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Implicit Protest on Urban Battlegrounds: The X-Men, The Greater Egleston Coalition And the Establishment of the Greater Egleston Community High School

Anthony De Jesus, Doctoral Candidate

Harvard University Graduate School of Education




Egleston Square and the X-Men

Hector Morales

The Egleston Square Coalition




Social policy, while an ambiguous concept to many, has very clear manifestations in institutions, the workplace, the classroom, and on the street. Michael Lipsky's conception of the street level bureaucrat (SLB) identifies the point at which social policy meets the street, in the form of human beings that represent public institutions as they interface with the people. Lispky identifies SLB's as teachers, police officers, social workers, public lawyers, health workers and other public employees who grant access to governmental programs and provide services within them.(1) Akin to SLB's are a cadre of street level "community" workers who also provide services (which may be partially or fully funded by governmental and quasi-governmental institutions), yet are often strongly identified with the community they provide services to, along racio-ethnic and socio-cultural lines. They include staff and executive directors of community-based organizations, organizers, members of tenant organizations, clergy and community activists. Other actors at the street level are elected and appointed officials, business owners and residents themselves. Inevitably, conflict emerges between these actors and their divergent interests, influencing and shaping the policies, institutions and organizations that impact a particular community.

With this context in mind, I will describe and provide an analysis of the events that led to the establishment of the Greater Egleston Community High School (GECHS), an alternative high school in one of Boston's most economically challenged neighborhoods, by examining the following:

The decline of Egelston Square and the rise of the X-Men (a Latino youth gang).

The focusing event (the death of Hector Morales) which initiated the formation of a coalition (the Greater Egleston Coalition).

The establishment of a community institution (GECHS) that addresses a problem defined by the focusing event.

The Egleston Square experience is a salient example of the complex and dynamic process out of which emerges an institution. The lessons derived from Egleston Square have significant implications for community practitioners, residents and policymakers everywhere.

Egleston Square and the X-Men

Egleston Square lies at the intersection of two major city arteries, Columbus Avenue and Washington Street, delineating the boundaries between the converging Boston neighborhoods of Jamaica Plain and Roxbury. In 1988 the state of Massachusetts tore down the elevated subway tracks which ran through the heart of this community. At the time, community residents and planners thought that this infrastructure change would improve the quality of life in this challenged urban community.

"The removal of the metal tracks was supposed to be a boon to the neighborhood. Indeed it brought sunlight to the corner of Washington Street and Columbus Avenue, but with the loss of the train station, the traffic to the neighborhood disappeared and business sagged."(2)

Along with reduction of foot traffic, the neighborhood began to show other signs of decline. The rise of the X-Men, a Latino gang that became synonymous with Egleston, reflected the troubles of this community in transition. A community resident remarked "I remember the days when there was a traffic jam on School Street trying to get to the drug dealers." (3) The X-Men became a symbol of what was going wrong with the community.(4)

According to William Morales(5), the X-Men developed due to two primary factors: A sense of fear in the Egleston Community about a gang culture that had been established in Boston's inner city (even the police referred to themselves on T-shirts as "the biggest gang in town") and a deterioration of the relationship citywide between youth of color and the police- the aftermath of the Carol Stuart case.(6)

"You had Timberwolves up the street, Academy right across the street, you had Homestead, Humboldt, Intervale, all of these gangs were surfacing -so when you see all of these individuals uniting, it also meant that we felt we were threatened- so X-Men came out of a response to the threats at the time. The highlight of our forming came at a point that the youth and the police relationship was at a very low point and it came shortly after the Carol Stuart case and at the same time we also were threatened by the other gangs."(7)

Morales pointed out that the relationship between the X-Men and the police was particularly problematic and exacerbated by police abuse of authority during numerous encounters with the gang members.

