Even Peter Piper Picks
The Great South Kingstown Dump Picker's Rebellion
By Richard W. Wise
"Hi, I don't know if you remember me," said the voice on the phone. "My name is Frank Frisella. I'm your mailman." Could there be a problem with the mail at 9:30 on a Friday night? I wondered. The voice continued.
"I was told maybe you could help us. Have you heard that the town council has closed the dump? Well, me and a bunch of other guys, you know, dump pickers—we don't see that the town has any right to stop us from picking at the dump."
I vaguely recalled Frank dressed in his gray postman's uniform, a dark-haired skinny guy with a long nose and a bright smile, but I'd had a tough week. My patience was wearing thin, but my curiosity was aroused. What does this nut want, I asked myself. He soon came to the point.
"I was told you are a community organizer and that you help people fight for their rights. Do you think you could help us organize for our right to pick the dump?"
Sure, I organize people. Groups against slumlords and neighborhood redlining, for constitutional and civil rights, but dump picker's rights? It sounded a little frivolous and totally beyond my experience. I began to realize that the guy was serious and not wanting to jeopardize my mail delivery, so, I began asking questions. "Just how many dump-pickers are there?"
"Well, The Times published my letter last week. Twenty people called to support the reopening of the dump and a bunch of customers along my route stopped me too. The council is afraid the state and the EPA's gonna come down on them on account of a few dump fires. They passed an emergency ordinance mainly to satisfy the Feds. Seems like they are trying to blame us pickers for starting the fires."
Humm, well, now I was beginning to get excited. The pickers were being slandered. However, the conversation had been going on for a half hour and my wife was beginning to get excited and was giving me the fisheye. "Look, I gotta go. Think you bring along your supporters and be at my house at three-thirty Sunday afternoon," I asked.
"Yes, absolutely," he said and we hung up.
At 2:30 pm Sunday, the pickers began arriving. By 3:00 p.m., the living room of our old Victorian was packed. What a mix! Business people, homemakers, working class, and middle class. Some with long hair, one with short hair, and a few with nothing up there at all. Everyone wanted to vent. I began by taking in the comments that ricocheted around the room. They were the most unlikely mix I'd ever seen coalesce around an issue, but they shared a common bond; they had been stripped of their right to pick the dump and were damn mad about it.
As I listened, in my mind, the issue began to jell.
"Why," one middle-aged firefighter asked, "would anyone want to ban such a venerable South County tradition?"
"What do they think dump picking causes fires?" A gray-bearded guy in red suspenders asked.
"We are scapegoats," Frank Frisella replied to a general murmur of approval.
"Were any of the pickers responsible," I asked.
Angry denials erupted from all sides.
Social worker, Ted Rickson, made the point succinctly. "Why," he asked, "would anyone picking the dump want to burn the dump? If someone fires the dump, he is an arsonist, not a dump picker. If the town wants to ban arsonists, we will have no objections."
The idea of banning dump picking to stop fires began to sound more ridiculous. The dump was wide open. If you wished to get rid of anything, you drove in, backed up your car, and tossed the stuff out. Who did that hurt? The arguments hit home. The pickers in the right. I was hooked.
With the help of Ted, and Frank, the mailman, the meeting was brought to order. I began to explain the art of building organization and applying political pressure. I was more than a little curious to know how such a mixed group would take to organizing strategy. They seemed a bit doubtful, but Ted and Frank were solidly in my corner. Questions and suggestions started coming. The pickers began to map out a campaign.
"We need press," I told the group. A dump pickers uprising, really? It sounded like a reporter's wet dream. Publicity would get the word around and recruit more people. In a small community, people translate into votes and a few votes can move mountains. Two spokesmen, Frank and Ted, would handle the press. A list was drawn up for research. The pickers would need a copy of the emergency ordinance and the state and federal regulations upon which the rule was supposedly based. With this accomplished, I asked that everyone return in two weeks to evaluate the research and solidify the planning for a big rally.
If I had any lingering doubts about the picker's determination, the next meeting put them securely to rest. I arrived a few minutes late to find my living room, dining room, and hallway stuffed full of dump pickers (about thirty in all). How, I asked myself, were we going to put together an agenda with all these people?
The pickers were attentive. We reviewed the research. They had picked a lawyer—I didn't ask where—who assured the group that the ordinance seemed in order. The town charter allowed for the passage of emergency ordinances to protect the citizens' health and safety. The question was raised, is this an emergency—the pickers didn't consider themselves one—could it go on indefinitely? No, emergency ordinances had a time limit of sixty days. The council had already extended this once and was set to do so again unless the pickers could stop them.
The research revealed another interesting fact. State regulations—the town council had raised as the bogeyman—contained no specific language banning dump picking. We had drawn a trump. The board had been playing the state and the pickers off against each other. Telling the state that the pickers were responsible for the fires and telling the irate pickers that they were following regulations handed down by the state. Result: like Pontius Pilate, the council's hands seemed clean.
Armed with this new information, the pickers were ready to gear up the campaign. Under the sixty-day rule, the council would have to act to extend the ordinance by February 11th. I suggested the mass meeting be held last week of January. The Tuesday before was selected to get maximum coverage from the weekly newspaper. With the addition of Kathy Waterman, a liberated picker, Frank and Ted would arrange for the hall and ensure that invitations to the rally were sent to the town manager and all council members. The demands were simple. Ted would talk to reporters from the local weekly and the state-wide daily newspaper. The agenda planning meeting would take place two days before the rally.
