Furthermore, it's counter-intuitive to be afraid of going to jail for doing civil disobedience. Fear has no place when it comes to fighting for a cause, especially if one considers themselves to be a revolutionary. (Revolution is the only thing that will usher in the needed changes in this nation.) The fear that people expressed throughout the organizing and execution of these events bothered me so much that I have promised myself that I will not work with any more fearful groups to organize direct actions. From here on out they will need to adopt my more direct approach -- to directly confront the powers that be and to draw such large numbers of demonstrators that it makes the cops fearful. That said, fear is not such a bad thing, so long as it's the enemy who has it.


Anonymous said…
Dear Mr. Sheptock,

The following texts might prove useful for coming up with suitable methods of protest.

by Gene Sharp, "The Methods of Nonviolent Action", Boston, 1973

"There Are Realistic Alternatives", 55 pages, Albert Einstein Institution, Boston, 2003)"

Also, if you look 3/4 of the way down the website, you will find ALL 198 methods of nonviolent protest/persuasion action listed at


Good luck to you in your efforts!

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