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Rules for Radicals

It was hot under the seats of the old Tropicaire horse track, but no one expected otherwise.  Events like the Around the World Fair are always hot and sticky in the nether reaches of suburban Miami.  I was wearing a long-sleeve white shirt  because the sun would destroy my skin, so white I always said that any paler would be regarded as a skin condition.  So as I sorted through the old books that were tucked away in the rummage section, 2 for a dollar, I was dripping with sweat.  Anyone else would have melted, but not me.  I was on a treasure hunt.  As is the first rule of a treasure hunt, victory belongs to the persistent regardless of how sticky their shirt becomes.  So it was only a matter of time before I found it.

rulesThe red cover got my attention, and then the title.  “Rules for Radicals” it said in block type, down the side, and “A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals” below the author’s name.  Saul Alinsky?  Who was that?  I thumbed through the book casually, hoping it had something compelling that would leap up at me.  My thumb ran through the pages like I was making a primitive animation jump and dance when it did:  On page 125 it read:


It looked as though someone had fed the page into a typewriter, marking a passage not with a pen or with blood but with a memory.  It felt almost like an incantation designed to call a spirit to protect us, like a Santeria rite.

My heart, slightly weak with a developing heatstroke, started to pound.  It was on my 14th birthday that Arthur McDuffie had been beaten to death by the City of Miami Police largely because he was Black.  When the cops were acquitted of all charges, the rage that resulted leapt onto the streets and the city burned for three days.  Those were the May 1980 Riots

I learned a lot from those riots, mostly the simple fact that systems violently break down when there is systematic disempowerment.  Let me say that again:  those that have it all better watch that they don’t push it too far lest the people rise up.  There are two lessons in there, if you read it right.

Saul Alinsky came up a bit during the recent Presidential election, and the way his name came up showed me that most of America is a naïve as I was the moment I first held “Rules for Radicals”.  I’ll let Saul Alinsky explain in the first chapter, “The Purpose”:

What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be.  The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away.

I cannot say when I first read that chapter.  I think it was long after I had secreted the book into a pile of classics and other worn paperbacks, two for a buck, and brought them home.  I know this was the first one I read, and it was dissolved into my brain cover to cover in a matter of only a few hours.

The page that was marked with an incantation?  It is the chapter on Tactics, which reads:

Tactics means doing what you can with what you have.  Tactics are those consciously deliberate acts by which human beings live with each other and deal with the world around them.  In the world of give and take, tactics is the art of how to take and how to give.  Here our concern is the tactic of taking; how the Have-Nots can take power away from the Haves.

That is what the riot was about, after all.  That is why the city burned beneath us as we drove on elevated highways, flying over it like a B-29 over the ruins of Dresden.  My Dad was on his way to Chile that day, and since we had off school I went along.  I recently finished Slaughterhouse Five, so I understood the power of violence and how that power only came when the fires were extinguishedVonnegut’s stories allowed me to digest what happened, but my mammal brain wanted more.  It came in the chapter marked by incantation.

The first rule of power tactics:  Power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have.  The second rule:  Never go outside the experience of your people.  The third rule is:  Whenever possible, go outside the experience of your enemy.

The McDuffie Riot, as it came to be called, worked because it hit all the rules laid down years before.  No one planned it, of course, but it happened that way.  When the fires were put out the leaders of Miami realized they had a serious problem, and worked to fix it.  Power become more generally shared.  But did it have to happen this way?

Alinsky offered an explanation in “Means and Ends”:

The fourth rule of means and ends is that judgment must be made in the context of the times in which the action occurred and not from any other chronological vantage point.

In other words, we move on and accept what happened for what it was.  Have to happen?  That was up to the Haves.

Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time with this book, reading and re-reading it.  Each time, I remember the swelter when I first came upon it and animated McDuffie’s name out of the pages.  We can all wish our social world wasn’t about power and we can assume that things are just gonna work out.  History, however, always has other plans.  If you want it to be yours, you have to take it.  It’s not at all depressing once you have it laid out in front of you.

I’ll say more on him later.

26 thoughts on “Rules for Radicals

  1. What a wonderful story! I’m sure this is very meaningful to you. Things do often unfold gradually, don’t they. Thanks for the story! I’ll have to read the book now.

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  5. Excellent essay! Sorta reminds me of my youth although I was much more rural, less cosmopolitan. Not as intense at 14 but more so at 16.

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  18. It’s a bit much, but he is a great hero of mine. A lot to add, especially to a student of Machiavelli.

    And no matter what some people say, Alinsky is NOT a friend to Washington, regardless of who appears to have power.

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