ADVOCACY: Weaving Together Protest & Partnership

Successful advocacy combines protest and partnership, acting as an outsider fighting something we oppose and acting as an insider working to shape official plans.  Many of our most critical strategic and tactical decisions deal with when and how to do one or the other, or – more typically – how to weave the two together.

The big advantage of protest is that because you aren’t constrained by the problems of implementation you are more easily able to act as the spokesperson for higher ideals, as a proponent of a better vision of how things could be – which, when the political climate is particularly hostile, may be the most useful thing to do.  Today, however, progressives are more likely to lean towards partnership than protest, which seems to have been taken over by the radical right-wing of American politics.  Partnering with public officials give advocates greater access to the decision-making process, but at the cost of having to be “realistic” and satisfied with negotiating for what is possible under the current circumstances.  Still, no matter how friendly the relationship between advocates and officials, there are three strategic tasks that people pushing for change have to do:  mobilize political will, ensure that agencies have the needed resources and skills, and creating a climate of public acceptance needed for compliance and enforcement.

Protest Politics

Jane Jacobs, a key organizer of several successful anti-highway protest campaigns, became active at the peak of the national, post-WWII wave of suburbanization and highway building.  A proponent of urban neighborhoods, she adapted Saul Alinsky’s community-improvement model of confrontational, grass-roots community organizing for larger-scale issues.  Her version of the “rules for radicals” included:  Keep the campaign focused on opposing a single, simple, and particularly egregious component of the larger program you want to stop – and that just happens to be indispensible to the success of the larger program. Build the broadest possible coalition, including as many members of powerful elites as possible, by keeping your own broader vision and goals in the background.  Be constantly visible and endlessly persistent with occasional mass mobilizations to demonstrate your power and grab media attention.  Always act as if you have the moral high ground and never compromise no matter how “unreasonable” such an unyielding stance may seem.

In Jacobs’ case, she built a movement to stop the destruction of a famous park that occupied a key spot on the highway route; accepting a “reasonable compromise” would have allowed the highway to be built, resulting in the destruction of thousands of homes in the surrounding neighborhoods.  Protest is, by definition, an oppositional movement –its goal is to prevent something from happening, or from continuing to happen.  And even when the protest has a positive alternative vision of “how we’d like things to be,” that vision is often rooted in the desire to recapture lost values or conditions – which is why so many movements march forward in pursuit of the past.

Today, the people who seem to have learned the most about disruption are on the right-wing fringe of American politics.  From the physical attacks on people trying to recount chards in Florida during Bush’s presidential election to the “death committee” attacks on Obama’s health reform bill to the Tea Party demonstrations today, these people are showing everyone how it’s done.  Partly, they have the field to themselves because, after twenty years of effort, progressives felt they had put their team into office.

Making Partnership Possible

At various times, most recently because of the elections of Deval Patrick and Barak Obama, the people running many public agencies are relatively sympathetic to progressive ideas.  In those circumstances, progressive advocates tend to act more like partners.  But success is not certain, general sympathy does not automatically translate into desired action.  So advocates have three strategic tasks.

First, they have to mobilize the political will to enact needed laws and policies, set up key programs, and appropriate required funds.  This includes lobbying elected officials and administrative leaders, finding ways to attract positive media attention, getting support from powerful elites, and mobilizing the public – which is usually most effectively done as a protest against the same people that you’re trying to lobby.  If you are lucky, you can protest against the lack of action towards the very values that the politicians campaigned for during their election, or that the agency officials claim are the core of their mission.  For example, when the Minnesota bridge collapsed killing or injuring over 150 people, Governor Patrick pushed through a $3 billion repair program.  The Charles River bridges were, initially, under the control of the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) who intended to simply rebuild the structures as they were – with minimal facilities for pedestrians or cyclists.  LivableStreets Alliance and other advocacy groups mobilized to protest and, to their enormous credit, the leaders of DCR eventually realized that the protesters were right – that the multi-modal, environmentally sensitive vision we were advocating was exactly what the river basin was supposed to be.

Second, at the same time that advocates are fighting for a new direction, they have to make sure that public agencies have the technical capacity and resources needed to actually carry out the required planning/design and implementation/construction, as well as the long term operation and maintenance.  In addition to money, this often requires restructuring, training, and new hires.  For example, until recently there was simply no one working for Boston or for any of its primary road construction consultant firms who knew how to create state-of-the-art bike lanes.  Part of LivableStreets Alliance’s strategy was to attract additional consulting firms to the city, bringing up-to-date expertise and forcing local firms to respond to this competition.

Third, change always provokes a backlash, so advocates also have to find ways to increase public acceptance of the changes, or at least to neutralize opposition.  Many people prefer things as they are.  Widening sidewalks or adding bike lanes forces cars to go slower – which may be safer and not take any more time (if the intersections are properly designed) but don’t allow the same speeds.   Curb extensions reduce the distance pedestrians have to walk and make it easier for drivers to look around the corner to see if a car is approaching on a side street, but they take away parking spots.  Ouch! (Note:  see below)  The public education and re-assurance required to deal with this also contributes to creating a culture of compliance that is even more important than official enforcement – which is also needed.

Unfortunately, this entire partnership strategy – even if followed up by endless vigilance – is only possible in a generally friendly political climate.  And even then, protest is often the more appropriate strategy for dealing with recalcitrant officials, or around issues that the government seems unable to deal with for some reason.   And no matter how welcoming government officials may be, advocates need to always remember that they are merely visitors whose presence is partly a result of the officials’ wish to avoid becoming the target of protests.

But the times are a’changing.  The transformation of the Republican Party into a unified, radical right-wing movement may close the door for advocate-agency partnerships.  For example, by the end of the Romney Administration, employees in the state’s public health departments were forbidden to talk with anyone about almost anything – or to even collect information that might raise issues that the Governor’s rightward-spinning campaign would rather not deal with.

Maybe it’s time for progressives to start remembering Jane Jacobs.

Thanks to Jeff Rosenblum who first laid out the three strategic tasks for LivableStreets Alliance.  Any inadequacies in this version are solely my fault.


*NOTE:  Cara Seiderman sent me an email pointing out that ” Curb extensions at corners do not take away parking spaces.  It is illegal to park within 20’ of an intersection: this holds true in every city, in every locality, in every state, in the country (some places have more stringent requirements, i.e., 30’ – 40’, but 20’ is the minimum). Therefore, a curb extension within those 20’ does not remove any parking.   People may perceive this to be the case if there has been a history of lax enforcement but the facts should be made clear so that this can’t be falsely used as an anti-curb extension rant. It might actually be a good example of how good advocates can set the record straight.”


If you found this interesting, you might also want to read:

What Makes for Effective Advocacy

Creating Change Requires Muscle: Levers for Transforming Transportation

Maintaining Momentum As The Wave of Reform Recedes

Improving MassDOT’s Bike/Ped Advisory Process

The Complex Ingredients of Livable Cities: Complete Streets to Interior Design, Transit to City Planning, Art to Education


Sources for this posting include:

Rules for Radicals: A Practical Primer for Realistic Radicals, by Saul Alinsky.

Wrestling with Moses : how Jane Jacobs took on New York’s master builder and transformed the American city, by Anthony Flint.

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