Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Civil Dissent and Regional Planning, Part 1

One of the challenges of writing a blog is setting limits.  Like most of you, I have lots of interests in life and I enjoy talking about many of those interests.  But we’ve promised you that this blog will be about land-use planning, particularly new urbanism.  We shouldn’t abuse your goodwill by tackling subjects that stray too far from those subjects.  Although in an increasingly interconnected world, many subjects link back in odd and surprising ways to how we use our land.

 I struggled with today’s topic.  But eventually I decided that it was adequately bound up with the subjects we’ve set forth for the blog.  If you think that my topic is too far afield, I apologize.  I also apologize if you think I take too long to circle back to the land use issues, which will take me three posts.  Nonetheless, here we go.

As many of you know, a regional planning meeting in Santa Rosa last Monday evening was disrupted by civil protest.  I was at the meeting, which was co-hosted by the Association of Bay Area Governments and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.  I left early when it became evident that nothing fruitful would be accomplished.  But the meeting has stayed with me.

I was a student at Cal between 1971 and 1976, so have experience with protests.  I was in Berkeley after the Free Speech, People’s Park, and Vietnam protests, but was present for the Cambodian invasion unrest.  And I remember watching the parade after the fall of Saigon.

As an engineering student, I wasn’t at the barricades, but I observed with interest.  Plus, I had a roommate, another engineering student, who returned one day with a row of stitches in his scalp, the result of a flung can of vegetables.  (Apparently the thrower knew that hurling vegetables was a staple of civil unrest but, by leaving them in the can, showed that he missed the nuances.)  The roommate didn’t have a strong belief in the cause, but wanted to see what it was like to be in the midst of a near-riot, a desire that left him with a scar he can show off as his hair recedes in later years.

From my years in Berkeley and the decades since, my thoughts on civil dissent have come down to six points:

1)      Civil dissent has a place in American society.  It’d be great if worthy ideas could find their way to the forefront through standard political channels, but we know that many good ideas, such as civil rights, didn’t.  And we should never forget that our country was founded in acts of civil dissent.

2)      It remains important to vote.  Often, the ballot box doesn’t offer the options to push the discussion as far as one might wish.  Nonetheless, it remains important to show that one believes in the power of the vote.  If nothing else, one can elect and interact with officials who can put better options on the next ballot or the ballot after that.

3)      Most movements that result in civil dissent have folks on the far radical edge, the “outer fringe”, on whom the media and the opponents of the movement choose to focus.  It’s a good video footage to show wild-eyed folks beating on the doors of banks.  It’s also easier to argue against the movement if one assumes that the entire movement is composed of the outer fringe.

4)      Movements also have an “inner fringe”, the people who are perhaps wary of joining cause with the outer fringe, but ultimately find that the cause is sufficiently important to justify their involvement.  I was impressed by stories of grandmothers, school teachers, and small businessmen walking with the Occupy Oakland movement.  I’m sure the Tea Party has a similar inner fringe.  It may be easy to dismiss the radicals in funny costumes.  It’s more difficult to dismiss your maiden aunt or your kindly third-grade teacher when they join the effort.  It is this inner fringe to whom we should be listening.  Sufficiently mainstream to successfully function in the real world but with sufficiently strong beliefs to take to the street to argue for new ideas.

5)      When civil dissent moves to the streets, there are often hangers-on who are along only for the thrill.  The media disappoints me than when they talk about fans overturning a police car in the celebration after their team won a championship.  The people overturning the car aren’t fans.  They’re disgruntled people who have always wanted to overturn a police car and saw their opportunity to do so while the police were stretched thin by the real fans who were celebrating boisterously but mostly within the law.

6)      Regardless of how strongly one feels about the cause, one retains an obligation to behave with social responsibility.  A staple of civil unrest at Cal, including the recent Occupy Cal disturbance, has been the unwillingness of the protesters to allow opposing voices to be heard, voices that wanted to express opinions that may have been unpalatable to that particular group but nonetheless represented the opinion of a large part of the general population.  That type of censorship is unacceptable. 

