Beautiful Trouble

PARK(ing) Day 2015

Today is PARK(ing) Day, when metered parking spaces around the world are transformed into parks as part of a global challenge to rethink how we use public space. In honor of PARK(ing) day, I want to share a hot-off-the-presses case study from the people at Beautiful Trouble. For the full BT experience, visit http://beautifultrouble.org

 

Case Study: PARK(ing) Day

by

When: Began October 2005 and now occurs annually on the third Friday in September

Where: Originated in San Francisco, California, USA, and now practiced globally

Imagine you are walking down a busy city street. Cars zoom by, walkers navigate narrow and dirty sidewalks, and drivers vie for precious parking spots. Then you come upon a park. But this is not a typical city park. It is a mini-park, slightly longer than a car, nestled in a metered parking spot. You take a moment to sit down on its single bench. Perhaps you chat for a moment with another curious passerby. Or perhaps you simply think about the questions this little park raises, such as: Why is there so much space in our cities for vehicles and so little for public gathering? How might we redesign our urban spaces to make them more convivial and humane?

This concept — a park in a parking spot — was the brainchild of Rebar, a design studio working at the intersections of art and activism. It became the initial spark for PARK(ing) Day, a worldwide movement to challenge and repurpose urban space by temporarily transforming metered parking spaces into public parks. The first PARK was erected in downtown San Francisco in October 2005. Rebar filled the meter with coins and thus effectively rented a seven by twenty-two foot curbside parking space in downtown San Francisco. They rolled out sod, added a potted tree, put out a bench, and created a temporary park for several hours.

The PARK capitalized on San Francisco’s legal code, which did not specifically state that parking spaces be limited to use by private vehicles. Co-organizer Blaine Merker described this performance installation as a “creative repurposing of familiar elements to produce new meaning,” using principles such as creative adaptation, absurdity, innovation, and beautification to change the way we think about metered parking spots and urban space more generally.[1] No longer just places to park automobiles, PARK(ing) spots become rentable public spaces, “temporarily expanding the public realm and improving the quality of urban human habitat, at least until the meter ran out,” as Rebar’s website put it.

Following the initial installation, a picture of the PARK in San Francisco was quickly disseminated through various electronic media. It became what’s known as a “sticky” idea (see The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell and Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath). After seeing the circulated image, people from all over the world contacted Rebar to find out how to stage a similar event. In response, Rebar chose the third Friday in September as “PARK(ing) Day” and, starting the following year, encouraged people to make their own playful and transformative PARK(ing) performances. PARK(ing) Day adopted a creative commons license and encouraged an open source ethic, so long as participants limited their events to the specified day and followed a few simple guidelines. PARK(ing) Day has thus become an international movement reaching hundreds of cities across the world. The initial PARK has become a meme that can be adapted to local situations, and used to raise awareness about a variety of issues facing urban residents.

The PARK(ing) Day movement has also resulted in more permanent changes in urban space. Several cities have created permitting processes for the creation of enduring “parklets.” For example, a parklet on 9th Avenue between Irving and Judah Streets in San Francisco’s inner sunset neighborhood provides several benches so passersby and patrons of nearby bakeries and shops can stop, take a rest, and question how we use urban space.

Why it worked

PARK(ing) Day works because it enacts or prefigures what it professes (see TACTIC: Prefigurative intervention). Instead of just talking about how urban space could be organized differently, PARK(ing) Day lets us experience a living example. It plays on the word “park” to perform a temporary disruption of the usual meaning of parking spaces (and the automobile-centric use of much urban space), instead highlighting the second meaning of park in an engaging and memorable way. If someone encounters a PARK, she can’t avoid noticing it. Even if she sees one of the thousands of photos of PARKs that circulate online it can potentially change forever how she sees “parking” spaces, while opening the door for her to rethink public space in general.

