By Jim Smith
Few would deny, that on her 110th birthday, the future of Venice is in jeopardy. A huge dinosaur is stalking the streets of Venice. When it’s hungry it eats a whole house, then it shits out modern, and trendy, turds, and tramps on to the next block. Meanwhile, people get hurt by gentrification fueled by profit-hungry developers. They get thrown out of their homes, their neighborhood, their Venice.
Venice has a history of fighting community-wrecking projects, including freeways, yacht harbors, hi-rises, big hotels and any other schemes that are good for the developer, but bad for Venetians. This history, and Venice’s identity as a unique and irreplaceable community is what sustains us in today’s seemingly overwhelming struggles against wealth and power.
Hooray for the VCPUCC (Venice Coalition for the Preservation of Unique Community Character) which is waging an intelligent and determined fight against nearly every no-good development. It’s an organization that all Venetians who want to Save Venice should enthusiastically embrace.
Let me tell you what I’ve learned in a lifetime of struggle for justice and freedom. For 25 years, I was an organizer and strategist in the AFL-CIO. Unlike most others in the slowly sinking labor movement, I won most of the desperate fights I was involved in. I’ve been jailed for opposing police brutality in the streets, and for sitting-in for workers right to strike. I’ve been tear gassed multiple times, threatened, and had a contract put out on my life. To fulfill the contract, they crashed into my car on the freeway, and my house was burned down. I survived.
In 2002, I revived the Beachhead – with lots of help from many people – and wrote about our struggles to save Venice for the next 10 years. I was elected Treasurer of the Grass Roots Venice Neighborhood Council (the good one) and opposed every hair-brained scheme brought to us by developers. I ran for Congress to oppose Trilateral Commission member Jane Harman and her support of the 1 percent. Through all these activities I learned that the rich, the elite, the powerful are actually afraid of us, the people. They are afraid that we will come together and end their ruinous rule over us. Let’s make it so.
Based on the above experience, I offer the following suggestions:
Take the fight to the developers and their political friends. No one has ever won by playing defense all the time. Sooner or later, they’ll wear you down. But by taking the offense, you’ll keep your adversary off balance.
Crank up the level of opposition. Non-violence does not mean passivity. Blocking roads, sitting in at their office, non-compliance with police orders, occupying building slated to be demolished, taking over meetings, going after the developer’s banker, climbing a tree to prevent it being cut down, are just some of the broad range of tactics that are non-violent. This is where “thinking out of the box” comes in handy. Do the unexpected. Don’t follow the rule book. The other side will squeal that you’re not playing fair (according to their rules). That’s when you know you’re making head way.
Dominate the flow of information in the community. Don’t let the other side sway your constituents. After every action (picket line, meeting with the developer or politician, action at the VNC), put out a bulletin. Circulate it to the media, put it on bulletin boards, send email blasts, put it on Facebook, your website, Twitter, etc. Keeping public opinion on your side can mean the difference between winning and losing.
Constantly organize more people to your side. You can never have enough people fighting for your cause. If you outgrow your meeting place, get a bigger one, or better yet, meet in the street. The number one best way to involve more people is by face-to-face and one-on-one conversations. Talk with people, look them in the eye. Ask them for a commitment to get involved. Phoning and electronic communications are also necessary, but only as a backup for the personal touch.
Never, never meet alone with the developer or his political flunkies. Yes, no doubt you are smarter than the guy in the suit. That’s not the issue. If it is one-on-one, he can lie about what you said. He can say you asked him for a job. He can say you told him so-and-so is a complete idiot. This is how good people are discredited. Don’t trust your opponent’s decency when there are millions of dollars at stake. If he wants to meet, take 20 people with you.
Unity is the key. We are a diverse community. If we are to be successful, we need everyone working together. In our case, this means everyone who loves Venice. Sometimes people get frustrated. They feel they are not being kept informed. They feel that white males are doing all the talking and decision-making. They feel that no one cares about their concerns. Keep alert for the warning signs. Make everyone your friend. Organize meetings and parties just for women, or just for surfers. Get people together who also want to be involved in “Black Lives Matter,” or “Peace and Freedom,” or “Occupy.” If it’s for justice, democracy and freedom, it’s all part of the same struggle. Listen, really listen, to what others have to say. This is everyone’s fight. We can’t afford to lose anyone.
Keep your eyes on the prize. We want to live in a world where we make the decisions about our community. We want development that improves our quality of life. We are confronted with the opposite: a low quality of life, more traffic, more noise, higher rents, less art and artists. This is why restoring Venice cityhood is so important. Democracy cannot flourish in a city of four million people. But it can in a city of 40,000. If you think Venice is a pretty cool place now, in spite of the gentrification, just wait until we have our own city.
None of this is meant to downplay in any way the importance of writing letters, signing petitions, filing lawsuits, and speaking at hearings, council meetings, etc. All of these tactics are important and essential. But at the same time, they force us to play in “their” arena and by “their” rules. It’s time we make them play by our rules!
Learn more about how Venetians, from 1968 to the present, took on developers and often won. It’s all in the Beachhead archives at <www.freevenice.org>.