Symbolic Gestures

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As we’ve written here many times, we’d like you to consider thinking differently about airport issues.  We’d like you to consider that the real challenges are not ‘noise’ or ‘pollution’ or ‘FAA law’ or ‘the environment’. What this all comes down to is a simple civil rights issue. We are an unprotected class.

Like most unprotected classes, our minority rights get stomped on by a much larger majority. We take it in the neck because a larger group feels that their needs matter a whole bunch more. (Remember that old Star Trek thing about “the needs of the many….”? I do not recommend life on the planet Vulcan.)

But viewed from this perspective, the goal should be to obtain our civil rights. It moves the discussion away from endless debates over ‘how’ to get to less noise and pollution and towards a case of simple fairness.

This is not an abstraction

And from that perspective, the strategy and tactics look completely different. Our primary task is not to find ways around or through the law. Our task is to move the discussion towards fairness. Believe it or not, that is a much easier job than all the technocratic jazz about FAA law, scientific studies and ‘cost/benefit analyses’–and that is why all successful activists campaigns focus on civil rights rather than specific legislation or legal arguments. Because if you focused on what appears to be possible (legal, legislative) you’d call it a day. If Dr. King or Thurgood Marshall had looked at any legal textbook back in the 1950’s they would’ve simply given up.

The steps should be: Lay down your definition of fairness. Then work to build consensus on that goal. Then leverage that to get decision makers on board.  And finally, let the decision makers do the heavy lifting for you.

We have done a very poor job in both establishing a goal and building that consensus. We have not convinced the public to get behind us because we haven’t even told them what we consider to be fair. And we have not moved the needle even at the lowest levels of government. In fact, I would suggest that we have not even convinced ourselves that change is possible! And that is the main reason we never get anywhere. All we do is talk to one another inside a very small echo chamber, with the occasional polite bit of encouragement from decision makers.

A recent example of Symbolism in action

During this COVID-19 emergency, every city was immediately presented with demands to ‘stop landlord late fees’ or ‘stop landlord evictions’. And many cities passed resolutions to do both those things. Now, any city attorney will tell you that these resolutions aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. They literally have no force of law because rental law is not the purview of municipalities.

So: why do these resolutions cause such heated arguments on both sides? You can understand people on the tenants-rights side being all jazzed, but even if you’re not in favor of such a policy, why be so vehemently against such resolutions if you know they cannot be enforced? The heated rhetoric is not because landlords are concerned about ‘the principles!’ or mean-spirited people who enjoy throwing tenants out in the cold.

The real answer is simple:  Symbolism matters. If a city makes it their ‘official position’ on something like rental late fees or immigration it sends a message to stakeholders. And if enough cities do it? It starts moving that Overton Window and before you know it: you have serious talk about changing State Law. Which is the entire point. Tenants Rights activists know exactly what they’re doing. They know that symbols matter.  And people on the other side also know this and they aren’t gonna let it take root in their town like some bad weed. Because weeds spread.

It’s Universal

That’s exactly how all civil rights works. You get a foothold somewhere–a weed that looks like nothing, typically something symbolic–and then you work to spread it. Sometimes this happens in a faux-organic way (FYI: Rosa Parks confrontation on that bus was no accident) and sometimes with a seemingly ‘pointless’ city council resolution. Civil rights almost never works without those symbolic gestures because it’s those gestures that get people talking.

This strategy has been used for decades and decades to further all manner of civil rights from red-lining to AIDS to LGBTQ to immigration to minimum wages. Symbolism matters because symbolic gestures work.

The uncomfortable question

We live in a democracy. And that means that decision makers only do what they are pushed to do by various interests. That sounds snippy, but that is how politics is supposed to work. You have to be serious in your advocacy to get a decision maker’s attention. Otherwise? Decision makers would be wasting all their time on causes no one cares about. If you can’t generate some pressure? You’re not worth paying attention to. The reason we never seem to get anywhere with airport issues is because the real decision makers feel none of that pressure to do anything beyond what they are currently doing. All their real incentives are towards what the 2 million residents of King County want: growth. The 100,000 or so people who are bothered by the airport: are you kidding me? That’s almost a rounding error.

This is the uncomfortable question I always ask activists: Why should any Port Commissioner or Senator or Congressman or State Rep. or even the local dog catcher feel any pressure to do more when not even a City Council is willing to speak up?

Twenty five years

Activists tend to get frustrated because the law is a stone wall and the economic interests all go in the wrong direction. Which is why I always suggest small wins–to move that Overton Window. But I’m also mindful that the clock is ticking–and this is another parameter that does not get discussed: Twenty five years .

Twenty five years is the nexus between ‘building a second airport’ and ‘electric plane technology’. Both of these are canards that also work hard to keep us stuck where we are.

