Anatomy of a successful press event
By Jeeni Criscenzo
Some days I marvel at the value of the network of good people that has grown in our community—people involved in so many different areas, all so critical, who come together to support one another in our various efforts. Without that, we could have never pulled off the very successful action on Tuesday April 19 in protest of the City’s reprehensible decision to fill an underpass in Sherman Heights where homeless people take shelter with rocks.
This was a case where all systems were running at peak performance. For the sake of all of those younger people who are just starting to dip their toes in the art of community organizing, here’s how it goes when you have a cadre of like-minded friends to call upon for a cause. (I’m using actual first names here because all of those people deserve the kudos.) In the end, that’s more valuable than a pile of money and hired hands.
After the encouragement of the women at the Sunday Women Occupy San Diego (WOSD) meeting, where I proposed doing something in response to the $57,000 anti-homeless rock installation that was being constructed along the Imperial Avenue underpass, I went home to work on the “hook”. This is the part I enjoy most about being an activist – putting my gift for wordsmithing into play.
Just when I was feeling delighted with my “Tell the mayor to go rock himself” title, my friend Eugenia sent me an email saying she thought it might be too aggressive. I liked it, precisely because it was aggressive, and I’m angry. But I’m learning to take advice. I ran it by others, with mixed reactions.
Sunday night, Katheryn called to alert me to a City Council item on Tuesday, about declaring an Emergency Shelter Crisis. Thank goodness Katheryn had figured out the dockets or I would have been going to City Hall for the morning session. The City sure doesn’t make the whole agenda thing user-friendly and only someone with Katheryn’s experience could figure it out.
Monday morning, I got a call from the U-T wondering if I had anything planned in response to the recent “hardscaping”. Grinning as I realized I now have a “rep” for responding to acts of injustice, I knew we would need to speed up the whole plan while it was newsworthy.
So I called together a quick conference call of the Amikas board of directors for noon. We talked about possible slogans (I was still rooting for my “aggressive” version) and planned the press conference, who would say what, etc. and scheduled a work party at my house that evening to make prop rocks, knowing that real rocks would never make it through security and could potentially be used as a weapon, for a visual. What we thought we could do was to use boxes that we would cover with rock-textured contact paper and bang them up a bit.
I wasn’t crazy about that idea, so I called Antonia (of Puppet Insurgency fame) for her suggestions. She called back, inviting me to come pick up foam rubber chunks from mattress samples from their store. She had experimented with tearing them into rock shapes and liked the results! She also lent me spray paint and an electric knife to use in cutting and shaping the rocks.
After picking up the foam from Antonia, Juan and I went looking for a cheap plastic wheelbarrow, but seeing all of the shopping carts at the entrance to the store, it dawned on me that a shopping cart would be a much more appropriate vehicle for our rocks, since it is what many homeless people use to move their stuff around and prop up their tarp tents. So I called Nancy at People’s Co-op about borrowing a shopping cart and she said “Sure!” I arranged to pick it up on Tuesday morning.
I had to hurry home to write a press release. Reluctantly deciding to trust Eugenia’s wisdom, I chose a catch phrase that wouldn’t provoke an angry backlash from the mayor, but would still make the point—Rocks Solve Nothing. After all, we were also going to be going to the mayor with a petition to help us get a tiny shelter village started. No point in pissing him off.
Uma, Evie, Shanna and Juan showed up to make the prop rocks. It was too windy outside to use the spray paint, but they managed to create very realistic rocks by brushing on paint I had for my furniture refinishing.
While they were out in the driveway making rocks, I was inside on the phone and computer, calling and emailing the press and the many groups I am part of and posting the event on Facebook and our website. Stopping only to reward the painting troops with hot chocolate, I got back to printing signs, counting petitions, responding to emails, downloading the file from Change.org with 8,700 names of people supporting our tiny shelter idea, and printing them out, and printing, and printing… that’s a LOT of names!
Just before calling it a night, I realized we still needed a mic and podium. Good thing I can call my friends at all hours of the night and they still talk to me! As luck would have it, it turned out that Martha would be using a sound system at an earlier press conference Tuesday morning about untested rape kits at the Hall of Justice, just down the block from City Hall. We coordinated for her to bring the sound system and music stand to our press conference right after they finished theirs.
And then, Tuesday morning came and everything just fell into place!
Juan and I loaded up the car, picked up the shopping cart in OB, and headed to Civic Plaza. The plaza was swarming with people – a naturalization ceremony was just ending and the two political parties had tents set up to register new citizens to vote. It was perfectly timed so most of them had left by the time we started our conference and just enough had lingered behind to make it look like we had a crowd. The usual homeless folks were hanging around as I steered our cart full of fake rocks through the plaza. Several offered their help setting up. They thought this was a great idea and now I only had to hope the press did too.
Half an hour before the event, News 10 showed up to do a pre-event interview. Then NBC. Next thing I knew it was noon, and while I had been doing the interviews, everyone else had shown up and got things set up. Our makeshift podium was encircled with reporters and camera crews. It worked. The press release, the prop rocks with the promised visit to the mayor’s office… we had succeeded in getting the press curious enough to show up!
I spoke, then Evie, and Shanna and Juan. The press re-staged themselves by the entrance to City Hall to film me pushing the cart of “rocks” toward them. Does that count toward my 15 minutes of fame?
We were met in the lobby by the mayor’s “guy” – what do you call him–a very friendly guy in a dark suit who said we could bring the rocks but not the shopping cart. So each of us went through security with a foam rock and then enjoyed the amused stares in the elevator to the 11th floor. We stepped off the elevator to see the press was already set up in the lobby of the mayor’s office waiting for us. How did they do that so fast?
We presented our pile of 8,700 internet petitions and 400 printed petitions to the receptionist and showed her our rocks, asking if the mayor would want someone to put these in his bed. She looked more puzzled than amused.
And that was it. We went to grab a quick lunch at Downtown Johnny Browns and then returned to City Hall for the City Council meeting. When each of us took our turn speaking, we brought up a rock and left it on the table by the podium. It was really great to see the stack pile up! When we left, the clerk came rushing over to me with all of the rocks in his arms, pleading for me to take them. I did.
I think that everyone who spoke at City Council did an amazing job of making different point about the situation. Uma spoke passionately about the humanity of the people who were being harmed by these rocks. Juan, Katheryn, Evie and I spoke about the need for compassionate solutions; the fact that the area under the bridge is one place that wasn’t really hurting anyone’s business or home; our alternative solution for emergency shelter with tiny shelter villages, and the funds that are being hoarded and misused that could be used for shelter.
It seemed at first that Councilmember Todd Gloria was going to be supportive of us when he started to talk. But he questioned my statement that this is the 13th year that we have declared an emergency shelter crisis. A man from the Housing Authority clarified that indeed the crisis has been declared in previous years, but under the need to fund the winter tents.
Now that we have “permanent” emergency shelter, they needed to make this declaration in a different way. Gloria concluded by saying that these “alternatives” (alluding to the tiny shelters) are just a distraction from the need for permanent housing. But he offered no suggestions for what people should do for shelter while we wait years for the City to meet that need.
And that’s how our amazing rock event played out. It’s days like this when it becomes very clear how important it is to be part of a larger activist community and to support one another in all of our important work. I’m looking forward to the young’uns from the Bernie campaign join us. We might not be twitter demons, but we have a lot to share.
And now, we have this pile of rocks in the back of our Prius. The car smells like foam rubber and paint. Anyone have any ideas what I can do with them?