With my philosophy of civil dissent set forth, in the next post I’ll measure the Agenda 21 protest against these standards.  And the post after that, I’ll ponder the role of regional planning in land use decisions and whether Agenda 21 was raising good issues.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (


  1. I sat through a number of the meetings for the Petaluma Economic Development Plan, am currently trying to work my way through the Petaluma General plan, and have been involved in researching and writing various other policy papers (at a different government level).

    I think the processes that lead to such reports can be extremely disenfranchising. I saw the frustration with audience members in the Economic Development Plan, who were told "that's not part of the current agenda item", and then realized that their concerns were not on any of the agenda items, and left.

    These processes often start with premises that would-be participants look at and say, metaphorically, "I don't want steak or chicken, I'm a vegetarian". For the most part, they get frustrated and leave, but occasionally you have a group of people who feel vested in the outcome and don't know where else to vent their energies.

    I don't know whether I agree or disagree with Agenda 21's goals, but I totally understand their frustration. I think the problem is that to legitimately affect change within the process you have to be deeply involved at all levels which, frankly, involves way too much sitting through largely irrelevant crap so that when the appropriate moment comes to call "hogwash" you have the background by which you can show people that their thinking is drastically flawed.

  2. Dan, great comments. I love your steak/chicken/vegetarian analogy.

    I especially like your last paragraph. Personally, I think the only way to make a real difference in most governmental matters, unless you're employed by the government entity, is to sit on a citizens' committeee, to attend the meetings with alacrity, to do all possible reading, to speak up forcibly when given the opportunity, and to hope that other committee members add their voices. It's not an easy road, but it's spectacular to watch when it happens.

    Disrupting a meeting with unhelpful and snarky questions as I saw last week is nowhere near as productive. It probably isn't productive at all.

    By the way, I need to apologize for misleading you on the group's name. I misunderstood one of their signs. Their name is very definitely NOT Agenda 21. Agenda 21 is the name of a United Nations effort to manage environmenal impacts in the 21st century. The protesters consider the One Bay Area Plan to be the local manifestation of Agenda 21. I changed my blog when I realized my error, but you had already been misled. - Dave

  3. Gack. Sorry about the change of identity, for some reason OpenID isn't working on this comment here today...

    I've got a friend who's had some rough knocks. That may be misrepresenting it. He's spent some time in prison, and is now one day at a time in recovery. Part of that recovery is his trying to understand how to be a citizen.

    Among other people, he's turned to me for guidance on this. One of the things I'm learning is that I have no idea how to be a citizen. And, thinking back to the "civics" classes I had in my grade school education, nobody's ever really tried to help make that education, at least not in any meaningful way.

    So, yeah, I think the issue is that I need to shift my sense of social responsibility to include a hell of a lot of involvement in civic issues. To educate myself more deeply on issues, to read a lot more proposed and passed legislation.

    Because the only way *I*'m going to start to feel like the process can be serving me is if I actually feel like I have a clue about what's going on.

    I don't condone the disruption, but I suspect that the feelings of disenfranchisement that these folks are feeling comes from a similar realization. They're just taking it in a different direction.

    Oh, and I go back to a full-time job on January 30th, but I'd be up for another afternoon coffee and discussion this week... Aaaand, I'm extremely grateful that you're writing these articles, 'cause they're part of my trying to become an informed citizen.

    1. Dan, you need hardly apologize for name confusion. Heck, most of my comments here have been under Tony's name. Getting my digital identity organized is on my to-do list.

      You're right that school "civics" have little relationship to the real world. However, if my high school civics teacher had shared half of what I now know about how the world really works, the PTA would have been after his scalp for his cynicism.

      Congratulations on the new job. I'll look forward to learning what you'll be doing. I'd be happy to get together this week to talk about land use, civics, and anything else. I'll email you in a few minutes.