An encyclopedia for creative activism.Sandra Cuff, Vancouver Media Co-op
Interrupting or shutting down a hearing or government vote.
Many people know about the U.S. Senate’s procedural filibusters, in which a dissenting senator holds the floor to keep a vote from happening. The people’s version, the public filibuster, is no different. When activists face hostile government agencies or hearings that exclude the public, this relatively low-risk tactic injects the public’s voice into an otherwise closed-off process. Confrontational but constructive, it has been adapted by a range of citizen groups.
In 2007, for example, a dozen members of Casino-Free Philadelphia decided to use the public filibuster at a Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board (PGCB) meeting. For two years, the PGCB had refused to let members of the public testify at so-called public hearings, but this time the public was going to have its say. One at a time, members stood up and began testifying. Each one was told to be quiet by the chairwoman. A recess was quickly called, and the members who had spoken were escorted out of the building by police and told they would not be allowed to return.
When the board reconvened, the chairwoman warned the remaining members of the group not to interrupt. Naturally, one after another of the members immediately stood up and continued the filibuster. They spoke over the banging gavel of the distressed chairwoman and over the “official” testifiers as they coolly tried to continue. Another recess was called, and then another, as the public filibuster continued. Finally, the PGCB shut down the entire meeting. The result: rather than risk another such engagement, the PGCB changed its policy to allow the public to speak at hearings.
To an unsympathetic eye, disrupting a meeting can come across as mob rule, especially when poorly done see TACTIC: Creative disruption. The power of the public filibuster depends on carrying out the action in a dignified manner, as well as framing the tactic properly. Calling the action a “public filibuster” helps lend the kind of legitimacy recognized by reporters and the broader public.
When planning a public filibuster, be sure to stay positive and respectful. Your tone matters a great deal, and your bearing and presentation should be above reproach. Be honest, expressive, polite and on-message. Focus on the issue at hand, not the person trying to run the meeting. Also, show some compassion for the chairperson, who is used to being in control. This action threatens their power and puts them in an awkward and uncomfortable position. Be gentle with them.
Our opponents use bureaucratic delays and restrictions on public hearings to keep their dealings in the shadows. Such delays and restrictions are boring procedural issues that happen quietly and can easily go unnoticed. The public filibuster puts a spotlight on these practices by creating conflict and drama where there was none before, flushing into the open the undemocratic nature of the current process. Then everyone can see the problem for themselves and make up their own mind.