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Turn the tables

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“Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules.”

Saul Alinsky
In Sum

Sometimes the most compelling way to expose an injustice is to flip it around and visit it upon the powerful.

Remember the great scene from “Erin Brockovich” where the hero brings a glass of contaminated water to a meeting with the companies her clients have accused of contaminating their drinking water. “You claim this water is perfectly safe to drink?” she says. “Okay, drink this,” and she places the glass of water before them. When they refuse, the injustice of the situation is laid bare for all to see. She has “turned the tables.”

People have an innate sense of fairness, but don’t always see the injustices happening around them. By taking an existing unjust situation and dramatically flipping it back upon its source, you can highlight the inherent asymmetry and activate people’s sense of fairness. Turning the tables like this can be an effective means of garnering public support as well as undercutting the moral authority of your target.

Consider the turning streets into gardens action see CASE. New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani was attempting to sell off community gardens to developers, an action that would have displaced community groups and left the city with fewer places for children to play. Community members were rightly outraged, though initially they had a hard time gaining public support. To turn the tables, the activists took over a city block in Manhattan’s Lower East Side and turned it into a vibrant civic space for conversation, education, and celebration. Their message was “Okay, if you can kick us out of our gardens, then we can kick you off your streets.”

Greenpeace has consistently made use of this tactic to shed light on toxic dumping. In 2003 they partnered with families and victims of the massive chemical plant disaster in Bhopal, India and attempted, unsuccessfully, to deliver seven barrels of that toxic waste to the Dow Chemical Company HQ in Amsterdam. The action spoke directly to basic questions of fairness and power: “If you can dump this toxic sludge on the people of India, then we can dump it back on you.” Why is one act illegal while its analogue goes unpunished?

Turning the tables poses this question in a pointed, common sense way, exposing hypocrisy and injustice for all to see. It’s an easy frame for mainstream media to grasp, and difficult for them to distort. For all these reasons, it has the potential to generate support for your cause, increase pressure on your target, and enable you to win concessions.

Potential Pitfalls

An attempt to turn the tables can backfire on you if your analogy is inaccurate, indirect or insincere. Sometimes even a clear analogy may be undermined by powerful cultural assumptions. For instance, police have broad cultural legitimacy as ethical agents of authority. Whether it’s deserved or not, this is the reality within which we operate. Trying to turn the tables by building an equation around police violence vs. protester violence is going to be an uphill climb. Turning the tables must always take into account cultural context and existing frames of understanding.


Mark Read is a filmmaker and professor of Media Studies at NYU, with a focus on video as a tactical tool in community organizing. In other incarnations he has also been a community gardens activist; a Union Square Park defender; a Critical Mass rider and organizer; a coordinator of large spectacles in public spaces such as subway train parties; and a core organizer and propagandist for Reclaim the Streets NYC.


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