A January 1990 confrontation between a police officer and a group of X-Men was a foreshadowing of the deadly conflict that would erupt later that year. When directed to disperse by a white policeman:

"One youth did not comply immediately, saying that he was about to close up the video store where he worked, and an altercation began. One thing led to another, and soon a gang member tossed a Molotov cocktail from a tenement rooftop onto a police cruiser, setting it ablaze."(8)

While the X-Men were not an explicitly organized political movement, Cloward and Piven's work suggests that they represented a form of collective resistance:

"Even some forms of defiance which appear to be individual acts, such as crime or school truancy or incendiarism, while more ambiguous, may have a collective dimension, for those who engage in these acts may also consider themselves to be part of a larger movement. Such apparently atomized acts of defiance can be considered movement events when those involved consider themselves to be acting as members of a group when they share a common set of protest beliefs."(9)

For the X-Men the focus of their protests, which they expressed to the city council in September of 1990 was the lack of employment opportunities and the need for a youth center in Egleston Square.(10) The Molotov cocktail incident brought together SLB's who were already concerned about the problems manifested by the deteriorating relationship between the police and the X-Men. But this time, they realized that a different approach was necessary:

"We had been having these monthly meetings with the police over the crime situation in Egleston and our basic approach was to lean on the police and tell them to get rid of the gangs," said state Rep. John E. McDonough (D-Jamaica Plain)."But after the Molotov cocktail incident, a group of us got together and realized that the police couldn't do it by themselves. We had to take some responsibility ourselves for working with these gangs," McDonough said. City officials, including police leaders and mayoral aide David Cortiella, held a meeting with X-Men that led to the creation of a basketball league. In February, police officers from the Hispanic Officers Association joined in the games. One indication of the level of trust that took root came when several gang members joined in a spring cleanup of a vacant lot in the square."(11)

These efforts by city officials and community leaders represented a change in approach from a "get tough" law enforcement approach toward an interest in a more genuine and preventive strategy, but there were still significant generational, race and class rifts between the youth of Egleston and the "official" adult community.

Hector Morales

Hector Morales was born in Puerto Rico, reared in Brooklyn until 6 years old and then migrated to the Egleston Square community with his family. According to his brother, although a high school dropout(12), Hector was an intelligent young man "who loved Shakespeare" but had also been the victim of violence, one too many times:

"When he was 14, he was with my aunt at a concert. Some guys were harassing my aunt and Hector was like (saying) 'leave her alone!' He's walking back and he gets beat up, stabbed, bricked and everything the same night. He came out of that experience very withdrawn, very scared. When he saw a group of people, he didn't want to deal with them. 2 years later, this momma's boy who was always at home, out in front fixing his BMX bike and 3 adult males shot him in the head- over a bike! When he came out of that experience he realized there have been two violent episodes in my life and they could have claimed my life and so the next time anyone confronts me- its full violence that I'm going to meet them with."(13)

Even though his family moved to nearby Roslindale to escape the violence he experienced in Egleston, Hector gravitated toward the X-Men in order to find a sense of security, belonging and power. Although he had experienced problems with the law, he demonstrated leadership during a mural project led by the Egleston Square Neighborhood Association (ESNA). Depicting several black and Latino heroes, including Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Pedro Albizu Campos, Roberto Clemente and Willie Colon, the mural became a symbol of pride for local young people. The political statements quoted by these heroes on the mural were reflective of the desire that the X-Men possessed for self- determination. "I HAVE A DREAM! YOU MUST LEARN! PARA QUITARNOS LA PATRIA, PRIMERO TIENEN QUE QUITARNOS LA VIDA!(14) I WILL DO WHAT I HAVE TO DO TO SURVIVE!" The mural became a symbol of the X-Men's demand to be treated with respect by the police and other institutions and the mending of a wounded relationship between a community and its youth. This healing wound however, was about to be severely reopened.

On the evening of November 24, 1990 Morales was with other X-Men, hanging out in the foyer of 87 School Street. Two plain clothed police officers, Thomas Gomperts and Darrin Greely approached the group. Egleston Square would never be the same again.

"Gomperts bounded from behind the steering wheel and up the four steps of the vestibule; he was a hotshot at this kind of police work, and the X-Men were used to it. While Gomperts was inside the vestibule, Morales stood just past the entrance. Greeley, who had made his way around from the passenger side of the car, spoke to him at least once, and may have questioned whether he was concealing something under his black down coat. Morales took a step backward. No one disputes that at this point Morales pulled out the shotgun and fired at Greeley, who dived to his left. Gomperts pulled out his gun and jumped down the four steps of the vestibule. Shielding his body with the side of the entrance, he aimed his gun, but was hit in the face with nine birdshot pellets and knocked back into the alcove. Yelling that he was hit, Gomperts fell to the floor clutching his face. X-Men in the hallway ran upstairs to get away from the shooting. Gomperts told homicide investigators that, after radioing for help - the call came in at 9:24 p.m. - he went to the doorway again and saw Morales and Greeley still shooting. "I fired several shots at Hector Morales in an attempt to save my partner's life - and mine for that matter," he said. "I lost sight of both Hector and Darrin. I don't know what happened, where they went. I just didn't see them." (15)