The Times coverage prompted a deluge of letters to the editor. It included one from a man who claimed he couldn't heat his house without wood from the dump. As Ted explained to me later, he had made a little deal. Early in the week, he called both papers. The state-wide reporter seemed lukewarm, but the weekly was hot to trot. The Times editor promised a big splash if the pickers would forget the state-wide Journal. Ted rightly figured it was worth it and took the deal.
The council was so upset by the "great public outcry" that they voted to modify the ordinance to allow the removal of wood from the dump at their bi-weekly meeting. This concession did little to pacify the pickers. We met the following Sunday, proceeded to make up a list of questions for the councilman, and ensured everyone was on board with the single demand.
"Hey," I said, "I almost forgot, the group needs a name."
Ted stood up, grinning, and handed me a bumper sticker. "We already have, er, picked one. You get this one free as your consulting fee." Black on white, the sticker read:
EVEN PETER PIPER PICKS
South Kingstown, R.I. Dump Pickers Assoc., Inc.
Ted was elected president. We added a few hardcore pickers to create a steering committee and selected Frank as VP. I began to feel like a fifth wheel.
I missed the rally. Ted and Frank had things under control, and I was running a crucial anti-redlining project in Boston. The press-clipping my wife shoved in front of me as I walked through the door the following Sunday night left little doubt. The pickers made good choices in Ted and Frank. The newspaper account must have sizzled the local politician's eyebrows. Two of the councilmen had flipped. The pickers were firmly in command and loving it.
It was a great turnout. Between ninety and one hundred people showed up at the rally. People were joining the new association in droves. Aside from the press announcements, the pickers had sent out letters to one hundred fifty interested citizens and followed up each with a personal visit or phone call. Except for the turnout of politicians—the group had netted only one—the rally was a great success. From where the councilman had been placed at the front of the hall, he looked out at the sea of angry faces and agreed to put the Dump Pickers Association on the agenda at the February meeting.
Victory was in the air, and the organization had picked up the scent. They were optimistic—perhaps too optimistic. Having seen poor follow-up whittle an army down to platoon size on more than one occasion,
I tried to dampen things a bit and insisted on another mailing and a phone tree.
Kathy's diligence unearthed an interesting fact on the Sunday before the council meeting. Aside from banning dump picking, the emergency ordinance was identical to the original regulation written in 1946. The revised law failed even to ban smoking.
"Yeah, right picking doesn't cause fires; smoking does," Ted said.
"What? We need a new flyer to pass out at the council meeting," I said, rubbing my hands together. Oh, this was going to be fun!
Two evenings later, over one hundred fifty angry dump pickers and fellow travelers descended on the town council chambers filling it until it overflowed and burst out into the hallway.
I managed to drive in from Boston in time for the meeting and shoehorn myself into the packed hallway. After running a gauntlet of angry pickers, the council president asked that the discussion be limited to organization spokespeople. He then sat back in his cushioned chair as, one by one, some thirty pickers spent the next two hours berating the council for the slanderous assault on the good name of dump pickers—some bridled at the term and preferred to be called: "treasure hunters."
A discussion of the virtues of dump picking was illustrated with live demonstrations, including a show and tell of valuable items found at the dump, which included a sea chest, an electric razor, a drum, an 1879 medical encyclopedia, and a plastic pouch filled with silver coins. Charles Coates, a self-confessed junk buzzard with a flowing gray beard, serenaded the council with a mandolin he found at the landfill.
After a long jargon-filled explanation by the town manager to justify his recommendation that the dump be closed, the council played its last card. Turning to a state health department official brought in for the purpose, the town manager asked.
"Isn't it a fact that the town is hamstrung by state regulations?"
To give the bureaucrat credit, he tried. "According to state regulations," he began.
The pickers were well prepared. Up jumped Kathy Waterman, who recited the state regulation verbatim in a booming voice, making special note that it did allow smoking and did not ban the removal of items from the dump.
The trap snapped shut. Stripped of his ability to confuse people with his superior grasp of legalistic jargon, the bewildered official sat himself down. It was over. The council had lost its last excuse.
The remainder of the meeting was anti-climactic. Amid repeated demands for repeal and some to impeach individual council members, the emergency ordinance was unanimously shelved to a chorus of cheers. Drum beating, mandolin playing, the chamber erupted in celebration.
The South Kingstown Dump Pickers had scored a great victory. Community groups organized around a single issue often disappear once the issue is resolved. Not so the Dump Pickers At the height of the controversy, the association boasted two hundred fifty card-carrying members. Frank Frisella kept the group alive.
The pickers got involved in charity work and fundraising for local non-profits. However, by 1976 the organization had, in Frank's words, "gone dormant". Nonetheless, the postman carried on. In the first week in July of that year, Frank Frisella mounted his trusty, rusty steed—a Chevy pickup that had seen better days, and showed the flag at National Dump Week in Kennebunkport, Massachusetts.
The celebration included a Miss Dumpy contest and a parade. Frank did not return empty-handed. He found an entire collection of National Geographic Magazines going back to 1927 at the Kennebunkport dump. The flood of bumper stickers the decorated cars during the 1974 controversy are largely gone now. But, like the phoenix, the dump pickers stand ready to rise from the ashes should their sacred rights be threatened. "Any organization with thirty-seven vice presidents never lacks leadership," Frank said. Just goes to show you can never tell where organizing a community might lead.
The author wishes to thank The Narragansett Times, Wakefield, Rhode Island, for permission to reproduce the press clippings for this story.