Living in this World

Monday, September 01, 2008

#71 Holding Open the Space

The outcome was pre-ordained. On one side was the Governor, the legislature, the court system, the newly-established state gaming control board and the big casino companies. On the other were a few little row-house neighborhood groups who weren’t too happy with the prospect of 5000-slot-machine casinos next door on the riverfront.

The situation had been carefully set up to side-step public input. The legislation was pushed through in the middle of the night, and the selection of the sites and companies was put in the hands of a state-appointed board. The strategy was clear: create an impregnable united front, move quickly and forcefully, and steamroll anything in the way before it had a chance to grow. Ordinary folks would realize that they didn’t have a hope in hell of standing up to a force like that, and would just add it to the list of things in this world that were beyond their control and learn to adjust. Why get bloodied and battered over what was clearly a done deal?

But some people didn’t get it. It was a scrappy group of neighbors who were mad as hell—and they were lucky enough to get some brilliant strategists on their side to fight back. They went to the casino board headquarters with magnifying glasses to search for the plans the public had never seen. They attended City Council meetings and wrote letters and collected thousands of signatures for a ballot question. When the question was knocked off the ballot, just days before the election, they held their own independent referendum. They kept harping on the idea that, since we live in a democracy, people in the city ought to have some say in a decision that so clearly affected them.

And they kept on not winning. The casino executives first ignored them, then swatted at them like pesky flies, then brought out their big guns to fight back. The newspaper made a few half-hearted comments about imperfect process but declared it a done deal. The governor stood firm. The mayor had nothing to say. The courts knocked them down time and time again.

And still they didn’t give up. Months passed. A city councilman picked up on an obscure law they found that would hinder the sale of property over the water. Archeologists discovered old Revolutionary War era artifacts. Groundbreaking was delayed. A new mayor was elected, and he expressed concern about the siting. A city planning group reported that great windowless casinos with big parking lots weren’t ideal for a downtown waterfront. The mayor started to sound a little bolder. Newspaper editorials got a little more critical. Conversations about alternative sites began to spring up. Support for the casinos within the city became increasingly hard to find.

Finally the governor, who had been an unswerving casino ally, reluctantly agreed to host a meeting at which re-siting would be on the agenda. Local politicians grew more bold. The newspaper decided that the whole process had been flawed from beginning to end. Later, at the end of the meeting, one of the casinos announced that it was open to looking at a different site.

Casino opponents still haven’t won, but the terms of the struggle have been transformed, and the tide may finally have turned. By managing to hold the space open long enough, they bought time for more and more people to consider that perhaps it wasn’t a done deal after all. They bought time for the researchers to find the obscure laws and evidence of artifacts. They bought time for a larger and larger anti-casino voice to emerge, giving city politicians the courage to take a stand. They foiled the grand strategy of using overwhelming and intimidating force to make the casinos an immutable fact of life, crushing from the start any hope of being able to fight back.

It’s a grand tale of David vs. Goliath. But it’s also a reminder that we need the people who aren’t willing to accept defeat even when there’s “no chance”, people who will stand in the path of overwhelming and intimidating force—and buy time for others to find reason and courage to hope.

(For more information, go to