Morales was hit by four shots and died at Boston City Hospital about three hours later. The two police officers sustained minor injuries. Shortly after, reports surfaced that Greeley and Gomperts used excessive force and Latino and Egleston leaders demanded an independent investigation. Following Morales death, a funeral vigil and march down Washington Street was led by Fr. Jack Roussin, pastor of St Mary of the Angels Church. After several investigations, and constant scrutiny by the Latino community, law enforcement officials ultimately ruled that Greeley and Gomperts used appropriate force in responding to Morales' attack.

While drug trafficking and the Molotov cocktail incident were serious indicators(16) of a youth problem that neither SLB's or community workers were effectively addressing, Morales' death was a symptom of a damaged relationship among the police department, the community it "served" and its youth. His death became a focusing event. SLB's community workers and residents were shocked and pledged to work to change the realities of young people in Egleston Square. According to Kingdon: "Problems are not often self-evident by the indicators. They need a little push to get the attention of people in and around government. That push is sometimes provided by a focusing event like a crisis or disaster that comes along to call attention to the problem"(17) Beatriz Zapater, the director of GECHS put it this way:

"The tragedy really just shocked everybody, like- No more! That was it! That's how much they (the community) were able to tolerate. And it wasn't that event, that single event that created the high school but there had already been a lot of discussion in the neighborhood, neighborhood groups, St. Mary of the Angels' Father Jack was really involved with working with the kids around here. Urban Edge had a program here at the time, so organizations and residents were already talking with each other about, what do we do with all these kids hanging out? They heard about the possibility of some federal funds that the city had gotten wind of, the Federal Dept. of Labor. Egleston was one of the neighborhoods that fit the profile."(18)

The discussions and organizing preceding Morales death created the conditions by which this tragic event led to positive community change. Kingdon states: "Crises, disasters, symbols, and other focusing events only rarely carry a subject to policy agenda prominence by themselves. They need to be accompanied by something else. We have already made the point, first, that they reinforce some preexisting perception of a problem, focus attention on a problem that was already "in the back of people's minds."(19) As alluded to by Zapater, street level "community workers" we aware of the problems that led to the rise of the X-Men and the death of Hector Morales. Months before the shooting, individuals such as Fr. Jack Roussin, Mossik Hacobian of Urban Edge and others began to form the Egleston Square Coalition. Through discussions with city officials they were aware of the opportunity for federal funding for an innovative, community based alternative high school. It was the tragedy of November 24th that galvanized their commitment to bring these resources into the community and allowed them to become key actors in defining the problem and its solutions.(20) This was not, however, an easy process.

The Egleston Square Coalition

Before Morales' death events like the spring cleanup, the basketball league and the mural project symbolized the mending of a wounded relationship between the SLB's, the community and its youth. In Kingdon's view "such a symbol acts as reinforcement for something already taking place that rather powerfully focuses attention."(21)

In this case, the "something already taking place" was the formation of the Egleston Square Coalition which, while not directly related to the mural project or other activities, reflected the growing concerns of a number of street level community workers. Stimulated by an effort initiated by the city's Department of Health and Hospitals, the Egleston Square Healthy Boston Coalition was formed in early 1990. According to the then director of community relations for Dimock Community Health Center, Ediss Gandleman, the incentive for this formation was a $60,000 planning grant that was awarded to communities forming coalitions around developing healthier communities. The city, while rhetorically encouraging communities to "decide" how best to spend the money, actually discouraged the fledgling coalition from deciding how they would spend their money. The Egleston Coalition (at this initial stage- Gandleman(22), Roussin and Hacobian) preferred to split the funds in order to pay for pieces of their individual time and allocate funds directly to services rather than hire a full time coordinator- which was the model the city really espoused. Gandleman recollects:

"Our first proposal to the city for Healthy Boston was not to hire a coordinator but to hire (pieces of) each of us. He city X'd it and said: 'we don't pay people to go to meetings.' They would pay a consultant, but they wouldn't pay us. So Fr. Jack, Mossik and I walked out of the first meeting saying that we should not accept the money. They (the city) were saying it should be community driven, community based, the community should come up with the model. We came up with the model, they gave us the money and then they told us they didn't want us to spend it the way we wanted to spend it…On further reflection we decided that it was better for the neighborhood to have the 60K than have nothing at all and that we would accept the money and figure out what to do with it."(23)

Their tactic was successful, however, because the city SLB's were put in a defensive position when Gandleman and the others walked out of the meeting. The coalition members reached an agreement with the city and were able to use the funds to pay for their time and bring other organizations into the coalition. These leaders realized that many organizations in Egleston were resource poor, and given a material incentive they would come to the table willing to coalesce. Gandleman offered the following critique of the city's approach:

"There really was not an appreciation of the value of people's time or an understanding (and I think a lot of funders and city people still don't get this) that collaborations are very complex, take a lot of time and energy and people need to be compensated. Especially in a small agency to have somebody going to two meetings a month for two or three hours a piece takes away from their productivity and their ability to do their own job. If you think it's important for people to be at the table, then pay them to do it. A place like Dimock could afford to have me involved, but for a lot of other places they really can't afford it."(24)

Gandleman understood that, in order for people to come to the table, they had to realize there would be a concrete benefit to their participation.(25) This was an essential element of building the coalition. Diffuse benefits (we might be able to organize and address some of the youth's needs if we come together) are synonymous with disincentives. On the other hand concrete benefits ("I am going to be paid for my time." "I can justify this to my organization.") are synonymous with incentives. The inverse holds true for diffuse vs. concrete costs. This process was in motion before the death of Hector Morales.

Around the same time(26) the city's Economic Development and Industrial Corporation (EDIC) communicated with the Egleston Square Coalition that the Department of Labor was going to be issuing an RFP for an alternative high school and that they (EDIC) were inviting four communities in Boston to pre-qualify. After Morales' death the Coalition expanded and included several other community organizations including the Egleston Square Neighborhood Association (ESNA) and the Ecumenical Social Action Committee (ESAC).(27) What is most unique about this coalition is that there were over 23 organizations (both municipal and private non-profits- see Appendix C) that coalesced and shared resources in order to define and address the problem brought to light by the focusing event. Will Morales described it this way:

"I think his death woke up a lot of people- Where is our society? Where is our community when a young person pulls a shotgun on two police officers who are supposed to protect and serve us. What have we done that is so wrong that he had to take that action? So we had to question where we were in providing services to these young people. I think what his death did was shine a light to a lot of issues in this area, and not only this area but a lot of issues worldwide. When you look at a lot of things that happened after- the city began to look at itself and what it could have done, the street workers program began to happen. We saw everything unraveling before us and we chose not to do anything until it was too late and now that it is too late we need to create an effort and initiative to bring this community back to life. It was a crisis. The building of tension came close to a riot issue. It was also a cry for other issues. Whenever a community riots against itself its because its really dissatisfied with the structure of the community."(28)

According to Gandleman, Egleston Square was chosen over other Boston communities to work with EDIC in preparation for the federal RFP (DOL-Youth Opportunities Unlimited) because of the death of Hector Morales. His death illustrated that Egleston's youth were in dire need of resources. While the coalition was led by a core group of about 8-10 people (from the organizations mentioned) they all saw the school as a real solution to the problems of the youth in the community and were in relative agreement over the structure of the school.(29) But there was conflict with the EDIC planners. This illustrates what Professor Richard Elmore has pointed out: "Institutional structures are the congealed residue of political battles between divergent interest groups."(30)

"It got a bit dicey at times because EDIC had some pretty firm ideas about how they wanted to see the school and we had some pretty firm ideas about how we wanted to see the school and so the compromise was well, we worked through a lot of the details and what it would look like operationally and we ended up getting Boston Public School teachers- that was not part of the original design. We got BPS in there because we couldn't do it financially without them. I think part of our compromise in terms of how we would control the process is that we became the advisory board at the school- so the community still felt like they owned and controlled it and still had some say in the process."(31)