Second airport canard

The second airport will never provide relief for people around Sea-Tac Airport and we’ve discussed it here ad nauseum. I have no idea why activists continue to mention it as if it were something meaningful for us. If anything we should be rolling our eyes whenever any elected mentions it because it’s simply an excuse to get us to stop complaining and be ‘patient’.

In two sentences, the reason a second airport sucks is the same reason we will never build another major highway–you can’t build your way out of traffic. By the time a second airport comes on line, more planes would magically appear to fill up that capacity, providing zero relief for us. Really.

Technology canard

I’ve spoken to Governor Jay Inslee now three times. Twice in an open forum and once in a five minute ‘audience’. Each time, I’ve asked him the same question: Why won’t you vote for any legislation curbing greenhouse gases that includes marine and aviation fuels? And each time his answer is the same: “I will never vote for that. However I will do all I can to promote electric airplanes.” Remember: this is, hands down, the most environmentally friendly candidate for president we’ve ever had.

So we have two big ‘solutions’ out there which are basically, “hang on for twenty five years!” And I’m not willing to wait twenty five years because a) I have no confidence that either of those solutions are real and b) I have a good idea that my community can’t wait that long for relief. In my view, those faux-solutions are just ways to keep us from taking useful action that might be disruptive to the status quo.

How long?

And why should we be patient? Can you imagine AIDS activists being told, “Hang on, we’ll have a vaccine in twenty five years.” No. People are suffering now. Your long-term solutions are just excuses for not taking our rights seriously now. And that should be our attitude as well.

Like those activists, I am not willing to wait twenty five years. But of course, relief isn’t coming in six months, either. My guess is that ‘success’ will take at least five years. What kills me about a lot of activists I talk to is that when I say five or ten years? Their enthusiasm evaporates. So you’re saying that you won’t work seriously on a goal this difficult if there’s no immediate gratification?

I literally have no response to that because all important civil rights campaigns all are mapped out in years (as are airport project, by the way.) The people who manage airports think  strategically in very long time-frames. And if you’re not willing to do so as well to push back? Frankly, you’re not for real and no decision maker should take you seriously.

It’s all Civil Rights

Like activists in all successful civil rights movement, we should be working to move the discussion now. And, as with all successful civil rights movements, the first layer of government we should address should be municipal. Because again, if we can’t get our own local leaders engaged (the people who breathe the exact same air and listen to the exact same roaring engines), who can we get on board?

Why should any decision maker care, if the people who represent you don’t show that they truly care? Symbolism matters. Again and again: if you don’t believe me, just look at every previously successful civil rights movement. They all work the same way: incremental wins, hearts and minds.

Our problem is that we’re constantly studying ‘studies’… and ‘law’… and all the things that only end up making so frustrated. Instead, we should be building support by insisting that a cleaner, quieter airspace is a civil right.

I ran for office because I realized that moving the Overton Window was more important initially than any legal or legislative action. And by studying other civil rights movements, I also realized that you don’t need thousands of people to obtain real change. You just need to have a consistent, easy to understand message and relentlessly work to move the ball forward a few yards at a time.

I think the single biggest problem activists face is convincing ourselves that this is a ‘civil rights’ issue. Somehow that sort of language sounds high-falutin’ and too abstract to be useful. Many of us seem much more comfortable talking about legal or technical issues–which I believe are traps. I maintain that convincing people that we deserve a quieter, cleaner airspace is a lot easier messaging than either ‘ultra-ultra-fine particulates’ or ‘DNL65’.

My job is to get decision makers to feel a pressure to consider our civil rights. And I’m doing that by trying to get my peers on board because, obviously, the more leaders are engaged, the more pressure we can exert.

The Action Item

In a recent post I asked you to do something for the cause–even if you have no faith in the notion whatsoever. And I can ask this because it’s very simple and very easy to do and it certainly can’t hurt. In fact, I can ask this because if you’re an activist you’ve almost certainly logged many ‘noise complaints’, knowing full well that those were also fairly pointless. Give this the same chance. 🙂

I am asking you and residents of all other airport communities to write your City Council (in my case and make the following request:

Please make it the official legislative goal of the City Of Des Moines to work at every level of government towards permanently limiting the number of daily operations at Sea-Tac Airport to 900.

Your job right now is not to worry about ‘how’ to do that. So stop bitching about that. Remember: in the beginning, even Dr. King had no idea how to get ‘er done, either. Your job is simply to tell your City Council, “this matters to me”. Because currently? They don’t think it matters all that much. But trust me, if a City Council gets enough letters on any subject, they do something. And in this case, *we don’t even care that they don’t have the power to do anything ‘real’. Because at this point, all we care about is creating a symbolic gesture.

Ask any successful civil rights campaigner: Symbols matter.

If you think that one city council asking for a limit on flights is not very meaningful, consider this: The total populations of the six airport communities originally invited to join StART in 2018 is almost 270,000. Add in the population of Beacon Hill and you’re well over 300k. Fifteen percent of King County. And that many people matters.

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