Protest politics at the RNC

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by Harry Boyte, 9/3/08 • 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.

By the People is a weblog on civic engagement produced by the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs of the University of Minnesota.

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.