Daniel Hunter is a long-time activist in Philadelphia who has lent his expertise in trainings and support for Project HOME’s advocacy efforts. He has recently authored a new book, Strategy and Soul: a campaigner’s tale of fighting billionaires, corrupt officials, and Philadelphia casinos. It’s his personal account of the campaign against Philadelphia casino development. Strategy comes to life in the heat of this massive fight — now providing lessons for other movements, showing what it takes to overpower billionaires and corrupt officials for a cause you believe in. Written by an experienced and unusually self-reflective direct action organizer, this book might be the most enjoyable way you’ve ever empowered yourself to change the world.
Below is an excerpt during the course of the campaign as Casino-Free Philadelphia (CFP) decides to take direct action after months of the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board (PGCB) refusing to allow public testimony at its “public” hearings.
To get a copy of the book, click here.
The morning of the PGCB hearing, I biked over to Temple University, my heart pounding with anticipation. Can a handful of us really shut down a hearing? Will we get enough people on a weekday morning? How will the new PGCB chairwoman respond to us? Will we be arrested? Did we organize it too hastily?
It was a sunny day, and I arrived early, watching students bustling to and from classes. The Gittis Student Center towered up toward the sky, with a glass entranceway up to the second floor. This would be the first PGCB meeting in Philadelphia since it announced the casinos. Walking around, I counted at least ten police officers surrounding the perimeter of the building, plus a handful of plainclothes police with their characteristic cigarette, big build, and sunglasses, trying unsuccessfully to be incognito.
At the foot of the building, I put my backpack down and waited for only a minute before people started to arrive. All-star Andrea Preis was the first arrival, soon followed by fifteen others.
I reviewed the scenarios and possibilities for the day. What if we’re all immediately kicked out? What if they threaten all of us with arrest? What if the crowd grows hostile and boos us down? What if, what if, what if … ?
I held my tongue on my own biggest worry: a physical altercation. I didn’t know if I was being irrational or—by not talking about it—overly protective of making them more fearful. But I couldn’t shake the fear of a repeat attack, even when I reminded myself pro-casino folks weren’t planning to be there.
“Tell me if I’m wrong, but the point here is to get our voices heard,” said Chuck Valentine. “We’re not challenging anyone’s authority, just testifying.”
“Yes,” I said, “unless she tells us we cannot speak. Then she’s just wrong. But we’ll still be respectful. This action only works if we show clearly we’re on the side of angels.”
To press, we called it a public filibuster, built loosely on the principle of the Senate’s procedural filibuster. Only it was with citizens. And without a law backing it up. We even made a handout for them to help support its framing.
Andrea caught the vision completely. “It can’t be anything like that shouting session at that planning meeting.”
“Exactly,” I said. “To avoid becoming a howling mass, we each will speak individually and in an order. Who goes first?” Ed Goppelt pointed at me, then himself. We quickly created an order. “I know it’s scarier for each person to do it alone, but our discipline avoids chaotic yelling. Plus,” I grinned widely, “it takes more time for each person to be thrown out individually. We ready?”
Andrea, Chuck, and the other half-dozen folks nodded.
I led us the long way to the building entrance, hoping the walk would relax the knots in our stomachs. While walking, I said, “Relaxed direct actionists are the best. Unlike normal, highly scripted hearings, our actions introduce spontaneity. Everyone in the room suddenly becomes unwitting actors in our improvisational theater. Nobody’s script is written. We, at least, know to prepare for it and have lead parts. But our opponents aren’t prepared, so we have to stay relaxed and gracious as they figure out their new role.”
We headed up the stairs and into the second floor. Immediately, two dozen civil affairs, city police, state police, and Temple University security guards turned their heads. I wilted. Then impishly wondered: how long were their arguments over jurisdiction and who would arrest us?
On our left sat the PGCB board members, at a long table on the dark side of the square room, facing large windows. A hundred or so sitting spectators turned their heads as we filed in. Most were interested in the agenda before the PGCB, none of which related to the Philadelphia casinos. Standing behind them, intermingled with police, was a bevy of reporters.
