What I learned about nonviolence from Tony Soprano

Through the eyes of an organizer, “The Sopranos” offers many lessons in navigating power and how to wield it.

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SOURCEWaging Nonviolence

More than a decade after its final episode, “The Sopranos” remains ever present on the forefront of the American psyche. Not only did it become a pandemic favorite for millenials and Gen Z — many of whom missed the HBO mafia prestige drama while it was on the air — but the prequel movie that hit theaters and streaming services in October was another massive hit.  

Having grown up in Essex County, New Jersey (where most of the show takes place),“The Sopranos” has always been a big part of my life. I was one of the many people who revisited the show this year, and with the eyes of an organizer, I realized that a lot of its content is relevant to my own life of navigating power and how to wield it.

Tony Soprano, the anti-hero of the show may not seem to have much to say about the strategy behind protests, but operating as a local organized crime figure requires a thorough understanding of how power works. 

As a student organizer, I of course learned more from the writings of Saul Alinsky — often considered the father of modern American community organizing — than Tony Soprano, but Alinsky nevertheless shares an intellectual lineage with the fictional mob boss. In a 1972 Playboy article, Alinsky revealed that he gained his first insights on power from Frank Nitti, an enforcer for the infamous Chicago mobster Al Capone. Much like Nitti, Tony understood power and spent much of the show using violence as his primary means of getting what he wanted. As the show progressed, however, he introduced a different approach to maintaining his Garden State empire.

The show’s fourth season is filled with the twists and turns of a New Jersey mob boss trying to balance the priorities of his nuclear family with that of his crime family. One episode in particular — “Whitecaps,” the final episode of the season — transcends the typical nature of the show, and provides an important lesson for those who seek to transform the world for the better. 

After a series of missteps, Tony is desperate to win back the love of his wife Carmela and show her that he truly cares for their family. He ends up purchasing the eponymous “Whitecaps,” a beachfront home large enough to serve as a permanent weekend getaway for the children and their future spouses and offspring. Carmela is hesitant at first but ecstatically approves after sitting with the idea. Tony rushes to secure the home from its owner, Alan Sapinsly, a high status lawyer who lives next door from the property. 

After buying out a competitor by putting down a $200,000 deposit, the Sopranos are rocked by a phone call from an ex-mistress of Tony’s, which lands a crushing blow to his marriage and makes the Whitecaps no longer the necessity it once was. Tony attempts to pull out of the deal and get back his deposit — which he now desperately needs to pay for a divorce attorney — but Sapinsly adamantly refuses.

It’s not the first time Tony has been put in a position in which he wants something from a person not already under his direct control. That’s the nature of being a mobster, and really a human — we want things from others all the time. How Tony usually goes about getting what he wants is the utilization of power. 

The Midwest Academy, a vital progressive training center with roots going back to the radical student left of the 1960s, defines power as “the ability to make someone do something that they otherwise would not.” This is by far my favorite definition of power, because it applies to community organizers just as much as it does to New Jersey mafiosos. Tony’s power often relies on violence and the threat of further violence. He can murder his opposition and simply take what he wants, or just intimidate them with the implication of potential bodily harm until he gets what he wants. The case with Whitecaps, however, is a little different.

Tony can’t use his usual strategies and tactics here. His targets are often other people who can’t otherwise turn to the law because of their own criminal activities. This target is the opposite; he’s a wealthy lawyer who likely has the legitimacy, money and connections to destroy Tony’s life, even in death. So Tony has to improvise and engage in a higher level of strategic thinking. 

A good strategy involves assessing your strengths and resources while also assessing your target — the person who can give you what you want — and their strengths, weaknesses and motivations. Execution of strategy means creating a plan that deploys your resources and strengths in a way that attacks your target’s weaknesses and puts them in a position in which they either give you what you want or potentially sacrifice something that they care about even more. 

For Tony, this usually means threatening someone’s life, something that most people value more than their finances. In the case of unions, like the striking John Deere workers, it can mean applying power by putting employers in the position of either losing productivity and profits while workers are on strike, or giving the workers what they want.

