Friday, January 20, 2012

Civil Dissent and Regional Planning, Part 2

In my last post, I noted that a recent regional planning meeting in Santa Rosa had been disrupted by civil dissent.  I offered my philosophy on civil dissent, which consists of the following six points: (1) Civil dissent has a place in American society, (2) Even while engaged in civil dissent, it remains important to vote, (3) Most movements have an “outer fringe” who may be interesting to watch, but don’t truly represent the core of the protest, (4) There are more lessons to be learned from the “inner fringe”,  (5) Many movements attract hangers-on who are there for the excitement, but don’t share the core values, and (6) Behaving responsibly remains important, even when and especially when passions run high.

Against those standards, how did the protestors measure up?  Based on a single, short evening, I’d have to give an Incomplete, but they were on track for nothing better than a C-.   Before explaining the grade, I’ll describe my experience that evening.

When I arrived the protesters were still getting organized.  I was asked to wait on the front walk while the protesters posed for a group photo, taking several exposures as they mugged for the camera.  In five years on the Cal campus, I was never once asked to wait while protesters took a group photo.  Perhaps the young take themselves too seriously, but I still found it insightful that the middle-aged protesters seemed to consider a protest more of a social occasion than 20-year-old college students had.

Once inside, I tried to collect my name tag.  I was advised that my “wife” had already collected it for me.  At the moment, my wife was enjoying an Italian dinner in Petaluma with my brother-in-law.  She was nowhere near the meeting room in Santa Rosa.  I told the name tag attendant that he had been duped.  He shamefacedly agreed and promised to make me a new tag.  I found the “wife” ruse to be clever and didn’t hold it against the protesters.

Name tag in place, I surveyed the room.   Most of the protesters were clustered in a corner, being refreshed on the party line.  Another two were wandering the room with a video camera, trying to collect “interviews” with attendees.  From a brief interaction with the video crew, they were looking for someone to defend the regional planning effort.  When they found someone willing to engage, they made spurious arguments that they seemed to think legitimate.  When the subject demurred, as I did, they commented, sotto voce, “Of all these people, no one supports regional planning.”

One woman paced back and forth through room with signs decrying various aspects of what she perceived to be the thrust of the regional plan.  The one that caught my eye was against “Big Boxes”.  It was interesting because “big box” is the term generally used pejoratively against the large retailers, Walmart, Costco, Target, etc. that are considered an essential component of less dense greenfield development.     Instead, she was applying the term to mixed use projects.

It was an interesting attempt to muddy the waters.  If she had used the term in a more conscious, ironic sense, such as “We Prefer Our Big Boxes to Yours”, I could have commended her effort.  Instead, it just resulted in a “Huh?” moment.

It reminded me of a political campaign in the late 1970s.  There was a state ballot measure about a proposed dam.  I believe the measure was to deny funding to the dam, so a “yes” vote meant one opposed the project and a “no” vote meant one supported it.  Adding to the confusion, the pro-dam forces argued that the river was best served by the improved regulation that would be provided by the dam.  The anti-dam forces argued that the river was best served by leaving it untouched and changing the regulation of other dams further upstream.  Therefore, both sides adopted the slogan “Save the River”.  Voters were faced with competing lawn signs saying “Save the River, Vote Yes on Proposition X” and “Save the River, Vote No on Proposition X”.  I don’t remember if the proposition passed, but I’m sure that much of the electorate was well confused.  And neither good river planning nor good regional planning are well-served by confusion.

As the meeting time neared, we were allowed to enter main room under the watchful eye of a security team.  Although I didn’t see my doppelganger, many of the protesters had been able to secure name tags.  Once inside, the protest signs and attempted video interviews continued.  When the Mayor of Rohnert Park tried to greet the attendees, he was peppered with questions and struggled to continue.  Most of the questions were courteously posed, but were intended to disrupt the meeting and were successful in that effort.  Tempers were becoming frayed.

One woman questioner claimed that she’d been bumped with a chair by another attendee.  At that point, the police, who were likely already on alert, were officially called.  Although they determined that no crime had taken place, they remained for the evening.

An organizer eventually took the floor, noted the attempt by many to disturb the meeting, and asked for a vote on whether the meeting should continue under its intended format or should be replaced by an open session on the process.  The attendees, voting with electronic clickers at the tables, voted 73 percent to 27 percent to maintain the agenda.

Nonetheless, it was evident that the meeting couldn’t continue as planned.   The organizer asked that the protesters stay in the main room to ask their questions, while other dispersed to smaller rooms for sessions on land use and transit.  The protestors, of course, had no interest in following that direction and split to cover all three locations.

I attended the land use session.  Again, the peppering questions continued.  Eventually, a police officer intervened and asked that the presenter be allowed to complete her four-minute talk before the questions continued.  The protesters complied, mostly.

Afterwards, the questions resumed, many of which were either intentionally obtuse or remarkably naïve.  “Exactly how many acres will be condemned by eminent domain under this plan?”  “How soon will I be kicked off my farm?”  And my favorite, “State law calls for housing plans for all demographics.  This plan has provision for lower income and middle income people.  Why is there no plan for high incomes?”  When the presenter failed to give a good response, the questioner called for the police officer to arrest her on the grounds that by taking a salary without fully complying with state law, she was guilty of theft.

And most of the questions were asked with supercilious smirks, directed at both the presenters and the bulk of the attendees.  When the time for the land use session ended, I choose to depart.

So, how did the protesters do under my six points above?

I certainly grant them the right to make their protest.  Good policy making requires that dissenting opinions be expressed.  I hope that they use the ballot box in addition to their protests.

On the distribution of outer fringe, inner fringe, and hangers-on, the preponderance of the active protesters seemed to be outer fringe and hangers-on.  However, I suspect there may have an inner fringe present.  The active protesters made up perhaps 15 to 20 percent of the audience, yet 27 percent of the people voted to modify the agenda.  The difference may have been an inner fringe whose voices were lost in the confusion.  This was a shame.  I would have enjoyed hearing from the inner fringe and might have shared some points of agreement with them.

Lastly, was the protest conducted with civility and respect?  Well, no chairs were thrown through windows, which was a good thing.  But by disrupting the agenda to the extent that little information was passed was counterproductive.  One goal of a protest should be to convince others of the correctness of one’s views.  And at least some of the protesters may have had legitimate arguments to make.  But in the cacophony of the evening, those arguments were never made.

Next time, I’ll try to tackle the question of whether the protesters might have had legitimate arguments, even if poorly argued.

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

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