Another important development was that Urban Edge had purchased and was renovating a building on the corner of Washington and School (where the mural was painted) and after long negotiations (which began before the focusing event) finally opened up a YMCA youth center. The YMCA was also a highly symbolic solution when it opened because this is what the X-Men had stated the community needed- a youth center. The Y's new director was Eddie Ortega- a former X-Man. His emerging leadership symbolized the positive potential inherent in the X-Men and the community's youth as well as the community's potential for transformation. This building also became the home to the GECHS, which opened in 1992 as an alternative high school. As a school for dropouts, it addressed many of the risk factors that contributed to Hector Morales destruction. The new institution reflected philosophical and pedagogical orientations inclusive of students and community residents. Community resident and parents are full participants in the governing structure of the school/community organization board. Curriculum is developed with attention to cultural and community needs and values while emphasizing academic skills such as math, science and humanities. These commitments are articulated in the school's vision statement. "Unequivocally, GECHS is committed to providing a caring, supportive and safe environment which affirms the diversity of the students in order for them to be secure in and proud of their cultural, racial and personal identity." Today, GECHS is a pilot school of the Boston Public Schools and while it has evolved and changed, it has retained a structure that is community driven and more effective than traditional high schools have been for the students who attend.

While there are many more details and actors, which influenced this community victory, the outcome is not related to any one person or event. Rather the convergence of social, political and economic conditions, community frustrations, strong, untiring personalities and a tragic focusing event. As a result- today, two community institutions stand across the street from where Hector Morales fell.


Hector Morales experienced legitimate physical, psychological and emotional trauma at a very early age. Perhaps the opportunity for substantial social support could have prevented this young man's self destruction. Reflecting on his brother's experiences with violence Will Morales stated: "How many people get shot and killed in your community and how many trauma experts do you see come out and console the young people who witnessed that. Now if I went to Vietnam, as son as I got back the US Department of Defense would have a whole line of Psychologists waiting to take care of me." Will's point is illustrative of his brother's predicament as an individual with low power and stigmatized status, characteristic of some many urban youth of color. To be sure, officers Gomperts and Greeley receive excellent medical and psychological care after their "traumatic" experiences. As SLB's (representatives of the state) they possessed a far greater level of power and status than did any of the X-Men. In essence, the X-Men's existence was a struggle for power and dignity denied to them by their subjugated racio-ethnic status as Latino youth in a city where most of the SLB's are predominately white. My argument is simply that the formation of the X-Men was an implicit form of political protest, the loud shriek of Egleston's youth who were ignored y educational and community institutions until they began to defy their authority. Lipsky defines protest activity "as a mode of political action oriented toward the objection of one or more policies or conditions, characterized by showmanship or other display of an unconventional nature, and undertaken to obtain rewards from political or economic systems while working within the systems."(32) The X-Men attempted to work within the system as evidenced by their meeting with the city council and their work with the SLB's and the mural project. But the X-Men found more power in their defiance, and as they did the stakes became higher for both gangs (the X-Men and the police). Following the lead of elected officials "get tough" approach- the role of the police was to quell and control the X-Men. Cloward and Piven write:

"Of course, defiance by the lower class frequently results in violence when more powerful groups, discomfited or alarmed by the unruliness of the poor, use force to coerce them into docility. The substantial record of violence associated with protest movements in the United States is a record comprised overwhelmingly of the casualties suffered by protestors at the hands of public and private armies."(33)

This power struggle reached its climax on the night of the shooting and the "public army" won the battle.

While the X-Men's form of protest was self destructive in the end (at least for Hector), it fueled the efforts of the newly forming coalition, energized its leaders (Roussin, Hacobian, etc.) and created a political environment where the burden was upon elected and appointed officials to respond to the needs of this community (this may explain why Egleston was selected instead of other Boston neighborhoods for the DOL process). The seed money from Healthy Boston allowed the coalition to form and created the infrastructure that could develop a school model and write the grants. While within Lipsky's frame the coalition worked "within the system," their activism and methods characterized protest. In essence, the coalition was also a gang- fighting a political battle that resulted in the establishment of the GECHS. In the power struggle between the coalition (community workers) and the SLB's (EDIC), the community ultimately "won" the battle- the result which now stands on the corner of Washington and School streets- the Greater Egleston Community High School.