Key Tactic at work

Prefigurative intervention

PARK(ing) Day doesn’t just complain about or protest car culture, it offers the public a positive, participatory way to experience a more human-scale and convivial use of public space, prefiguring the positive change it seeks to bring about. Who knows what exciting initiatives might come about thanks to the efforts of par(k)ticipants inspired and excited by all the ways a parking space could be put to use!

Détournement/Culture jamming

Although détournement is most often used to describe the playful hacking of mass media, it can also be used to alter the meaning of a particular space or place. PARK(ing) installations subvert the normal use and understanding of parking spaces, and with the help of a pun on the double-meaning of “park,” suggest that every parking spot is just a PARK waiting to happen.

Key Principle at work

Don’t dress like a protester

In its PARK(ing) Day manual, PARK(ing) Day warns potential participants, “Remember, you are not protesting.” Importantly, they encourage participants to build temporary open spaces in which any passerby will be welcome to take part. Even though PARKs radically repurpose urban space, they do so by offering a fun, welcoming, and legal opportunity for everyone to participate.

Enable, don’t command

PARK(ing) Day is an open-source movement that calls on participants to adapt the form however they see fit, in keeping with the event’s creative commons license. The PARK(ing) Day website provides participants with tools to achieve their own vision as opposed to telling them what a PARK should be.

Reframe

PARK(ing) Day uses temporary parks as a way to reframe conversations about the use of public space. PARKs call our attention to the dominant frame of a car-centered mode of urban design and allow participants to envision alternative frames.


Danielle Endres is a professor of rhetoric and argumentation at the University of Utah. Her teaching and research examines discourse (verbal and nonverbal), persuasion (rational and irrational), activism, and social movements. Her research investigates climate change activism, Native American activism, and environmental justice. When not performing her day job, Danielle spends the majority of her time trying to encourage radical thinking and an expanded sense of the possible in her two young kids.

 

  1. Blaine Merker, “Taking Place: Rebar’s Absurd Tactics in Generous Urbanism,” in Insurgent Public Space: DIY Urbanism and the Remaking of Contemporary Cities, ed. Jeffrey Hou (Florence, KY: Routledge, 2010), 51.

Use Your Cultural Assets — A Principle of Creative Activism

Today I’m excited to share with you the second piece I have written for Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution, a book-turned-website with tons of great resources for creative activists. This was an excellent exercise for me, because it forced me to take the ideas about culture that I’ve been exploring here and in my other work, and boil it down to some key pieces of advice. The full text is below, but for the full, interactive experience read it on the Beautiful Trouble website

“Never go outside the experience of your people. . . . Wherever possible go outside the experience of the enemy.”

— Saul Alinsky

Principle In Sum: By drawing on the cultural assets of the community, organizers can deepen the involvement of participants, disorient opponents, and shift the cultural terrain in their favor.

Radical social change groups can rarely compete with their opponents in terms of financial resources or institutional power. Instead, they must draw on what they do have: passionate, committed people willing to take action. The same is true in the cultural arena: opponents of social change efforts often have powerful cultural tools at their disposal, from dominant paradigms and frames to control of mass media (see THEORY: Cultural hegemony). To combat this, groups working for justice must recognize and build upon their own cultural strengths.

 All communities develop shared cultures — stories, symbols, art forms, knowledge, norms, and practices that hold the community together and shape its identity. These cultures offer rich resources for action, whether it’s youth organizers performing hip-hop street theater; Japanese-American activists repurposing traditional Taiko drumming; or Harry Potter fans drawing on the narratives of Rowling’s books to address an array of social justice issues (see CASE: Harry Potter Alliance).

If social change efforts are to be led by those most affected by injustice (see PRINCIPLE: Take leadership from the most impacted), then this principle calls for a particular focus on the cultural strengths of marginalized communities, or what researcher Tara Yosso calls “community cultural wealth.” In the face of ongoing oppression, communities develop many ways of strengthening themselves and resisting domination. They hone storytelling and communication skills, share counter-stories that challenge dominant narratives, create new art forms, and develop practices of mutual support. Many of the most powerful social change efforts, from the African-American civil rights movement in the US to the environmental justice movements throughout the world, have relied heavily on the cultural wealth of participating communities.