Whether real or imagined, all their faces appeared hostile, and my heart leapt into my throat.
Trying to be devoutly quiet, we took our places on one empty, long row, halfway back. We had agreed not to interrupt anyone’s testimony, so we listened to a presenter coo about the success of the PGCB’s self-exclusion list, which allowed problem gamblers to sign up to be kept out of casinos.
The man boasted the list would seriously reduce problem gambling. Yet, so far, nobody had signed up, and unlike in other states, there was virtually zero money to advertise its existence. One of the few ways gamblers would be encouraged is if they called the 1-800-GAMBLER number, which was tucked away in fine print on casino billboards.
The gentleman concluded and started to get up. Andrea, practically shaking with rage, whispered to me, “Can I say something?”
“Sure,” I replied, taken aback slightly at the request. “The point here is to speak our minds.”
Andrea stood up, shoulders back. Her voice echoed like a gong. “Excuse me, sir. Is the solution to the increased gambling problem to build new casinos?”
“I’m sorry,” Chairwoman Mary Collins quickly cut her off. “We’re not taking comments or questions from the audience.”
Andrea sat back down. With horror, I suddenly realized I was supposed to go next. The words were out of my mouth before I could think. “My name’s Daniel Hunter.” I noted I was on my feet. “I’d like the opportunity to speak as allowed by the Pennsylvania Constitution. (Sir, please have a seat, sir.) We haven’t had a chance to speak. (I’ve addressed this issue. Have a seat, please, thank you.) It’s been fifteen months since the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board had an opportunity for us to speak.”
I sat down just as Ed Goppelt popped up. “Madam Chairwoman (Sir, I spoke to you already) please excuse this interruption, but I and others have asked (Sir, sir, we are going to take a recess) you in writing for a chance to address this panel (We will take a recess) pursuant to Article 1, Section 20 of the Pennsylvania Constitution.”
The chairwoman pounded her gavel. A police officer wrenched at Ed’s arm. Off-balance, Ed continued, “I ask for this opportunity to address this panel.”
A second policewoman sidled up, speaking nonsense. “You’ll have a chance to speak, just not now.”
With admiration, I watched Ed—while being forcibly removed by the uniformed officers—yell out, “Article 1, Section 20 of the Pennsylvania Constitution!”
The crowd crawled toward recess. Karim shot up and began talking. “Madam, the process of casino slot parlors has been broken—”
A civil affairs officer materialized in front of me. “You all need to leave.”
“You all need to leave, now,” she said, gesturing to our entire row.
“Nobody’s asked us to leave.”
“I’m asking you to leave.”
“On what grounds?” I looked at her defiantly.
“I can tell you when to leave,” she said.
“Not in a public hearing, you can’t,” I said.
She pulled another uniformed officer over to support her. “We will arrest you if you don’t go,” she insisted.
I hesitated, trying to calculate the situation in my head. Is she bluffing? Does she have any what the law is in this situation? Will my arrest be better for us than another round of interrupting? Will she try arresting just me—or everyone?
These were classic direct action questions, because police officers do not have to be legally right when they arrest you. They are often wrong. The law gives them incredible leeway to enforce “public order,” even at the cost of your civil liberties.
I decided to try a compromise. “You can ask me and those of us who spoke to leave, but you can’t tell people who did not do anything to leave. That’s patently illegal.”
She looked at me, then her partner, then back at me. She waved her hand dismissively in agreement.
As soon as she did, I wondered if I had given away too much by agreeing to leave. But the moment of self-reproach lifted immediately as I was thrust by the officers out of the room and into a line of microphones, along with Karim, Andrea, and Ed.
Chuck and Ramona watched through the glass windows but wisely chose not to leave the room, not certain they would be let back in.
Reporters asked the usual questions: “What do you hope to accomplish today?” “Do you think it will make a difference?” They scrambled back as the recess ended, while Karim, Andrea, Ed, and I were gently escorted outside by Temple security.
“You are not allowed back in the building,” a guard said gruffly.
“On what grounds?” I asked.
“Mine.” He smiled.