Tony fortunately has more resources than just goons with baseball bats. He owns a boat, which often serves as a getaway from his family. He also has a home theater, that he occasionally sleeps in when cast out of the main house by his wife. Sapinsly also has weaknesses that most people share, a desire for peace and comfort, and a need to maintain a positive reputation with peers and neighbors.

Tony disrupts Sapinsly’s life by loading up his boat with the large booming speakers from his home theater, and deploys two goons to park the boat on waters outside of the lawyer’s beachfront home. First they interrupt a house party that Sapinsly is having with a few friends, and then proceed to maintain a 24-hour music pumping protest outside of his home. 

Alan’s reputation is put into question, and he is unlikely to be able to conduct any business while at home, or have the peace of mind to maintain his normal workload. Alan calls the police, but Tony can pay an unlimited amount of sound violation fines. Alan is put into a place where he either has to give up $200,000 — which he can always recoup by selling the house to someone else — or he has to give up his somewhat peaceful life. In the end, he of course chooses to sacrifice the money to maintain what he cares for more.

I’ve never had the resources of Tony Soprano, but as a student organizer I had to learn how to use what I did have. I was part of the Glassboro Student Union, an organization I’d founded with others to advocate for the needs of students and helped build an alliance of faculty, staff and students that could potentially seize control of Rowan University. Towards the end of 2012, we launched a campaign against our campus food service provider Sodexo. The corporation overcharged students, had what was considered terrible food, and underpaid its employees for their labor.

We’d conducted student surveys that found it was an issue most students understood and resonated with. We also saw the campaign as a potential route toward building deeper relationships with the service workers’ unions on campus. We spent months gathering petition signatures and speaking to workers and students alike about their concerns.

Our main strategy at the time was to build public support and leverage it at public meetings with our main decision makers, the Board of Trustees and the president of the university. Our main resources were a dedicated group of organizers, access to printing, art equipment and artists, and the ability to do research. We deployed these to build support and spread our messages, but the impact was limited. The university heard our concerns but largely ignored them, and although the issue was widely felt by large numbers of students and workers, few felt it deeply enough to engage with the campaign beyond a supporting signature.

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The school’s main weakness was that it was a rapidly expanding university, displacing Black residents and cutting corners while increasing the paychecks of its ever growing administrative staff — all while doing very little to increase the quality of education for students outside its core engineering programs.

We struggled to choose a new tactic until one came screaming at us on the school’s calendar. Rowan would be hosting its annual Rosa Parks Luncheon, inviting its Black alumni to campus to hear about how great Rowan was and how it somehow existed within the lineage of an organizer like Rosa Parks. They made the mistake of choosing Danny Glover as its keynote speaker, who we discovered — with a little bit of research — was a labor organizer.

Glassboro Student Union members decided to create a banner welcoming Danny Glover to campus and apologizing for Sodexo. We made new flyers that re-emphasized Sodexo’s mistreatment of Black workers specifically and swarmed the event. While some members held the banner in the main hall through which attendees would be passing, other members flyered and talked to Black alumni who were waiting in line to attend the luncheon. Danny Glover saw this action and joined us, taking pictures with the banner bearing his name, and drawing even more attention to the student organizers.

The university president quickly approached the organizers with his wife and immediately agreed to address the problem, a concession to the demands he had been avoiding and deflecting for over a year. The action helped jump start the process that permanently removed Sodexo from campus. While we later struggled with some of the fallout from the relatively quick victory — particularly how the university and a new food service provider could use this opportunity to weaken the position of food service workers on campus — it was an important lesson for how power could be calculated and resources could be used carefully to create desired outcomes.

Understanding power is fundamental to changing the world. It can be ugly, especially when violence is involved, but the world runs on the ability of the wealthy to force the majority of people into dilemmas of poverty or poor compensation for their work. To undo this hold, the many must use their own power and resources — oftentimes their ability to withhold their labor — and force the wealthy to make their own hard decisions. That’s what the art of organizing is all about. To put it in the words of another famous fictional mobster, the idea is to give those who rule over us “an offer they can’t refuse.”

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