When communities draw on their own cultural assets to carry out actions, they strengthen their own membership while simultaneously disorienting and discomfiting opponents. They are playing by their own rules rather than accepting the existing terms of engagement. By inserting their own stories, perspectives, and practices into the broader dialogue, they are not just operating within, but actively shifting the cultural terrain (see PRINCIPLE: Know your cultural terrain).

Culturally specific practices can serve as a statement of cultural pride, and can strengthen collective identity. When the Idle No More protests spread across Canada and the United States beginning in 2012, organizers utilized Indigenous music, dance, and language as a way to assert the power and continued relevance of Indigenous culture (see CASE: Idle No More and the Round Dance Flash Mob). Utilizing shared cultural assets can also help to draw in others who are not yet onside politically, but who relate culturally. For example, given hip hop’s worldwide cache with young people, many see it as an effective tool for organizing across racial, ethnic, and national lines.

Potential Pitfalls

Exclusion: When drawing on culturally specific practices, there is always a risk of alienating not just opponents, but also people you would like to welcome into your effort. Then again, this is true of any cultural practice: protest marches, press conferences, sit-ins, and other organizing staples all energize some folks while making others feel excluded (see THEORY: Political identity paradox and PRINCIPLE: Make new folks welcome). If exclusion is an issue, it can be moderated by adapting or combining practices from different cultural communities; educating allies on the meaning of the practices; or carefully selecting practices that are welcoming. For example, the freedom songs of the African-American civil rights movement combined Black spirituals and white folk music as a way to assist in organizing across racial lines.

Appropriation: Organizers must also be aware of the dangers of simplification and appropriation. Cultures are complex and dynamic, with blurry boundaries and lots of internal diversity. They cannot be reduced to a small set of symbols or art forms. Those who are not directly involved in a cultural community may have a particularly difficult time understanding this complexity. Beware of appropriating aspects of a culture you do not fully appreciate or understand, no matter how pure your intentions.

Idle No More and the Round Dance Flash Mob

A little over a year ago I reviewed a book on this site called Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution. Since then, the book — edited by Andrew Boyd (of Billionaires for Bush) and Dave Oswald Mitchell — has grown into an expanding, interactive website filled with resources for the creative activist. Recently I had the opportunity to contribute a chapter to the site and it has just been released. I am excited to share with you all my piece, looking at the cultural work of the Idle No More movement for indigenous sovereignty. The text of the case study is below, but for the full BT experience, head over to read the piece on the Beautiful Trouble website. Enjoy!

In October of 2012, the Canadian government introduced Omnibus Budget Bill C-45, which significantly eroded Indigenous sovereignty and environmental protections. Indigenous communities immediately voiced concerns. In Saskatchewan, four women — three Indigenous and one non-native — launched a teach-in and website in order to raise awareness about the issue. They dubbed their effort Idle No More.

By December, the “Idle No More” movement was in full swing. Rallies were being held across Canada and internationally; the hash tag #idlenomore was trending on Twitter; and Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence was on hunger strike seeking a meeting with the Canadian government. The movement had quickly broadened to encompass a collective demand for governments worldwide to “honor Indigenous sovereignty and to protect the land and water,” as the group’s website declared.

It was in this context that a group of organizers put out a call to action on Facebook asking “Aboriginal people, non-Aboriginal people, Metís, youth, and anyone willing to dance/sing/drum with us” to meet at the Cornwall Centre shopping mall in Regina, Saskatchewan. At 7:00pm on December 17, Aboriginal activists gathered at the mall and began beating out a steady rhythm on hand drums and singing. Others soon emerged from the holiday shopping crowd to join hands around the mall’s massive Christmas tree, circling clockwise in a traditional Indigenous round dance. By the end, an intergenerational and interracial group of over 500 people had gathered on two floors to take part in the action. Mall security and city police arrived, but the flash mob remained entirely peaceful before melting away.

