“A public hearing is an official event on a public issue where the public speaks and the officials don’t listen.”
Activists spends endless hours sitting and testifying in public hearings. Local leaders often have endless patience despite the fact that hearings are generally convened in inconvenient places, at inconvenient times and with the room set up to intimidate. Public hearings chew up a huge amount of time and burn out leaders. They alienate members who have such a lousy time that they never come to another group activity. And often, they have no effect on public policy.
When asked why they go to hearings in light of such bad experiences, here’s what some local leaders said:
We don’t want to miss anything. There could be useful information, though this is not the only place to get it.
It’s a chance to tell our side. Sure, after the “experts” for the agencies and polluters drone on for hours, knowing the news media will leave after the first hour.
Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? The typical public hearing is a gross distortion of democracy. Hearing officers are trained to control public hearings. Your opponents will use public hearings to TEST you. Will you sit there and take it? Can they force you to conform to their rules? As the saying goes, “if you take what they give you, you deserve what you get.”
Do you have to go to public hearings? No, you don’t. If a public hearing ignores your needs, you can boycott it. You can hold a protest outside and denounce it. You can send a speaker inside to say you refuse to acknowledge its legitimacy. And you can organize a mass walk-out. You can even organize your own “People’s Hearing,” one you run and that deals with the truth.
If you do attend, insist they take their rules and throw them out the window. Let the people speak first, even if this means crying mothers speak, instead of the “experts” hearing officials prefer. Insist that officials respond, point by point. Use the hearing to present specific, concrete demands and insist on “yes” or “no” answers on the spot.
If they don’t cave in to your demands to do it your way, pull a mass walk-out. When denied the dignity of meaningful participation, the United Farm Workers would signal members to kneel in prayer and sing hymns.
At one public hearing, Concerned Citizens of White Lake (MI) were shocked when hearing officials turned out the lights when it was the citizens’ turn to speak. At the next public hearing, each member brought a lit flashlight.
At another hearing on contaminated water Concerned Residents of Muskegon (MI) showed up with water jugs. Their “testimony” took the form of queuing up at water fountains to fill their jugs from the city water supply they wanted hooked up to their neighborhood.
At a hearing in Maryland, Lois Gibbs, CHEJ’s founding director, stunned local leaders with a small but powerful tactic. As she testified, she saw that the hearing officials weren’t listening. Lois stopped and stood silent at the microphone. After a long pause, the hearing official saw she wasn’t talking. “Er, ah, Ms. Gibbs, are you through?” “No sir, “Lois replied, “I was simply waiting for you to start listening. When you’re ready, I’ll continue.”
We’ve advised groups who’ve been shut-out, silenced or scorned to physically display their response. Accordingly, groups have shown up wearing gags, ear plugs and in a couple of instances, wearing cardboard cut-outs over their ears bearing the label “B-S Protectors.”
The best way to handle the media black-out that results when community testimony is not given until after the media leaves (and after hours of testimony by the “experts”) is by calling the news media and holding a news conference before the hearing starts so they can get both sides of the story.
What you do with public hearings is up to you. If you let the hearing officials control the agenda and flow of the meeting, they’re assured of prime media coverage. All you’re assured of is the that they won’t be listening to what you and your group has to say. It’s up to you.
Excerpted from Public Hearings: It’s a hearing, but is anyone listening? Chapter 30, CHEJ’s Organizing Handbook.