He was a lowly security guard, and we joined in a few minutes of playful banter about the abysmal pay of security-guard workers, initiatives to unionize their workforce—for which Jethro and I had done some consulting in the past few months—and a boast from me that I could race past him and get back into the meeting. “I’m quicker than I look,” he joked back, pointing at his bulging belly and then breaking into laughter.
The four of us waited outside, hearts racing. But as our wait became nearly an hour, we fretted. Have people chickened out? Are they getting arrested? Did they forget to call us?
It took another half hour before Chuck emerged from the doors with a gigantic smile. He bellowed, “They shut the whole thing down!” Behind him, our crew erupted into cheers.
Chuck quickly told the story. “We kept trying to speak, again and again, but they kept not letting us. First they told us to be quiet, but we wouldn’t. So they called another recess. Then they started again and tried to carry on the meeting in spite of us, but we just kept talking louder so they couldn’t hear what was being said by the witnesses. Finally, they just shut the whole meeting down.”
We were impressed.
Ramona Johnson looked up. “I think we really got to her. I just kept addressing the chairwoman, trying to convince her.”
Andrea shook her head with an intense face. I looked at her questioningly. “It’s just, I can’t believe a dozen people just shut down the PGCB hearing. And they’d rather let that happen than just allow us to speak.”
I nodded. For the next hour we basked, retelling details. Afterward, I laid out in a nearby field for a few minutes, relaxing and releasing the tension of an unscripted morning.
That night, my body still rippled with excitement. All day, I had talked with CFP members, using it as a moment to teach about the strategy of direct action. With Andrea, I explained, “We put the PGCB in a classic double-bind—where they’re damned if they do allow us to speak and damned if they don’t. In direct action parlance, we call this a dilemma demonstration—where we put our opponents in a dilemma where either way, they lose. We did it by modeling the behavior we wanted, rather than wait for someone else to do it for us.”
To Chuck, I said, “Society has all sorts of myths, like that a public hearing means the public’s voice matters. Through our personal risk, we exposed the injustice and that a widely shared value—public input—was being violated. People could then see the injustice with their own eyes, something a dozen rallies or a hundred meetings with newspapers’ editorial boards would fail to have done.”
To Jethro, I wrote, “Media need drama, and we gave them drama—but drama with our message. Our respectful shut-down of the PGCB has none of the blowback from that earlier planning commission hearing. Instead, the chairwoman was telling people, ‘They’re not violent people, they have sincere concerns. I don’t think it would be appropriate to have the police remove them, absent any display of violence.’ She may not know it, but that’s an invitation to return.”
Unable to sleep that night from a mix of adrenaline and excitement, I tip-toed to my computer. News was phenomenal. KYW calling us “soft-spoken, polite, and very determined” and the Associated Press and Metro reporting we “forced an early adjournment, signaling that the bitter grass roots battle against two city slots parlors is far from over.” Even the unsympathetic Daily News—which gave us exclusively passive language in “our failure… to speak”—had to acknowledge our upbeat, positive tone.
It struck me to put clippings of the days’ news into a single document. On my computer, I threw on logos from Fishtown’s Spirit and NBC 10’s coverage of the Northern Liberties rally. I added Philebrity’s blog coverage of the mountains of trash left on the SugarHouse site after its barbecue (“time to wake up and take out the trash”) and the Philadelphia Inquirer’s coverage of the raging issues over how much land SugarHouse and Foxwoods owned and how much was state land. And the City Paper and Plan Philly’s coverage of the 1,500-foot buffer hearings at the state level. And two editorials slamming justices “stained by the pay raise and slots.” And extracts of articles from the Wilkes-Barre Citizens’ Voice, Patriot News, Legal Intelligencer, and Evening Bulletin.
We were everywhere.
Not only had we achieved dense media coverage—this was just a sampling from the past three days—we were connecting to other movements. Our trainings brought out environmentalist, labor, and economic-justice activists, many of whom wanted to learn from our media, strategy, and direct action workshops how we did what we did.
Heading to sleep, I emailed the eight pages of press clippings to City Council members. It was better than a threat. It was evidence we knew how to create damaging press for those who stood against us. We were about to teach Mayor Nutter the same lesson.