Activists Take to the Streets in Dorchester's Latest Trend- The Picket Line

Is it just our imagination, or is there a wiff of revolution in the air these days in the old neighborhood? From Codman Square to Columbia Road, Morrissey Boulevard to Washington Street, there's been a whole lot of "picket lines and picket signs" of late, as the great Marvin Gaye might have sung.

In a neighborhood that has a long, proud tradition of union membership and political activism, could it be that civic activists are finally making public demonstrations a permanent part of their arsenal? Since the civic meetings wound down in the spring, there has been a seemingly non-stop parade of speak-outs, pickets, and demonstrations all over Dorchester.

The trend is best embodied, perhaps, by the in-your-face tactics of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO), which has gotten unprecedented mileage for its housing advocacy campaign by confronting elected officials at several well-attended, carefully-orchestrated community meetings. The Dorchester Allied Neighborhood Associations (DANA) found similar results when it hosted a public forum last February at the Murphy Community Center to spotlight the neighborhood's crumbling Red Line stations.

As many observers point out, however, the trend towards public demonstrations is not owned by any one group- and has seemingly caught on among many civic groups that have traditionally relied on the quiet, often slow-moving machinery of local government for solutions to their problems.

In May, members of the McCormack Civic Association launched a boycott of a Columbia Road gas station that was poised to tear down an adjacent two-family home to make room for a parking lot. The ambitious group signed on allies from across Dorchester's civic community- and then mounted an "informational picket" around the gas station, driving away potential customers and having a lot of fun in the process. A few days later, the gas station owner capitulated, promising to restore the home instead.

In June, Codman Square neighbors teamed up to picket a city-owned building on Talbot Ave. that the police department hoped would become their new HQ for taxi inspections. The resulting publicity forced a city council hearing and has -so far- put the police department's plans on hold.

Just last week, the Four Corners Action Coalition sponsored a rally- complete with sign-carrying protesters- on a Washington Street bridge to call attention to the MBTA's ongoing refusal to slow their commuter rail trains long enough to pick up the throngs of long-suffering Dot customers. It was one of two "speak-outs" that day in Four Corners. Earlier, a group of Norwell Street residents called in the press for a staged event designed to blow the cover off illegal dumpers- and the city's failure to address the problem.

Even some elected officials are getting into the act. Before setting off for the Democratic convention in L.A. last month, State Rep. MarieSt. Fleur helped launch a weekend sit-in at the offices of Boston School superintendent Tom Payzant. St. Fleur joined a group of disgruntled parents from Madison Park High School who were fuming over the sudden appointment of a new headmaster without the involvement of the school's site-council.

The list goes on and on. Before you start digging out those birkenstocks and Jefferson Airplane records, though, we asked some of the key players whether this "protest movement" was a series of coincidences- or the real thing.

Sharon Yokaitis, one of the leaders of the McCormack Civic Association's successful Texaco picket, had never done anything like that before this case came up. Yokaitis says that most of the civic group's members hadn't either. Still, Yokaitis says that the idea of bulldozing the house next door to make room for a few mini-mart parking spaces was so outlandish that people felt obliged to hit the streets in this case.

"The issue was important enough and uncontroversial enough," says Yokaitis, "and it was so obvious what the right answer was. Everyone was enthusiastic about doing it."

"But in our neighborhood, you would think it would be the last to do something like this. I think there's also a critical mass. They're tired of seeing the neighborhood being taken advantage of. They sense that they can get results."

Marvin Martin, executive director at the Four Corners Action Coalition, says that hitting the streets in outrage is nothing new for him and his members. They have staged similar protests at city hall and in the neighborhood over the years. Martin has noticed, however, that the tactic seems to be catching on across the neighborhood.

"It is happening more often," says Martin. "It is effective if there's other things that go along with it. If there's real community support and support from elected officials, if you have credibility with who it is you're trying to get attention from. If all those things are in place, it's much more effective."

Martin says that the good economy is a factor, too. Although more people are doing well thanks to the boom time of the late '90s, those who are left out, like the thousands of bus-dependent residents around Four Corners, are becoming even more agitated with the lack of service.

"The long period of prosperity gives even more reasons why things should be better," says Martin. "It's actually part of the discontent now."

Rep. St. Fleur says she thinks that part of the motivation for public actions is a waning sense of neighborhood clout- and a sense of frustration with the government.

"One of the things in our community is that we're short on economic and political clout and sometimes we have to leverage what we do have to focus attention on an issue," says St. Fleur. "People are being tired of government not being responsive. When they hit that wall and get no response then they feel compelled to bring public attention to the issue.

This is really about people asking the government to be responsive and to think outside of the box."

For St. Fleur and several other minority leaders, that "wall" presented itself in late July, when school officials decided to fill a sudden vacancy in Madison Park's principal's office without consulting the school's site council, comprised mainly of parents and faculty.

"In this instance (the school department) avoided the process that they set up. I've spent the past year hearing about the lack of parental involvement in the schools and how we're working to change that," said St. Fleur.

"I think (a sit-in) was important at that point. I don't think all of our problems have to be solved in that way," says St. Fleur.

And yet some say that the emergence of more aggressive tactics speaks to the growing muscle of civic groups- traditionally the front-line of community activism. It may also signal that political leaders are not pulling their weight as they used to.

"I do think the iron grip that politicians had historically with respect to influence has been loosened," says Sharon Yokaitis. "Another aspect is that there is so much reliance on civic groups by politicians and by city hall to identify issues and to make it known when it's really important.

"It's a double edged sword. (Civic groups) get a lot of influence they may not have had. We have to be more self-reliant. And if we don't make a lot of noise, then it's not seen as important. It's up to us to rattle the cages."

Most agree that the relationship between Dorchester's political leaders and the civic protesters is solid- and mutually beneficial.

"I think it shows that, at the neighborhood level, people need to show that they are empowered and they can do some things themselves," says Marvin Martin. "It some cases its a partnership, a way of giving the (elected officials) support, to make sure that there's a response from whoever the ultimate power is."

Mark Juaire, president of DANA, agrees. He says that the publicity generated from the constant letter-writing, phone trees and news articles during DANA's recent Red Line campaign helped Dorchester's State House delegation immeasurably.

"If you can convey that there are large numbers of people who are supportive, that's what will carry it to the next level and make it surface on the radar screen," says Juaire. "I think it's a partnership. The elected officials need the support and backing to lobby their colleagues for support. For them to have widespread involvement and press clippings to use is a tremendous help."

Rep. St. Fleur says that the public outcry is often essential to affecting policy at the State House.

"We have been partners in this," she says. "Sometimes our phone calls and letters don't have an impact.

"It is very helpful, particularly with the (MBTA). The T has to come to us to get its budget from here on in, so they have to be responsive to (elected officials). When you have a large outcry, then it's not simply Marie St. Fleur saying it or sending a letter You can visually see that it's Marie St. Fleur and the people she represents standing up.

"It does carry weight- and it carries weight with other colleagues," says St. Fleur.

Rep. Marty Walsh, who earned his stripes as a union representative for the local Laborer's union and was actually arrested on a picket line during the 1997 U.P.S. strike, says he's not surprised to see the increased public activity.

"It's happening more now," says Walsh. "It's been happening on the labor front for a long time. It's great because it shows that there's involvement. And, the beauty is that it's all different groups doing it- from different parts of the neighborhood. I think that's healthy.

"It works and hopefully it will continue on in a positive manner and make Dorchester a better place," says Walsh.