Reflecting on the post-legislative failure to stop Salem from voting to approve $450 million dollars in bonds for the Columbia River Crossing, I’m feeling mildly disheartened. Despite some incredible work on the part of individual activists and a handful of lesser known nonprofit & neighborhood groups, the Oregon state senate voted Monday 18-11 in favor of the CRC, the same as the house did just one week prior. HB 2800 will be the first bill signed into law by governor John Kitzhaber this legislative session.
Kitz is being urged to veto the bill by opponents, but despite being called out by the Willamette Week as secretly hating the CRC freeway mega-expansion, it was Kitzhaber who proclaimed that “it’s time to build this bridge” back in early December of 2012. And here we are, barely 3 months later. Oregon’s Democratic leadership have made good on their promise, public opinion be damned.
On Monday, the only Dem to vote against the bill was Jackie Dingfelder, who testified on the senate floor against the project’s increased pollution and congestion, and lack of a plan to actually pay back the bonds or mitigate harmful health impacts. Dingfelder deserves praise. Rumor has it that the pressure from the Democratic leadership may have included threats of reprisal and withholding party re-election funds.
Dingfelder was also present during a recent stunt at an Oregon League of Conservation Voters (OLCV) event wherein CRC-supporting SE Portland state house rep. Jules Bailey (D) was ‘awarded’ for voting in favor of increasing carbon emissions by some 35%, despite congratulating himself for a record to the contrary just moments prior.
The event coincidentally took place the same day an article published on Bikeportland.org called into serious question why groups like the OLCV and the Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA) have failed to wage any meaningful fight against the CRC, despite several quotes professing such an intent. Opening the event, OLCV executive director Doug Moore warned the audience not to bring up the CRC, claiming the conservation group chose not to waste “political capital” on a fight they “didn’t have the power to stop”. Pretty easy to throw in the towel when you haven’t gotten in the ring.
The two hour proceeding saw speaker after speaker repeat alleged legislative goals; reducing carbon and continuing to build alliances with the politicians OLCV had endorsed as being “environmental champions“, virtually all of whom voted in favor of the 12 lane mega-freeway expansion. While a question and answer session was promised, it was clear that by the 1hour & 50 minute mark that they were trying to run out the clock.
Only four questions from a crowd of about fifty people were allowed, none asked about the CRC – the audience obeyed as commanded. Were it not for the Cars Rejuvenating Carbon award presented to Mr. Bailey, no further mention of the CRC would have taken place beyond Doug Moore’s opening remarks. The event was almost totally scripted and controlled, no dissent would be tolerated, and little time would be allowed to question those speaking from their positions of perceived authority.
For those unfamiliar with the pranking antics of the activist duo the YES MEN, I cannot recommend enough viewing the two documentary films in which they are featured. Whip smart and relentless, they have orchestrated some of the most jaw-dropping ruses of corporate bureaucracies of our generation, and always in a style of humor and good-nature. Their most well-known episode involved impersonating a representative of DOW Chemical Corp while stating that the global giant would pay out $12 billion in reparations for the Bhopal massacre that killed over 8,000 people of which one of DOW’s subsidiaries was responsible.
This statement was, of course, a lie, but the prank caused the corporation’s stock to drop by billions as traders feared the company was going to channel its profits into actually caring for people who were sick or had lost loved ones. Suffice to say, the Yes Men are a major source of inspiration.
The Columbia River Crossing will cut through some of Portland’s poorest neighborhoods. More accurately, the construction of the original I-5 freeway created some of Portland’s poorest neighborhoods, burdening surrounding families with noise and toxic air by inducing hundreds of thousands of carbon emitting vehicles each day. The CRC freeway expansion will enable what state rep Lew Frederick termed the “re-victimization” of these neighborhoods. One would imagine an environmental justice issue this open and shut would be a slam dunk for groups claiming livable streets are good and pollution is bad.
OLCV executive director Doug Moore claims he and his organization are “willing to speak truth to power” regarding the mega-project. The BTA stated that they were “planning a full-court press to try to derail the CRC.” Nice sentiments, but neither statement matches reality. The inaction of both groups speaks volumes. Where is the true accountability? What could be stopping these groups from fighting the fights they allege to care about? Like all questions of a political nature, the answer is simple: follow the money.
