It’s 7:40 on the morning of Friday, July 30, and Raymond Avrutis is nervous. The last planet to pass over the moon was Pluto, which is retrograding, in an ominous sign for the morning’s mission. “Bad karma, but I’ll have to run with it,” he says. In a cab heading down Rhode Island Avenue NE, Avrutis checks his gear: a pocketful of quarters for the phone, a wad of cash for bail, and a shopping bag full of fliers that counsel, “Don’t Let the Unemployment Office Rob You Blind!” His destination today is 1500 Franklin St. NE, a satellite center run by the D.C. Department of Employment Services (DOES) that will serve as a symbol of the corrupt system that Avrutis believes needs reforming.
For years, Avrutis has been trying to bring his message about the failures of the unemployment system to the people, but more conventional methods, such as letters to the editor, have so far failed to land much of a punch (although he believes one 1992 letter published in the New York Times did help prevent George H.W. Bush from getting re-elected). He recently ran for the D.C. Council and the school board, but those efforts didn’t net much change, either. So he’s decided to use the strongest tool in the activist’s arsenal: civil disobedience. Getting arrested is critical to his campaign, says Avrutis, because, “You must be arrested to be believed.”
As the cab nears 15th Street NE, it’s clear that there will be plenty of cops on hand for the spectacle. They’re fanned out across Rhode Island Avenue directing traffic and investigating a nearby parking lot that’s roped off with yellow crime-scene tape. Avrutis doesn’t seem entirely glad to see them. Earlier in the week, over a veggie burger at Trio, he contemplated the prospect of getting carted off to the D.C. Jail and mingling with the murderers and rapists who fill its overcrowded cells.
A 56-year-old unemployed sociologist with a touch of schizophrenia, Avrutis speculated that jail officials would have to isolate him. “For what it’s worth, I’d like to be released on bail,” he said. He has a rent-controlled apartment that would be in jeopardy in his absence, and he thinks that he’s not much of a flight risk: “Schizophrenics won’t migrate.”
Back on the Franklin Street sidewalk, Avrutis gathers his wits about him, clutches his bag of leaflets, and prepares to do the deed. He takes a deep breath, yanks open the plate-glass door, and takes about six steps inside the unemployment office before a burly security guard recognizes him and ushers him right back out, telling him that he can give out all the fliers he wants—outside. “I like the guy, myself,” says the guard. “He’s got a point.” But he says there’s no reason to call the police—since they won’t come in under two hours even when he calls for serious incidents, much less for a nonviolent protest. “They only way they’ll come is if someone shoots somebody.”
The nonevent highlights a vexing problem for Avrutis. He can’t commit civil disobedience unless someone will arrest him, and despite seven attempts, he remains a free man. “They will not give me the political cachet of being arrested,” he fumes.
Avrutis learned the importance of civil disobedience back in the ’60s, from a teacher at the old Walden School here in D.C. The high-school headmaster read Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience to his students. Avrutis didn’t take to the streets until January 1970, when he and some other members of the Jewish Defense League (JDL) disrupted a performance of the Moscow Philharmonic at Constitution Hall by blowing shofars and demanding that Soviet Jews be allowed to immigrate to Israel. (He emphasizes that this was the D.C. branch of the JDL, not the New York faction headed by the extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane. “Those guys were crazy,” says Avrutis.)
More recently, Avrutis has focused his activism on the unemployment system, his area of expertise. The author of How to Maximize Your Unemployment Benefits, Avrutis has exhausted unemployment benefits 11 times since 1966 and hasn’t been able to secure a regular job in a couple of decades. Avrutis believes that Congress should order an investigation into the calculation of the unemployment rate, which he believes is totally corrupt and vastly undercounts the number of the country’s unemployed. He also thinks the government could be doing a lot more to help the unemployed. “Roosevelt and Harry Hopkins put 4 million people to work in two-and-a-half-months. We could do the same,” he notes.
His beefs with the unemployment system are laid out in his leaflet, which he drafted on his manual typewriter and distributes during his protests. Along with a chronicle of his interrogation of various DOES employees about eligibility requirements, the flier notes, accurately, that the weekly maximum unemployment benefit was $335 in 1994 and is now only $309—a scandal, in his view. In the flier, Avrutis also takes a jab at the city’s unemployment-insurance-fraud program. He claims the program hasn’t caught or prosecuted anyone for unemployment fraud in decades. (Diana Johnson, a spokesperson for the DOES, says that, in fact, the office routinely refers cases to the Office of the Corporation Counsel for prosecution).
Avrutis has many suggestions for improvement, such as his proposal that Metro train ex-cons to repair broken escalators, a perpetual source of good jobs. But he’s afraid his ideas won’t see the light of day unless he can get arrested for his cause. He started the current crusade back in 2002, when he went to the now-closed office of the Department of Employment Services at 441 4th St. NW and stood in the lobby yelling, “What do we want? Suitable work! When do we want it? Now!” Rather than arrest him, the guards took Avrutis to D.C. General Hospital, where they put him in four-point restraints for 16 hours. “That cooled me off for a while,” he says.
He’s since recovered from the incident, and this year he resumed the campaign in earnest. In January, Avrutis spent $62 in cab fare traveling around the city to seven different unemployment offices trying to commit civil disobedience. That trip was thwarted in a variety of ways, including by the lack of reliable information in the phone book. Of the seven offices he visited, one was closed. Another wasn’t very busy. At the office on Euclid Street NW, Avrutis says, the office manager simply laughed at him and refused to have him arrested. His last stop was 1500 Franklin St. NE, where the guard talked him out of getting arrested, “because I was tired,” he says.
On Monday, July 19, Avrutis went to the welfare office at 645 H St. NW after appearing on Ambrose Lane’s WPFW radio show, during which a caller said that the city was taking unemployment taxes out of her welfare check. Avrutis believes this suggests “major fraud” and decided to help educate welfare moms about their rights.
At H Street, Avrutis handed out leaflets and then started yelling, “In the spirit of the ’60s teach-in, I am committing civil disobedience.” A guard told him to leave. Avrutis asked the guard to call the police to arrest him. Instead, the guard grabbed him around the waist and expelled him from the office. “I was not injured, but I was shaken on the play,” says Avrutis. “They deposited me by the trash can outside.”
About a week later, Avrutis returned to the Franklin Street unemployment office, where he did his usual routine. When it failed to get him locked up, he threw leaflets in the air and yelled, “Arrest me for littering!”
“There was a polite murmur, and they escorted me out of the building,” he says, conceding that the expulsion probably wasn’t necessary. “Eventually, I was going to go anyway.” After Friday’s disappointment, Avrutis says he’s going to have to consider a change of strategy. “If I can go there seven times and nothing happens, there’s no sense in going an eighth time.”
Lawrence Guyot, an advisory neighborhood commissioner and a veteran civil-rights activist who has engaged in numerous civil-disobedience actions, applauds Avrutis’ campaign. He says the DOES “is in need of protest” and that next to voting, nonviolence and civil disobedience “are still the most effective ways to bring about change. He should keep up the fight.”
The staff members at the Franklin Street unemployment office aren’t so sure, though. They are somewhat confused as to the nature of the protest. As Johnson explains, “We aren’t trying to get people put in jail. We’re just trying to help them find a job.”CP