Milking it (Not just for eight maids)
When I was a teenager, the local community college upgraded the lights for its baseball field. After the first night game, a relatively well-to-do widow who lived next to the field called to complain that the lights kept her awake. They were so bright, her curtains couldn’t keep the light out.
So a school official met with her. At her request, he came back during a game and let her show him how much of her house was impacted by the lights. The school brought in some experts to look things over.
Fairly quickly, the school offered to pay to install new windows and blinds, and to investigate whether trees could be planted on school property to shade her house, or whether a tall barrier would work better. She responded with a letter from her lawyer, explaining that the only acceptable solution was the complete and permanent removal of the lights. The letter also asserted that the additional heat from the lights made the house unbearable as summer came on.
The college countered with an offer of more remediation steps, including paying for a central cooling system. She answered by filing a lawsuit against the school and several state agencies.
Thus began a back and forth of offers and rejections. Various state officials became involved. More accomodations were offered. She countered by adding the names of specific officials to the lawsuit, and recruiting various cranks (who would all be part of the Teabagger movement if they were around today) to stage protests, storm board of trustees meetings, and so on.
When the school offered to buy her house for a specific percentage above assessed value and to pay to move her to her new home, her lawyer suggested she take it. She fired the lawyer and hired a new one, and filed more motions to the court. The state attorney general’s office recommended, with all the time and money already sunk into an attempt to get a settlement, that they not risk the expense of all the suits going to trial. They recommended the school moved to condemn her property for the construction of new facilities (they had been buying up property nearby and building new buildings, already).
The process for condemning land when needed for essential services (which, thanks to the original framers of the state constitution, includes education) is much quicker than any lawsuit. The appeals process is more limited, and the standards for filing a suit to stop condemnation are much higher than that to file an ordinary suit.
By the time I was a student at the college, and Editor of the student paper, the final appeal of the condemnation was in the works. She suddenly changed her tune. Those same cranks who had mobbed meetings and staged protests, insisting that none of the offers the school had made were an acceptable solution, now demanded that the school stop the condemnation process, buy her the new blinds, and plant a line of trees to shade her property from the field lights.
Though the drama seemed to be nearly over, I thought it might be worth a story or two. One of the other student reporters was very keen to interview the widow, so I assigned the story to him. A couple days before deadline, he told me the interview had been awkward, but he would have the story in.
The threatening phone calls started before I’d even seen the story, and long before we printed anything. I’d been a student journalist in high school before coming to college, and I’d gotten threats and harassment before. But they had been mostly from other students. This was, I think, the first time that nearly all the threatening phone calls, messages, and notes had been coming from adults outside the school. And some were very vicious, though, to be fair, none were death threats; we usually only got those in relationship to abortion and art show reviews—yes, art show reviews!
I attended the board of trustees meeting where the last opportunity for the school to back out of the condemnation proceeding took place. Dozens of people showed up to speak on the widow’s behalf. But she wasn’t there. She had never attended any of the meetings. She wasn’t incapable of leaving her house. She had hosted several strategy dinners at a restaurant just outside of town to arrange that crowd at the meeting, for instance.
Every single person who spoke on her behalf mentioned again, and again, how she was such a helpless little old lady. And they repeated the appeal for the school to do the very things they had offered to do many times before starting condemnation procedures.
One of the reasons I believe she never showed up at any public meeting was because in person she didn’t come across as a helpless old lady. The student reporter who had interviewed her said that at first she was very sweet and charming, but he must have said the wrong thing at one point, because she became hostile—not in a screaming or insulting way, he said. Her eyes went from twinkly to glaring like a predator. She made several veiled threats indicating she might be able to cause him some trouble if his story didn’t treat her fairly.
Difficult to play the helpless victim when you’re threatening people, particularly in that cold, quiet, and calculating manner.
Even if I hadn’t know that, the personality type was clear by her legal findings. Every compromise that was offered simply spawned more threats, until finally the bluff is called, and suddenly she was all for compromise. It’s classic bully behavior.
Just like Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle, who spent the summer and fall issuing statements that the passage of the Marriage Equality Referendum on the ballot would force his priests and churches to perform same-sex marriages, and urging all religious people to oppose it for that reason. And now that it has passed, he’s issued a set of instructions to the churches in his archdiocese, quoting the portion of the same law that explicitly exempts churches and ministers from performing same.
Classic bully behavior.