– Confronting Goons and Bullies In Public Meetings

The vast majority of environmental campaigns are businesslike and seldom create personal confrontations, but for some issues and in some areas of the country, public meetings on environmental issues can occasionally subject activists to bullying and personal threats.

The overwhelming majority of personal threats, while unnerving, never result in physical harm. Fortunately, there is an excellent book, The Gift of Fear by Gavin Becker, devoted to analyzing, evaluating, and responding to threats. It is required reading for anyone who fears physical harm from another person.

An industry exists to provide personal security to famous people who receive death threats every single day. When security firms must decide whether to deploy armed guards around-the-clock to provide safety for their clients, they must know when to take a threat seriously and when it can be disregarded. There is a large body of insight drawn from analyzing many tens-of-thousands of threats about who makes them, the form they take, and what results to expect from them. When people do harm to others, there are predictable precursors and patterns followed. The Gift of Fear shows how to increase your personal security by being able to recognize and analyze threats and how to avoid personal behaviors that increase your risk.

Environmentalists tend to be polite and businesslike and generally comport themselves agreeably and peacefully. But sometimes ‘wise-use’ goon squads try to intimidate our spokespersons and must be attended to. If people are mobilized to go to a meeting, but then are verbally abused and threatened while organizers make no effort to intervene, you can forget about ever having recruits attend another meeting. If a “call and response” situation is allowed to escalate in a public meeting, it can utterly demoralize and rout campaign volunteers and anyone else in attendance. This is a situation where someone shouts out an ugly threat or insult and immediately other people jump in and reinforce the original insult with additional ones. This creates an ugly momentum intended to physically intimidate people. Fortunately, people who shout out ugly stuff in meetings are usually cowards and generally stop if they are met with a firm response. A feeding frenzy won’t gather momentum if you don’t let it. Once people know you will not be intimidated, subsequent meetings will generally be free from ugly confrontations.

Jim Weaver, a former congressman from southern Oregon, represented a district equally composed of environmentalists and “wise-use” people. He was an ardent environmentalist and wrote Two Kinds, a book that dealt with the psychological and biological mechanics of the hawk and dove mentality. He had to deal with both throughout his career and made a study of these two personality types. He concluded that about half of the bullies (or hawks) are really chickens and collapse at the first sign of any resistance to their goon squad tactics.

If you expect to encounter disruptive people, cultivate and bring to meetings your own assertive people—preferably large people with an “attitude.” Then when goons interject loud interruptions, you can respond in kind, in a tit-for-tat fashion. Never start confrontations, but don’t shrink from them either. One or two nasty remarks can be overlooked, but if ugliness gathers momentum and gains in volume, just give as good as you get. After you have handled a few of these situations, your own folks will become more comfortable with conflict and paradoxically, you may find it easier to get your folks to attend events where ugliness is likely to surface.

If you have a serious, well-founded fear that large numbers of wise-use protesters will show up at your meeting, and there is a local gambling casino with motel/conference facilities nearby, hold your meeting at the casino. Casinos forbid disruptive or troublesome people in or around their establishments and they provide the ultimate in trouble-free meeting space.

If you think that “wise-use” bullies plan to disrupt your meeting, ask local law enforcement to have an officer attend the meeting. Sometimes a non-uniformed person will be sent.

You may have some people in your group who find fighting back distasteful and insist that your group not respond in kind. I have found that people who profess to be totally unable to deal with public conflict often have no problem with, and even seem to enjoy, getting nasty and assertive with members in their own group. When these sensitive plants make their case for the group not to be confrontational, they often get into verbal fights with people on their own side. These folks only want to fight with people they perceive to be weaker than themselves.

Allowing people to abuse you or public officials in public meetings is not maintaining the high moral position of refusing to get down to their level. It is the opposite. By passively permitting abuse to be inflicted on you or your neighbors, you encourage more of it and become a complicit partner to harassment, an enabler of the behavior you seek to rise above.

A very important thing to remember is that you should never sit still for the public abuse of a decision-maker. Never allow a public official to become a punching bag for bigmouth goons. When someone stands and curses a public official, YOU stand up and respond as if the remarks are directed to you personally. If you verbally interpose yourself between bullies and public officials, those officials will be in your debt forever.

Whether in the school yard, a board meeting or any public meeting, standing up to bullies indemnifies you against them, and is the best and only way to avoid fights and confrontations.

And what is the absolute downside of speaking up to bullies? It’s not very likely that someone would kill you for standing up for birds, fish, and other helpless creatures who cannot speak or write or come to meetings and defend themselves. Mother Nature knows when people are trying to protect her and she never fails to extend her protection to her friends.

Some years ago, very early on a wintry January morning, I was in my sixth-floor hotel room in Washington, D.C., preparing my testimony to a joint congressional hearing. I was the environmental witness on a panel that included several senior timber company officials. I had never testified before Congress before and everything about the trip up to that point had gone badly. I had brought an expired credit card and was very short of cash. My clothes had been lost by the airline. My original hotel misplaced my reservation and had no room available. Worse, at that time, I had a fear of speaking before large groups and was terrified that I would get stage fright when my turn came to speak. That morning was a low point in my life.

Then I heard a tap, tap, tapping on my window. When I drew the blinds, I saw there was a small brown bird on the ledge, in the snow, pecking away at my window. He looked up at me. Instantly all my fear left me, and I felt as if he had been sent to cheer me up or tell me not to worry. Later that afternoon I gave my testimony confidently even though the hearing had standing room only, was overflowing into the hall, and could have been very intimidating.

If I had to distill everything I have learned about environmental activism into one sentence, it would be this: Never think Mother Nature loves you, but when you do her work, she does hers, and will never fail to provide you with the strength and courage to cope with anything or anybody, anywhere.

Excerpt from Organize to Win Vol 1

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