Protest politics at the RNC

More and more of us live in gated communities, not only of neighborhoods, but of belief.

This sense of alienation and distance was fully on display among the demonstrators at the Republican national convention this week in St. Paul. Protestors voiced outrage at the war in Iraq, fury at the Bush administration, and anger at Republicans. Some demonstrators attacked delegates. But what struck me most was the sense of powerlessness.

A half century ago, many settings in the Twin Cities functioned as meeting grounds where people developed civic muscle—everyday power—as they developed public relationships across lines of difference. For instance, in the 1930s, 11 settlement houses joined together “to develop neighborhood forces, arouse neighborhood consciousness, to improve standards of living, incubate principles of sound morality, promote a spirit of civic righteousness, and to cooperate with other agencies in bettering living, working, and leisure-time conditions.? Settlement houses typically had staff living on site “in order to ensure that those employed understood the local community dynamics and undertook all their work from that vantage.? [Text in quotes drawn from the settlement federation document.] Professionals learned to work with neighborhood residents and new immigrants, rather than “ministering unto? them.

In her biography of Harry Davis, a Minneapolis school board member who was also the first black elected official in Minnesota, Lori Sturdevant describes how African Americans from diverse socioeconomic, religious, and work backgrounds came together at the Wheatley House. “It is fair to say that Phyllis Wheatley Settlement House is what brought the African Americans of North Minneapolis together into a functioning community,? Sturdevant writes. “The Wheatley settlement provided [blacks] with self-awareness and pride. It fostered relationships. It taught people to help one another and to raise their families in a difficult and challenging environment.? On the West Side of St. Paul, Neighborhood House, a sister settlement to Phyllis Wheatley, formed a space in which Jewish Eastern European refugees got to know and work with Mexican immigrants, Irish Catholics, and blacks coming up from the South.

Protest politics is like snake oil. It may feel good, but it does little to address the underlying problem of powerlessness. In fact it can make things worse. Protest politics is a statement of difference—we are not like them. Real power develops when people who are different build working public relationships across their differences. This takes time if it is to be sustainable. That said, civic muscle could have been developed even during the four days of the convention if demonstrators had had ways to engage Republican delegates on a human and public level, exploring potential common interests and values, not just displaying their differences.


Hello-I'm a student at Carleton College and a fairly regular reader of this blog.

Your post made me curious about a few things, and I'd love to hear your thoughts in response.

The contrast you set up in the final paragraph--in which you advocate for building "working public relationships across their differences" as opposed to making "a statement of difference" through protest--is reminiscent of Robert Putnam's description of "bridging" versus "bonding" social capital.

However, it seems like the organizing principle of the Wheatley House was bonding, rather than bridging. Those involved may have had diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, but they were united by a factor that was even more salient (at least half a century ago): race.

Now, I don't know anything about the Wheatley House other than what's in your post, so this may be off base. But it seems to me that participants in Wheatley House established an alternative network to counter the prevailing power dynamics through grassroots mobilization. To me, that sounds like a good thing. It doesn't, however, sound like they were principally concerned with bridging differences.

In the description I just laid out, I believe activities such as protests are important precisely because they are like snake oil: they rally the troops, getting people fired up.

My questions, then, are these:

What role is there for protests, in your opinion? Are they counterproductive, as you suggest they may be--or are they simply narrow in their function/purpose?

From an activists' perspective, how does one get people as excited about the prospect of engaging in the more methodical process of organizing and lobbying in a sustained fashion? After all, what you describe at Wheatley--staff living on site, etc.--is much more taxing and less sexy, so to speak, than protest.

Thanks--I'd love to hear back on any one or all of these questions, if you have time!

Paul Yaffe --

Many thanks for your thoughtful comments and questions. Here are a few replies

* "Bridging capital" is in the general ballpark but the better concept, I think, is everyday politics -- bridging capital is very abstract and academic. It's the everyday process of learning to engage and negotiate interests and views with people from different backgrounds that is key here. And "politics" in the older sense is a much better language than the economic language of "capital."

* Phyllis Wheatley was in the African American community -- but the community was very diverse. The settlements all worked together and interacted, which itself was cultural and racial diversity on a large scale (the only other parallel were the unions, I expect). And some settlement houses -- Neighborhood House on the West Side stands out -- themselves were immensely diverse. I did a long treatment of Neighborhood House in Community Is Possible some years ago. Its older legacy is reviving todya in the Jane Addams School and the Neighborhood Learning Community - you can find out about these on this site.

* Protest has its place if part of a broader strategic organizing process -- organizing always involves tension and surfacing conflict, but in ways attentive to building long range public relationships and cultures where they can be sustained. I have a lot on this in my recent Citizen Solution book, with many examples today.

It is, finally, "more taxing" to build cultures where public relationships are developed and sustained - but much deeper and more rewarding, I would argue. It takes work and time.

Harry Boyte

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs