I’m not talking about violence or anarchy here. I’m talking about highly visible, organized displays of solidarity among people that cuts through all socio-economics, race and other held-over prejudices. Birmingham has a storied history of protests that changed history by dialing in and shedding a blinding light on problems of civil and human rights. In many ways, Birmingham is a city defined by protests.
The words are those of Birmingham adman Tim Denny. They appeared in the inaugural issue of this newspaper, back in August 2011, when for our first cover story, we asked 17 local citizens to submit “Big Ideas” for making Birmingham better. Denny’s idea? Stage More Protests.
We had some outstanding ideas submitted, several of which have gained traction in the 21 months since. But I’ve been thinking in retrospect that Denny’s was the best.
I do not make that statement lightly, nor without anticipating the rolling of eyes and the heaving of sighs among those who do not understand or appreciate the role that protest has played in the history and development of Birmingham. The fact of the matter is, regardless of where you place our community on the continuum of growth and progress, we wouldn’t be anywhere near where we are without the courage and determination of those who on numerous occasions over the years have been willing to join with like-minded individuals to see what the strength of numbers might change.
The dark side of this, of course, is that the seemingly endemic need to protest in Birmingham is a direct outgrowth of our rich and colorful tradition of government. Incompetence, corruption, willful neglect of the public interest, habitual appeal to the lowest common denominators of race and class — this is our political heritage, one that has made it a necessity for the people to band together and make their collective voice heard. The other side is that when the people of Birmingham do speak up, do march, do take organized actions to let their leaders know what is wanted and expected of them, progress tends to result.
It is not difficult to think of any number of issues and concerns that could benefit — and, in at least a few cases, which are benefiting already — from the kind of “highly visible, organized displays of solidarity” for which Tim Denny called. Healthcare for the poor of Jefferson County rates high on that list, and though we have seen some organized protests of the Jefferson County Commission’s closing of Cooper Green Mercy Hospital, they are going to be limited in effectiveness until the broader public Denny also defined — i.e., cutting across racial and economic lines — begins to perceive it as a problem that affects us all.
Other areas well deserving of close attention include mass transit and the future of the Birmingham City Schools. As current events at Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport are bearing out, it also might behoove the public and the news media to become actively engaged in demanding greater transparency from quasi-public boards and agencies – a shout-out here to The Birmingham News for suing to obtain records related to the display collapse at the airport that killed a 10-year-old boy. That includes not just the Birmingham Airport Authority, but also the likes of the Birmingham Water Works Board, the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center Authority and the Birmingham Parks and Recreation Board; collectively, these agencies are funded by hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, which they expend with very little oversight or accountability.
Still and all, there is at present no better example of either the need or the opportunity for constructive protest than the very bad proposed plan for renovation of Interstate 20/59 through downtown Birmingham. As presented by the Alabama Department of Transportation — and detailed in previous issues of Weld — the plan would disrupt both ongoing and potential revitalization efforts in several neighborhoods north of downtown. It also would impact implementation of the Red Rock Ridge and Valley greenway plan and potentially play havoc with traffic patterns in and through the downtown area.
Public action on this issue already is well underway. Several public meetings have been held already, and the issue is being propelled from what began largely as a concern for residents of Norwood — the neighborhood that would suffer the worst impacts of the ALDOT plan — into a communitywide cause. The next step in that process is a meeting set for 6 p.m. this Thursday, May 23, in the friendly confines of Oak Hill Cemetery — a historic city landmark that is among the entities that would be affected if the interstate is reconfigured as planned.
The ALDOT plan “will have serious and detrimental consequences for Birmingham and the region,” declares Joseph Baker, one of the organizers of the budding opposition. Baker says that beyond just protesting the plan, organizers will advance “a more beneficial and positive alternative.”
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve the design of our city,” says Baker. “We hope people will be motivated to come out and join with others who want a better Birmingham for all.”
Now that’s the spirit of protest at its finest.