1. Lipsky, Michael. Street Level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services, New York. Russell Sage Foundation 1980. P. 3.

2. Boston Globe, April 27, 1995.

3. Community Resident, "Stories From Egleston Square" Video Oral History Project of the Greater Egleston Community High School..

4. The1990 census, revealed a demographic breakdown of the Greater Egleston Square community comprised of 49% African-American, 36% Latino, 13% White and 2% Asian or other. 32% of its youth reportedly lived in poverty. Unemployment was significantly higher than the rest of the city at 9.2%. And, 47% of residents did not have a high school diploma. Many of these, high school drop outs, were members of the X-Men.

5. A principal informant, he was an affiliate and relative (the brother of Hector Morales) of the X-Men. During the time of these events, Will Morales was incarcerated but in constant communication with his colleagues (many whom were in and out of jail). He is currently a youth outreach worker for Urban Edge , under a specialized HUD drug elimination grant, concentrating his work in the remaining pockets were drug activity continues. Additionally he organizes community events, addresses civil rights issues and polices Urban Edge properties.

6. This was several months after the Carol Stuart incident where African-American and Latino youth were illegally searched and detained by Boston Police after Charles Stuart murdered his pregnant wife in Roxbury and alleged that an African-American man was the perpetrator.

7. 12/18/97 Interview with William Morales.

8. Boston Globe, February 17, 1991

9. Piven, Frances Fox and Cloward, Richard. Poor Peoples Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail, New York: Vintage Books, 1979. P. 4.

10. Boston Globe, November 29, 1990

11. Ibid.

12. Hector had attended English High School, which at the time was located in the Fenway area of the city. He regarded the commute to school as dangerous because it crossed several rival gangs' "turf." His request for a transfer to local Jamaica Plain High School was denied.

13. 12/18/97 Interview with William Morales, Hector Morales' brother.

14. "In order to take our country, they will first have to take our lives!"

15. Boston Globe, December 14, 1990

16. Kingdon (p. 90) suggests that "sometimes people in government pay attention to indicators, but other times a dramatic event seizes their attention." While drug arrests were certainly countable indicators, it was the Morales incident that got their attention.

17. Kingdon, John. (1984) Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies, Boston, Little Brown, p. 94.

18. October 15, 1997 Interview with Beatriz Zapater, Director of GECHS

19. Kingdon, John. (1984) Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies, Boston, Little Brown, p. 98.

20. Kingdon argues that "conditions become defined as problems when we come to believe that we should do something about them." Ibid., p. 109.

21. Kingdon, John. (1984) Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies, Boston, Little Brown, p. 97.

22. Because of her role at the Health Center, Gandleman received word about the seed money and contacted Roussin and Hacobian, who were visible leaders in the community (Gandleman interview).

23. 12/19/97 Interview with Ediss Gandleman, former Community Relations Director f Dimock Community Health Center. Ms. Gandleman is now Director of Community Benefits at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

24. 12/19/97 Interview with Ediss Gandleman, former Community Relations Director f Dimock Community Health Center.

25. This idea is extrapolated from the matrix presented in class several times by Professor Elmore. The matrix allows one to identify whether a proposed solution to a problem will result in concentrated or diffuse costs or benefits to interest groups. One cannot mobilize effective coalitions without ensuring concentrated benefits for divergent interest groups.

26. Some dates were unclear to Ms. Gandleman and I was unable to verify them before writing this paper.

27. ESAC, which had educational expertise, became the fiscal agent for the school. See Appendix for a full listing of members of the coalition.

28. 12/18/97 Interview with William Morales.

29. They agreed that the governance structure would be made up of community members and that the school would be open to students who lived in the Greater Egleston community only. Most importantly, the Coalition did not want the school to be a part of the Boston Public Schools.

30. Personal communication with Professor Richard Elmore, Harvard Graduate School of Education, November 15, 1997.

31. 12/19/97 Interview with Ediss Gandleman.

32. Lipsky, Michael "Protest as a Political Resource" in American Political Science Review. December 1968, p. 1145.

33. Piven, Frances Fox and Cloward, Richard. Poor People's Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail, New York: Vintage Books, 1979, p. 19.