February 25, 2002

At one time or another, each of us has felt abused by an institution bigger than we are, by a bureaucracy that sends us the message that it could care less about us. All too often, we just assume we have no real power to take it on.

Unfortunately, the fact is that we really are as weak and as powerless as we believe we are. Conversely, we are as strong and powerful as we are determined to be. Can we always win? Can we always get it right or get what we want out of an uncaring institution? Not always. There are no guarantees that you will win. But there is one guarantee: if you don’t stand up for what is right, you’re guaranteed to lose.

Several months ago, the New York DMV suspended my registration and my driver’s license for five months on the basis that there had been a lapse in my auto insurance.

What the DMV did was wrong. Now, telling the DMV that it has made a mistake is kind of like telling a mountain to move five feet to the left. Not only does it not move, it does not even appear to give a damn. And you also get the feeling that nothing you say, no argument you make — irrespective of the fact that you are right — will get the mountain to listen to a word that you are saying.

Bureaucracies like the DMV are like that. They behave like big inanimate objects without ears, much less a heart or a mind. So we think of institutions like the DMV as places populated by automatons who cannot ever make a rational choice, who cannot step outside a tiny box labeled “the rules and procedures” no matter what kind of harm they are doing to other human beings.

Sometimes you go looking for help when oppressed by a bureaucracy like the DMV. But, inevitably you are told that you can’t fight city hall, that even though you are right and it is wrong, it has the power and you don’t, so just live with it. You meet people who had the same problem and they tell you there was nothing they could do except to accept the injustice that was done to them.

In just living with it, not only do you lose whatever it is that’s being taken away from you, you also lose your self-esteem and your sense that you have some power over your life.

Personally, I can’t stand the idea of feeling powerless over my fate and over the institutions that affect my life. So, I took the DMV on.

A quick history: The DMV suspended my registration and my driver’s license for five months, saying that my auto insurance had lapsed. I went to the DMV to straighten out what was an obvious screw-up on their part.

Without going through the whole story, they were wrong and I was damned if I was going to surrender my ability to drive. So when I went into the DMV office in Goshen, and the women asked me to surrender my license plates, I just walked out and kept driving, knowing that at some point, I could be arrested. Having spent weeks trying to deal with the DMV, which has no appeal process nor anyone who seemed to be able to make a decision, I wanted to get arrested.

Getting arrested was a gamble on my part, but I wanted to get before a judge and make my case. A judge can make a decision. So, I got arrested, but they scheduled the court date three months in advance, which meant that even if I could get help from a judge, it wouldn’t be for months. So I decided to immediately take on the DMV directly.
I was angry and determined and I was very persistent and I went at the DMV with every trick I had learned over thirty-five years of dealing with institutional injustice.

In the end, I won. The DMV gave me back my license and my plates. I went to court last week and made a brief statement to a justice-minded judge, and all five of the charges that the police had made against me were dismissed. Power to the people.

So here’s a primer on how to deal with institutions — how to take ‘em on and how to at least stand a chance of winning and of making it right.

First, figure out what kind of documentation you will need or what will be helpful to making your case.
Understand why you are right.

Remember that persistence pays off, and reluctance doesn’t.

I make several assumptions, right off: one is that I’m not dealing with an institution, I am dealing with people in an institution. But these are generally people who believe they are not allowed to decide anything.

I make another critical assumption based on a lifetime of work: in dealing with these people, my job is to create an opportunity for whomever I am dealing with to make it right and do the right thing. I never berate the person I am dealing with — this accomplishes nothing.

At the same time, being firm does work. Sometimes threats, such as, “I’m going to report you to Consumer Affairs” or my favorite, “I’m going to report this to the New York State Attorney General’s Office,” can work.

Remember that the first level of phone calls you make will almost always consist of an encounter with somebody who really doesn’t have the power to do anything about the problem. Why waste time and energy trying to get them to do something that they can’t do?

And after all, their real job is to deflect the problem or just make us go away by telling us what can’t be done.

When I get on the phone, I explain my situation and then ask, “Do you have the authority to say ‘yes’ to me? Are you empowered to actually do anything?”

Usually, he or she will say “No.”

I’ll say that I understand, then I’ll ask to talk to their supervisor or someone in a position to help with my issue.
When I get to the next level up, I ask the same questions about what degree of authority they have to solve our problem.

In these conversations I always say, “We have a problem,” not “I have a problem.” After all, these institutions want me to believe it is my problem.

And sometimes, when going up the management ladder isn’t paying off, it will seem to be out of everybody’s hands. But there is always somebody, somewhere, in that organization with the power to effect some change.

Again, the most important thing to keep in mind is that this institution or whatever it is that you’re facing can bend to you, that your needs can be met fairly. It is possible.

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