It took little effort to find information on the BTA’s board of directors, they have a website after all. As many as five members of their board either work for companies or organizations listed on the CRC supporters page, or have received massive amounts of pro-CRC campaign donations from outside their district. When I inquired with one of their directors if this presented a conflict of interest, and why the BTA had previously claimed the CRC would be on their agenda in 2013 when this was in fact untrue, the responses I received were defensive, and never came close to addressing my actual questions. Shortly after, I was informed by somebody who’d worked within the organization that this particular director has previously lashed out “screaming” over criticisms leveled at the BTA after making statements that could not be backed up.
If nonprofits requesting public money for their eco-agendas willfully fail to engage in the campaigns they promise, who is to hold them to account? If they are working within the legislature, yet are backing down from the tough fights, when do we start characterizing them as complicit with the system we are struggling to resist? In asking these questions, I’m forced to reflect upon another inspiring activist.
Saul Alinsky wrote the book (literally) on afflicting comfortable bureaucratic minds too cozy with the system. His landmark ‘Rules for Radicals’ remains a much-lauded instruction manual for pissing off the powers that be asserting authority and ownership over the status quo. Alinsky remarked of his work, “The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. ‘Rules for Radicals’ is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away.”
My personal favorite ‘rules’ from Alinsky’s book:
•RULE 3: Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy. Look for ways to increase insecurity, anxiety, and uncertainty.
•RULE 9: The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself. Imagination and ego can dream up many more consequences than any activist.
•RULE 13: Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it. Cut off the support network and isolate the target from sympathy. Go after people and not institutions; people hurt faster than institutions.
While the Yes Men have historically targeted corporations over individuals, their antics and street theater clearly have unnerved the individuals preaching accountability while propping up institutionalism. And by behaving humorously and charmingly, the Yes Men undermine the monied interests’ authority while leaving scant room for retaliation. Targeted corporations rarely threaten lawsuit for fear of appearing hostile and vindictive to an act presented as playful, harmless free speech.
So where does that leave the real grassroots movement against the Columbia River Crossing? Obviously, not everyone wants to put themselves out there to make a mockery of the system and the complicit actors that dance within it. Many want to function within these circles, gaining access and influence over time. I don’t doubt this long term strategy will gather credibility of a kind and certainly grant the opportunity to make a career and draw in money. Though the longer this approach is pursued, the less this process can produce legitimate change.
I am not alone in my criticisms of enviro groups that turn into greenwashing fronts for career politicians and corporations looking to rebrand for a new marketing campaign. Globally and locally, the real work being done challenging the entities enabling ecological destruction is happening outside the mainstream green money machine. So much so, now even the national big-leaguers are trying to appear as though they’re adopting civil disobedience and direct action tactics perfected by history’s unruly revolutionaries.
With each new social revolt, activists and tactics that push the envelop are mistrusted by the establishment. They’re accused of hurting the movement, they’ll be told to sit down, to shut up, to stop challenging authority. They’ll be warned to restrain themselves lest they ‘burn bridges’ with groups choosing formulated avenues of operation - yet it is these very troublemakers that history so often remembers as vigilant pioneers.
This dynamic is well understood by those who study the splintering and fracturing of social movements. It’s natural, it’s bound to happen, activists move in different directions, disagree, re-form, resolve to work together in some cases and not in others. Solidarity doesn’t require a lack of criticism, far from it.
I would love to see the nonprofits raking in hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars in donations each year return to their grassiest of roots, unafraid to finance bold actions. Though witnessing how cash flows corrupt, I’m not holding my breath. If outside critiques don’t compel them, maybe hemorrhaging members and money will. Time will tell.
Until then, there are small groups fundraising tiny sums that have been increasingly vocal and involved in the community co-ordinated fight against the CRC. They may not be down with the antics of the Yes Men and Saul Alinsky, but they are doing good work none the less.
Beyond the CRC is the larger fight to continue building a radical livable streets movement. These are issues and ideas largely unknown to the general public. Using tactics reserved for more familiar social justice causes may continue being frowned upon within the sanctioned transit wonk world.
As I wrote some months ago, this needs to change. The old methods of advocacy aren’t getting results. We need to adopt a new vocabulary and a new operating playbook. We need to continue pushing these boundaries. If that upsets the status quo, I take that as a sign we’re on the right path.
Ongoing community events against the CRC are happening throughout Portland, link HERE.
This fight continues.
As always, see you in the streets.