I’ve just returned from Los Angeles after a week in America. As it happened, I was there when many Democratic candidates won seats in Congress that had been predicted to go to Republicans; when the Senate went to the Democrats, and the House of Representatives to the Republicans; when former President Donald Trump stepped up to announce his candidacy for the presidency in 2024 and Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi stepped down as House Democratic leader after two decades in the job.
A momentous week, and yet I wondered what might actually change. Would any of these new appointments actually tip the balance for any meaningful improvements, considering all the corruption in government and the overwhelming influence of lobbyists on both sides?
Corruption so wide and so deep that it would be difficult, as any legislator, to know where to start, let alone to get any bill passed through this messy and divided Congress.
So I started to ponder whether true change occurs from the top down, as we always assume, or whether the most rapid reforms get started from the bottom up.
I thought of the philosophy of non-violence as developed by the great spiritual leader Mohandas Gandhi. Satyagraha, as he called it, literally means ‘the force that is generated through adherence to Truth.’ Central to Gandhi’s methods is polite — that is to say, ‘civil’— disobedience.
But let’s get clear. In Gandhi’s view, activism should always be non-violent, utterly devoid of hostile language, damage to property, secrecy or law-breaking for any but the most extreme and unjust laws.
As Gandhi understood, the power of any law or leader depends upon the people’s agreement to obey it. If citizens simply refuse to obey the law, the law or leader loses its power.
As Gandhi said: ‘I believe that no government can exist for a single moment without the cooperation of the people, willing or forced, and if people suddenly withdraw their cooperation in every detail, the government will come to a standstill.’
The same can apply to an unfair business practice.
Some years ago, with no prior warning, Orange, a British cell phone company, announced its intention to install eight cell towers in our community, with one planned right on our block, directly across from our younger daughter’s bedroom window.
The majority of members of our town — in particular our immediate neighborhood — were alarmed about the potential detrimental effects of a cell tower on our health, especially that of our children, as well as on our property values and the general aesthetics of the neighborhood.
About 10 of us met at our house one evening. Over tea and cookies, we put together a comprehensive plan to form a ‘housewives’ brigade to protest Orange’s plans.
One of the businessmen took it upon himself to study the law, to see which grounds we could use to protest. Because the health issues believed to be linked to cell phone towers are controversial and were not, at the time, considered valid grounds for a reasonable objection, our greatest challenge was defining what exactly we were objecting to.
We had to rely on other factors – aesthetic issues, or threats to the safety of pedestrians in wheelchairs or mothers with strollers — to make our case.
Several neighbors scouted around and eventually located sparsely populated sites in the area where phone towers could be placed as a reasonable alternative.
A neighbor approached the headmistress of the public Catholic school on our street and all the ministers of all the other local churches for their support.
Our next-door neighbor built and painted a giant luminous orange box, in the dimensions of the proposed tower, and parked it on the proposed location to give the neighborhood a visceral idea of the sheer dimension of this proposed tower and exactly how much of an unsightly and cumbersome impediment it would present on our sidewalks.
As owners of a small publishing company, my husband and I volunteered to design and produce posters, and produce and print fact sheets, and letters to our local council and petitions for Parliament.
We parceled up the area and took turns leafleting. Some of the women stood outside school gates and knocked on the doors of every unit in every apartment building; others contacted our MP.
One of the families with a distant link with Orange organized a meeting with a company representative, and invited our parliamentary representative, during which we discussed our objections and proposed a reasonable alternative.
We told them that if they removed their planning applications, we’d help them find a site. If they didn’t, we’d start a national boycott campaign (‘Put Orange in the red’; ‘Squeeze Orange on Wednesdays.’)
We sent them away with copies of posters we’d designed and printed, and displayed in local shops: orange-colored, redolent of Orange’s own ads (‘The future’s bright, the future’s Orange’), with a child’s drawing of rather ill-looking children beneath a mast and our own catchphrase: ‘The future’s bright . . . the future’s radiated.’
We were clear that we meant business if they refused to take our concerns on board.
Within a few weeks, Orange withdrew its petition.
Several years later, they were back — this time, most cynically, they’d made their bid over the summer months when most people were on vacation. We were only alerted to their renewed campaign after my husband noticed a small poster that had fallen off a tree across the street.
Nonetheless, within a few days, we’d resurrected our local email list, updated and reprinted the petitions and the fact sheets, and this time enlisted the teenagers on the block to pass around the material.
Within a month, after hundreds of letters of protest had been sent to our local council, they again turned Orange down.
Although Orange appealed, ultimately the company decided all the effort against this well-organized resistance wasn’t worth it. Eventually, they withdrew their appeal and joined up with another cell phone provider for power in our area.
What was largely a 10-person-strong housewives’ brigade had chased away one of the giants of British industry permanently.
If nobody in government is listening or protecting you against the thuggery of corporate greed, you can fight back without anger, without violence or vandalism.
You can use the greatest power you hold – the power of your wallet.
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