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A Concrete Problem: SESCO and the Principle of Escalation

SESCO Organizer Sue Hall in front of the illegal dumpCommunity organizing starts with problems -- a rat infested apartment, the steady drip, drip from the ceiling of an elementary school after a storm, an intersection with no stoplight where a car hits somebody's daughter. By the time the Southeast Seattle Community Organization (SESCO) set up shop in the summer of 1975, many Rainier Valley residents were fed up with all the little problems and had come to the conclusion that they were the victims of the city’s neglec,t or worse, of a deliberate plan to dump Seattle’s problems in the South End.

The complaint was common, but vague; it unhelpfully pointed the finger at the city's entire political establishment and suggested no action. As pioneering community organizer Saul Alinsky put it, "what the organizer does is convert the plight into a problem." Trained in Alinsky’s methods, SESCO’s community organizers sought to overcome feelings of isolation and helplessness by mobilizing people around a modest issue that was concrete, specific, and realizable.

In a pivotal early organizing effort, SESCO hit upon one of those little issues that was symbolic of southeast Seattle's plight and literally concrete. Residents of the Dunlap neighborhood noticed a steadily growing pile of construction rubble behind their houses. The nuisance became intolerable when one day in February of 1976, it rained and the sheer bulk of the mound diverted enough rainwater to flood their basements.

The dumping was originally intended as fill for the site of a future church whose congregation at the time met at a house on the same property. The pile, which stood at 17 feet and was made up of dirt, large slabs of concrete and steel support rods, contained ten times more debris than the city-issued dumping permit allowed.

With the help of the SESCO organizer, the first thing the neighbors did was arrange a meeting with an official from the city Building Department, which had issued the dumping permit. The official told them he would investigate, but that they should really be taking the matter up with the property owner, who was ultimately responsible. Church officials said they had asked their contractor repeatedly to stop the dumping. The residents contacted the contractor, who said he had nothing to do with the landfill and that he was "not about to be the city's fall guy on this deal."[1]

This dizzying circle of deferred responsibility is very often the point where people like the Dunlap residents give up. Alinsky observed in his book Rules for Radicals that "in a complex, interrelated, urban society, it becomes increasingly difficult to single out who is to blame for any particular evil. There is a constant, and somewhat legitimate, passing of the buck." He directed community activists to pick a specific target as responsible and "freeze" it, relentlessly holding them alone accountable.

The residents of Dunlap chose the superintendent of the city Building Department, a man with the unfortunate name of Mr. Petty. Twenty-five of them made a trip to his office and presented for his signature a document stating that the debris would be removed within a month. He demurred, stating that "any action on the matter would have to come about through court proceedings." "It looks like someone erred," he told the Southeast District Journal, which had been called there for the occasion, and speculated that his department not intervening to stop the dumping "might have been an honest mistake." [2]

The Building Department's idea of action was to issue a succession of stop work orders, which went ignored since nobody would admit to dumping at the site. Faced with continuing pressure for his department to clean up the site, Petty protested, "We're supposed to go through the proper channels. We'll only take it out if there are no other choices. It's the responsibility of the property owner."[3]

In delivering what was no doubt his department's boilerplate evasion, the superintendent inadvertently spelled out the newly-minted neighborhood activist's end game -- to make it clear that there would be no choice Petty could stomach but to clean up the site.

On Wednesday, April 28, 1976, Residents and organizers loaded a pick-up truck at the dump site and made a trip north to City Hall. They unloading their cargo -- a concrete slab which was estimated to weight three tons and a twisted 20 foot-long steel support rod -- at the entrance to the Building Department’s office and labeled them with the specification of the fill material allowed by the city permit: "8 inch piece of dirt."

Though Petty was still out to lunch when the activists arrived (until 2:15 p.m., the Seattle Times noted), two of his representatives read a statement recounting the city's efforts to address the complaints. One city employee noted down the names of the activists "in case there is some liability for removing the material," he said.[4] Before they left, the Dunlap residents handed out a press release warning that, until the city cleaned up the dump, they would return with more of its contents.

The simmering conviction that the city was using their community as a place to hide Seattle's problems became real in the chunks of concrete, and now, with the help of SESCO, the community was rubbing the political establishment's nose in the mess they refused to acknowledge. City Hall had become the dumping ground.

Petty and other officials involved with the dumping issue took comfort that they were following the correct process, regardless of the result. Convinced that they had acted correctly, they were able to address the residents from a professional distance. The residents of Dunlap, who lived with the growing landfill in their back yards, were only concerned with results, which they intended to get.

As recounted in SESCO's newsletter, "the residents visited Mr. Petty at his home. There he refused to talk with them, so they visited his neighbors to tell them how he ran his department."[5]

Rodney Herold, who was SESCO's director at the time, described the chain of events that led to the visit to the superintendent's home as the "principle of escalation." "People are reticent to get involved and do things," he said, "So first they write a letter and nothing happens and they get frustrated, so they make a call. If nothing happens then, they go to the person's workplace. And if that doesn't work, we certainly went to people's homes a couple of times."[6] The principle of escalation, fed by intransigence and frustration, is the motor of community organizing. It turns detached authorities into personal targets and anonymous citizens into committed activists.

Someone must have told the mayor what SESCO was up to because, a few days later, one of the Dunlap residents received a call from the his office conceding that the city would take care of the problem. The next week, Mayor Uhlman, who was making a bid for governor, personally visited Dunlap to assure the residents the debris would be removed at the expense of the city and the contractor.

SESCO organizers went on to build "action groups" around a number of other issues with names like Concerned Residents of Holly Park, Georgetown Community Against the Animal Shelter, and the Bolmor/Jacobus Committee. From these issue-specific groups, SESCO built a coalition of community groups made up of everyday residents who were ready to tackle issues that affected the entire Rainier Valley, such as housing segregation and real estate redlining.

-- John Hoole

 

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[1]Seattle Post-Intelligencer, “Everybody Dumps: Problem of Fill,” 3/24/76

[2]South District Journal, “City Action Sought in Landfill Conflict,” 3/31/76

[3]South District Journal, “Residents Rock City Hall,” 5/3/76

[4]Seattle Times, “Protesters Leave Big Calling Card,” 4/29/76

[5]SESCO Staff Reports and the Northwest Institute Report, Volume 1976, No.6

[6]In person interview, 11/17/09