Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Why Protest Politics Matters.

Today was the Real Change breakfast. The slide show above ran at the beginning and close, and is by Revel with music by me.

Sherman ran a lovely and funny extended metaphor that drew upon his ever deepening life as a frequent flyer. John Bayly, the Real Change vendor who made the pitch, did the best job I've ever seen, anywhere. We had about 450 people there and raised at least $71,500. We're still counting.

I talked about hope, reality, and the importance of protest politics.

This is one version of the future, I said: Grassroots activism grows. The political climate changes. There's a major investment in clean energy, and we put people to work. We finally get out of Iraq, and we figure out how to do health care. A bunch of bad executive orders get reversed. We get a few supreme court justices, and so forth.

But then, what about inequality, which has increased steadily since 73. The pace of that is only accelerating, especially at the top and bottom-most ends.

How much political will will it take to decrease inequality, I asked? I mean, ending homelessness; that's one thing we can all get around the table on, but reducing inequality? That's communism. And, as Sherman noted this morning, you're not allowed to call in sick on communism. Too few others are picking up the slack.

Here’s another version of the future, I said. Obama does what he can, but the economy continues to slide. Localities face budget deficits year after year. The war goes on. It turns out to be surprisingly intractable. No meaningful health care reform is passed because people think Obama’s going to do everything for us and they mostly let the insurance and drug companies dictate the terms. Tax reform is mild, and the financial system gets some tweaks, but mostly continues to run without transparency or accountability. Inequality continues to widen. Homelessness grows, as has been the trend since the 70’s. Local budgets are tight. The political will to end homelessness fades and grows more jaded. Poor people are increasingly criminalized. Seattle’s new jail, after just four years, is operating at capacity. Racial disproportionality in the prison and homeless populations keeps increasing. And so forth.

The difference, I said, will depend upon the strength of grassroots organizing.

Last night, I thought about protest politics, and what I was going to say about why the work matters. After all, we haven't exactly stopped the homeless sweeps yet; although we have made the practices a good deal more visible and forced the Mayor to at least a pretense of accountability. But there's been another win that might allow for a win later.

We shifted the frame. Protest politics changes the frame.

City framing on the homeless sweeps issue was clear, if not original: Camping is illegal. The plan is consistent and compassionate. This is a ten year plan, not a two year plan. Hypodermic needles, human feces, and bottles of urine are everywhere. Insert number tons of garbage removed here. The greenbelts have become places of danger and filth, and we should fear the filthy, dangerous people.

We changed that. Right around June 8-9, during Camp4Unity and the arrests in the street, the media was starting to get more critical, and we shoved it over the top. Our own good press sort of astonished us. We were seen as in the right, and the City was shown to have a problem to solve, and the sweeps were not a help.

The city lost control of the frame and a new one was born.

There’s nowhere for people to go. People are doing something to help themselves. Why not help them? Pink tents are cool. Brenden Foster said "They're probably starving, and we should help them." Homelessness is growing. The ripples of the economic meltdown are spreading, and the response is known to be inadequate.

The Mayor is now seen as persecuting homeless people without providing real alternatives. Were he at all accountable, we'd be winning.

With the city poised to ram it's vertical municipal jail down our throats, new feats of reframing are required.

The jail will cost $220M to build and $19M to operate, at minimum. This kind of money is better spent on upstream solutions. Our city jail numbers are down 38% while overall population is up 8%. Yet, the Mayor is slamming it through. the new jail represents the continuation of a failed strategy: reliance upon incarceration for the mitigation of urban ills. It doesn't work. It just deepens poverty. And yet, here we are, poised to spend millions in the service of ruining lives when we should be putting resources into rebuilding them.

The city frame is that the jail is inevitable. The downward trends in jail population, they argue, are unsustainable, and will reverse. There’s no alternative. The question is before the electorate is merely one of where to put the thing.

The new jail is a bricks and mortar commitment to a dismal future for the poor. 1 in 99 Americans is already behind bars. 1 in 9 Black males aged 20-24 are in jail. A Black male high school drop-out has a 2 in 3 chance of landing in prison by age 35. These sorts of numbers decimate communities, and create ever deepening spirals of poverty.

We have a narrow window where we can still say enough is enough and change the frame. And it won't be done by asking quietly. You can bet on that.

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