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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

December 1, 2014 at 10:31 AM

The business of civil disobedience

Protesters line the top floor of Westlake Center in downtown Seattle on Friday, disrupting the annual tree-lighting ceremony.   (Photo by Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times

Protesters line the top floor of Westlake Center in downtown Seattle on Friday, disrupting the annual tree-lighting ceremony. (Photo by Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times

Suburban retailers and mall owners, as well as online retailers, did a happy dance when protesters disrupted the tree-light festivities in downtown Seattle Friday night, causing Westlake Center to close early.

This is not to question the sincerity of most participants, who were trying to call attention to what they see as a miscarriage of justice in Ferguson, Mo., and too many unarmed black men shot by police with no consequences. But what about the effectiveness of their tactics?

Like Chicago, San Francisco and Oakland (where other demonstrations took place) Seattle is already one of America’s most progressive cities. Downtown is a commons that, unlike suburbia, offers public spaces that welcome diversity and protest. We are among a small minority of American cities with a real downtown that includes retailing.

As a result of the protest Friday night, some low-wage workers lost precious hours on the clock and had a difficult time getting to the bus. But few minds were likely changed about one of the most troubling, persistent and divisive issues in America. Most Seattleites, especially those with the urban values to shop downtown, already believe Ferguson is a travesty.

At least a protest hit a suburban mall in St. Louis, closing it for an hour on Black Friday.

White and black America see the Ferguson situation very differently from one another. Do protests such as the one in downtown Seattle help change minds? Or do they merely push most white people with means — people with outsized ability to bring change — deeper into the suburban white bubble?

Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders of the Civil Rights Era were masters of using economic power against injustice. To be sure, they also called America to its better self. But such actions as the Montgomery bus boycott and the boycott against white-owned businesses were both non-violent (on the part of protesters) and devastatingly successful.

King was especially frustrated by, and determined to reach, white Southern “moderates.” These were people who disapproved of crass racism but wanted to go slow on reform, especially integration. The economic weapon, combined with mass protests, the willingness to go to jail (filling the jails of the South, causing huge costs) and claiming the moral heights, proved decisive. After all, back then local white store owners depended on black dollars. So did the bus system (which, at the time, all races and classes rode).

Repeating this is difficult. Although de jure segregation is gone, Americans are more geographically segregated than ever, especially by class and economic assets.

It would be interesting to see peaceful mass protests by whites and blacks together on the public sidewalks outside every suburban mall in America. Would enough people be willing to fill up the jails again? Could their message of justice-for-all resonate in such a divided country? And could this become a political movement that resulted in widespread electoral success? (How many protesters voted last month as reactionary Republicans were taking over the Congress and a majority of statehouses on a platform that was basically “anti-Obama”?).

The answers aren’t easy. But I suspect that merely staying in downtown Seattle won’t affect much change, except perhaps to drive a few local shops out of business.

Didn’t protests help pressure the city to pass a $15 minimum wage? No doubt. But this happened in an already progressive place. The challenge is how to change hearts and minds and policy in red America, which for now controls our politics.


 

Today’s Econ Haiku:

Moody’s cuts Japan

Where were these dudes in ’08?

Got a yen to know


 

Comments | More in | Topics: Ferguson, Protests

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