Union Editorial: Beyond butcher paper activism

OH, ARCATA There you go again. KLH | Union

Arcatans are full of … ideas. Lots of them. Good ones, too. Unfortunately, none of them has improved conditions on the Plaza, at least not yet.

Many, many, many meetings focused on the Plaza have taken place over the years. We’ve had them at City Hall, the D Street Neighborhood Center, the Community Center, the Arcata Chamber of Commerce, a night club and on the Plaza itself.

Most of the meetings involve brainstorming ideas. A big pad of butcher paper may be set up on an easel, and as the ideas fly, the marked-up sheets of paper are transferred to the venue’s walls for review. Sometimes the paper is already taped up on the walls.

There’s never any problem with filling up these beckoning blank pages with suggestions. They end up festooned with well-intentioned ideas for improving things, usually written with colorful marking pens. You can view many of these pages on the Mad River Union’s website.

The Sept. 14 Town Hall meeting at The Jam was a typical example. It was a good meeting – facilitated, focused and full of ideas, dutifully drawn on … you guessed it, big old sheets o’ butcher paper.

But at the Oct. 26 meeting of the Public Safety Task Force, there was nothing at all from that seemingly productive Town Hall meeting to work with or build on. The ideas recorded there hadn’t been sent along to the task force for consideration.

Nor had the idea-filled reams of butcher paper from the Oct. 11 CommUnity Pride & Peace “solution session” at the D Street Neighborhood Center been forwarded to the city-sponsored citizen group working on crime problems.

Apart from the chronic dysfunction of one hand not knowing what the other is doing, what was the point of all that butcher papering again? Apparently it wasn’t to give City Hall’s task force any fuel to propel its efforts.

For all the trees that have perished to be milled into these sheets of dreams, little to nothing – no wait, nothing – seems to ever come of them.

Spend most of your evening at a Plaza-oriented meeting (pro-tip: the ones that take place where they serve beer are the best attended). Write “Picnics on the Plaza” on a piece of paper, and walk away considering yourself an activist. Then go out onto the town square the next day, the next week, the next month and you will find that nothing whatsoever has ever changed.

Unless the cops are standing around babysitting them, drunks are still swearing, yelling and fighting. Druggies are still slinging nugs and worse. Dogs are still running loose, bicyclists are still careening around the sidewalks and campers and the cigarette and cannabis smoke still billows all over you and our family.

It doesn’t change. Or hasn’t yet, anyway.

That being the case, maybe we should try something different. In the fullness of time, it seems like scribbling suggestions on big pieces of paper isn’t the most effective way of making effective change, or very effective at all. It makes us feel good, that’s for sure – like “liking” a Facebook post, or “hearting” a Twitter tweet – but the end result is the same: not much.

At least the clicktivism doesn’t deplete America’s strategic reserves of butcher paper and marking pens.

This isn’t to say we should stop trying to imagine solutions. Thinking and acting on situations is the only way forward. It’s just that all that butcher paper and all those marking pens are looking more and more like a feel-good substitution for real-world action.

Fanciful scribbles, pleas for reason, no-no signs, energy circles and chanting – we've tried them all, and quite demonstrably, none of these tactics translate into real-world action.

Call us cynical, but the only thing that stops bicyclists from blowing stop signs and riding the wrong way on one-way streets is tickets. The only thing that slows down speeding cars is speed humps. The only thing that makes the Plazoids observe common courtesy is cops.

Maybe we’re wrong about that. Maybe we just haven’t come up with the most blindingly brilliant idea yet. Or perhaps we’ve just been using the wrong colors of marking pens.

But it seems like one obstacle to progress is investing our hopes in those big sheets of paper, and mistaking loading them up with suggestions for purposeful activity that never happens.

Let’s get real, or at least stop being so unreal. Ban the butcher paper.


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