While the flash mob itself lasted less than 15 minutes, videos and articles about it circulated widely on the Internet. Another round dance took place the following day in the West Edmonton Mall in Alberta. These actions captured the imagination of others in the movement, and dozens of round dance flash mobs began popping up in malls and public spaces across Canada and the United States. On December 29, over 1,000 people gathered for a round dance protest at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota.

Round dances, often used as a form of celebration and as an expression of friendship and unity, are practiced in different forms by many Indigenous nations in North America. Along with many other aspects of Indigenous culture, the round dance was suppressed in the process of colonization, but it has recently reemerged as a celebratory practice, and recorded round dance music has become increasingly popular. The round dance flash mobs, then, represented both a powerful expression of resistance and a practice of cultural regeneration.

Round dance flash mobs became a strong enough presence in the Idle No More movement for some to begin referring to it as the “round dance revolution.” Organizers had hit upon a way to combine social media and flash mobs — both highly popular forms of activism among young people — with traditional music and dance in a way that bridged generations and cultures, creating space for building a sense of community. The round dances symbolized the movement’s core tenets of peace and unity, while sending the simple message: “We are here, our culture is strong, and we will not be silent in the face of destruction.”

Why it worked

The round dance flash mobs addressed multiple movement goals at the same time. To opponents, they demonstrated the grassroots power and the continuing strength of Indigenous nations. For Indigenous participants and viewers, they promoted cultural pride and connection. For newcomers, they offered a welcoming and easy opportunity for involvement. And for the movement as a whole, they served as a powerful visual symbol. The flash mobs carried the resonance of tradition and ceremony, while also being fun, loud, entertaining, and contagious.

Key Tactic at work

Flash mob

Flash mobs are unrehearsed public actions that can be easily replicated while maintaining a sense of coordination. In this case, Idle No More organizers found synergy between the flash mob and the round dance, itself an improvisational performance that invites observers to join in. Quickly planned and carried out, these events helped drive the rapid spread of the movement in a way that more rehearsed and controlled performances would not have been able to do.

Key Principle at work

Use the power of ritual

The Idle No More round dances served as collective rituals with deep symbolic resonance. They made it easy for people from many backgrounds to “fall into the rhythm” of the action; they offered participants a direct experience of unity and solidarity; and they spoke viscerally to the strength and vitality of Indigenous cultures.

Use your cultural assets

Opponents of social change efforts often have powerful cultural tools at their disposal, mass media in particular. To combat this, groups working for justice must recognize and build upon their own cultural strengths — their stories, symbols, arts, rituals, shared knowledge, and ways of being together. Using these cultural assets can strengthen participants while pushing opponents outside their comfort zones. The Idle No More flash mobs drew effectively on the cultural wealth of Indigenous communities such as traditional music and dance, as well as the social media practices of younger generations.

Photo Credit: Drummers for a Round Dance flash mob held at the Eaton Centre shopping mall in Toronto, December 30, 2012. Photo by Kevin Konnyu.

Book Review — Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution

The playing field has changed drastically for activists and organizers over the past few decades. The initially revolutionary tools of sit-ins, marches, and boycotts have become standardized and — let’s be honest — predictable. With media saturation reaching record levels, new avenues for protest have opened up. But at the same time it takes more and more effort to get even a brief moment of media attention. And the problems we struggle against are often less visible than they once were. Long-running oppressions like racism have shifted towards more subtle and covert forms, and newer issues like climate change can often feel invisible and distant.

These changes have arguably led to a new wave of creativity in political action, from flash mobs and critical mass bike rides to viral videos and culture jamming. People across the globe are taking action in innovative new ways — drawing on a long history of creative protest, but also responding to uniquely modern opportunities and constraints. Through this process, activists have developed an enormous amount of expertise and knowledge about how to do effective and creative protest.

Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution seeks to gather together, in one place, as much of this dispersed knowledge as possible. In doing so, editors Andrew Boyd (of Billionaires for Bush) and Dave Oswald Mitchell have produced a true treasure trove of collective wisdom. Authors include activists from a wide array of organizations — including Code Pink, the Yes Men, Ruckus Society, Justice for Janitors, Rebel Clown Army, and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers — along with journalists, filmmakers, trainers, and researchers. Some of these authors have been in the struggle for decades, and here have managed to summarize their expertise into compact, easily digestible bits — with plenty of additional resources for those who want to go into more depth.

The 99% Bat Signal on the Brooklyn Bridge

The book is broken up into four parts. Section one, Tactics, includes descriptions of and practical advice about specific forms of public action — occupation, banner drops, invisible theater — as well as couple broader pieces on the concepts of direct action and strategic nonviolence. Section two, Principles, shares “hard won insights” about activism, such as “Brand or be branded,” “Make the invisible visible,” and (my favorite title), “No one wants to watch a drum circle.” Section three, Theories, does an impressive job of taking theories about social change — cultural hegemony, pedagogy of the oppressed, environmental justice — and summarizing them in ways that are practical and easy to read. Section four, Case Studies, offers examples of these tactics, principles, and theories in action. Cases include the Teddy-bear Catapult, the 99% Bat Signal, and the Lysistrata Project.

To be clear, this book is primarily about action. It is not a comprehensive guide to organizing a movement — it is about that small but vital place where an organizing campaign or movement meets the public sphere. Many of the authors are not organizers as much specialists in political action, coming from groups like the Yes Men and the Rebel Clown Army. That said, a number of chapters do touch on broader aspects of organizing. Harsha Walia, for example, writes about challenging patriarchy within your organization or group. And Joshua Kahn Russell from the Ruckus Society pens a few thoughtful pieces on basic organizing principles like “Take leadership from the most impacted,”

The arts certainly have a significant presence in Beautiful Trouble. The book includes examples of forum theater, guerrilla videos, massive human banners, and lots of public performance. But many of the actions in the book are not “artistic” per se. What they all share is a close attention to the form that protest takes. Authors advocate aligning the form of an action with its message, audience, goals, and overall strategy. They push a vision of protest that thinks beyond standard marches and rallies, to utilizing the broad range of tools open to activists. And they understands that political action functions at both the literal and symbolic level.

The Lysistrata Project, a global theatrical peace event

Beautiful Struggle speaks to two cultural faces of social change. First of all, many of the chapters are based in an understanding of dominant culture. Mainstream culture is seen mostly as a target for social change, but also as containing a set of resources — memes, narratives — that are ripe for usurpation. Secondly, a smaller number of chapters touch onmovement culture, particularly collective decision making and addressing power relationships within organizations. What the book lacks is attention to the deep and powerful resources embedded in existing non-dominant cultures. A good addition might be a chapter on something like counter-storytelling, a narrative technique that draws on long histories of strength and resistance in marginalized communities.

Because I didn’t want to miss anything, I read Beautiful Trouble in order, from front to back. But I do not recommend this method, because one of the best things about the book is its modular structure. Each short piece ends with a list of related pieces in the book, and web links to more resources. And if you are reading the ebook version (which I highly recommend for just this reason), these lists are hyperlinked. So you can wander, weaving between practice and theory, between the book and the web, forging your own path.

At the same time, this modular structure leads to some lack of cohesion in terms of understanding how these pieces fit together into an overall strategy. For this reason, I think it would pair well with a book like (Re)Imagining Change by SmartMeme that offers a method for embedding creative action within an overarching strategic narrative. (Members of SmartMeme author some of the pieces in Beautiful Trouble, which can give you a sense of their approach.)

The editors are planning to make all of this content available online, with additional pieces. And they are inviting others to submit their own cases, theories, tactics, and principles for online publication. So Beautiful Trouble will be able to grow far beyond the confines of the book, offering an evolving, collaborative, and ultimately invaluable resource for action.