Monthly Archives: September 2020

Marathon Protests

New Orleans      There’s something strange and different happening in the world of protests.  The average bystander is unlikely to have noticed this, but as a practitioner in this trade, I couldn’t avoid recognizing a subtle, but surprising global trend:  marathon protests.

Once upon a time, it was all about the numbers.  Crowd claims and counts might go back and forth between the organizers and the police numbers, but big was big, and bigger was better in signaling support for a cause.  If not the numbers, then the tactics, were the hook for the press and public.  What was different?  What was distinctive about the action that caught and then fixed attention in the push for change?  Sometimes it was militance and sometimes it involved props that might offset the lack of numbers establishing mass support, but it was always something.

This new measure seems to be persistence, no matter the numbers or the tactics, but simply the act of continuing to act.

Media reports remark that the protests in Belarus over the disputed and likely stolen election of their longtime autocratic leader are now past 50 consecutive days.  We regularly read about the number of consecutive days of protest that continue in Portland since the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police in Minneapolis.  The same is noted about the continued protests in Louisville over Breonna Taylor or in Minneapolis itself.

A new hallmark of protests seems to be sustainability.  The proof, despite the numbers or even lack of recognizable organization, of endurance until perhaps some level of victory is achieved.  We’ve seen signs of this before, though largely as witnessing through individual action like the daily arrests in front of the South African embassy during the protests or now the climate-based arrests on Fridays in Washington, D.C. or the Moral Mondays a couple of years ago in North Carolina and Georgia.

Marathon protests that continue with no fixed ending date are different though.  Symbolic civil disobedience is one thing, but a protest, whether involving dozens or thousands of people, means a constant evolution of targets and tactics.  For organizers, this presents huge challenges on a daily basis, I would think, just to sustain interest, as opposed to building momentum or constructing organization.

Reading media reports, the focus seems to be on the transformation of individual activists.  The narrative tends to be on someone, invariably young and preferably female and minority, who was uninvolved and has now, by the force of events, been galvanized and found a community and commitment in repetitive protest, all of which, to my mind, is certainly remarkable and admirable.

The organizing problem inherent in marathon protests is the same as the problem organizers always discuss about strikes.  It’s easy to start them, but hard to end them, because victories are difficult to win, no matter the tactics, and nihilism is as poor an outcome as defeat.

This phenomenon will be interesting to watch for the lessons these protests will teach us all.


Getting the Lead Out

New Orleans      We have to take progress where we can get it in these dark days at perhaps the tail end of the Trump administration.  There are scores of last-minute aberrations from muscling an appointment to the Supreme Court to further eroding labor law protections that are hitting fourth gear and heading for the wall.  In that sense, the proposed rule by the EPA on lead, though flawed, is perhaps a break in the clouds, though there are thunderheads all around it.

The EPA is proposing the first major updated rule testing for lead in water in roughly thirty years.  Part of this is a reaction to the drumbeat of reports from Flint, Newark, and tens of other cities that have been faced with the public health crisis of undrinkable water.

According to reports the new rule would meant that,

Schools and child care centers, for example, would be required to notify those who use their facilities of elevated lead levels within 24 hours of testing rather than the current 30 days. The rule also would require water utilities to conduct inventories of their lead service pipes and publicly report their locations.

Early response makes a huge difference, so this would be a win.  Getting a full inventory of lead service lines finally would also be huge step forward.  A Community Voice, ACORN’s affiliate in New Orleans, was forced to sue the Sewer & Water Board in 2019 after they failed to provide the information on the location of the lines made through a freedom of information request.

On the cloudier horizon, EPA’s scientists and other experts wanted a mandate for local governments to replace the six to ten million lead service lines nationally, and that didn’t make it into the proposal.  In the wake of Flint, Michigan has some of the toughest water quality and lead requirements in the country and the governor asked out loud what the point of the new rule is without a mandate to replace on an accelerated timetable.  In fact, critics point out that utilities seem to be getting more time to replace under the Trump rule.

There’s no mystery.  It’s all about the money with a price tag in the billions.  The question is also who pays.  Madison, Wisconsin did the job, but Milwaukee is trying to charge individual residents.  This is going to be a fight in the trenches everywhere.  Cities and utilities made the decision initially.  They broke it, so they should fix it, but many want to push the cost to individual payers.

It matters and every little bit saves lives.  As Tom Neltner pointed out on the Leadnet listserve,

“A study published in Environmental Health Perspectives estimated that between 34,000 and 99,000 cardiovascular disease (CVD)-related deaths were avoided in 2014 due to reduced adult blood lead levels from 1999 to 2014.  The analysis reports that between 16% and 46% of the overall reduced CVD deaths during those 15 years was attributable to reduced lead in adult blood.”

If we want to save lives, we find the money to do the job right.  Meanwhile, we note the step forward and keep pushing for them to lengthen the stride and pick up the pace.