Center Maryland: Disruption for disruption’s sake?

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Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on CenterMaryland.org on May 29, 2015.

By Donald C. Fry

Protesters who stopped traffic last Tuesday on major Baltimore City commuter arteries no doubt get creativity points for organizing attention-getting, non-violent dissent.

But they merit less than a passing grade for thinking through the purpose of the protest and the unintended consequences of civil disobedience that appears only aimed at getting attention for attention’s sake.

For about an hour and a half between 8 and 9:30 a.m. on the morning of May 26, about 40 protesters triggered the blocking of I-95 and I-395 exits entering Baltimore City, bringing commuter traffic entering downtown from the south to a dead stop.

What was the issue that was being protested? State funding of a $30 million, 60-bed jail to house Baltimore teens charged as adults. The youth jail is needed because the state-run detention center in the city is illegally housing such youths in the adult jail, where teens do not receive school education and other services, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

Last Tuesday’s protest was the first of many that organizers are vowing to conduct until the state funding for the jail construction is rescinded and the governor restores $11 million that were not provided to the Baltimore public school system’s operating budget for next year.

Aside from the obvious question of why the protest wasn’t in Annapolis rather than Baltimore, what were they thinking in crafting a “protest” around two very disjointed state budget decisions?

The Baltimore Sun editorialized that the protest was “misguided,” noting that urban constituencies are more likely to advocate for funding both schools and the youth jail than one over the other.

Blocking morning commuter traffic is “the height of irresponsibility,” WBAL talk-show host and former state senator Clarence M. Mitchell IV told listeners.

While she respects the right to protest, “when you are putting people at risk by shutting down major thoroughfares, that’s beyond reasonable protest,” Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake told The Baltimore Sun.

What can be learned from this exercise? A couple of lessons.

First, protesters need to learn and think about the details of the perceived injustices that they are protesting. In this case they are clamoring for using capital budget funds (bonds to construct the youth jail) for operating budget expenses (funding for operation of the Baltimore City public schools). That’s not how the state budget works.  Capital budget funds are not used for operating budget purposes. Also, there is no practical correlation between the two fiscal issues.

Second, they need to gauge the extent to which the logistics of their protest will alienate and anger the very audiences they are seeking to convert to their point of view. In this case, protesters angered thousands of commuters while stretching to create public outrage over a non-existing dichotomy of injustice between two causes – a facility to house teens who don’t belong in an adult detention center versus more education funding – that most in their audience would otherwise likely support.

Third, civil disobedience organizers need to consider the unintended consequences of such protests on their neighbors and their city – particularly the local consequences on the economy and jobs.

They must ask themselves a fundamentally basic question: is this tactic constructive or destructive?

Recent examples of constructive protests have ranged from mothers against violence rallies in city neighborhoods to the passionate but peaceful Freddie Gray protests that were held in Baltimore before outside influences triggered the violent unrest.

With the Baltimore economy still shaking off the effects of that unrest, it would be wise for organizers of future protests to keep in mind that the actions they take are not observed within the bubble of Baltimore City or the State of Maryland. Rather they are actions observed nationally and internationally that influence the perception of the city. Those outside perceptions have direct impact on the economic health of the city. The economic health of the city to a large extent provides the revenue and resources needed to bring about needed improvements to our neighborhoods and job markets.

Many key industries in the Baltimore metro area are highly sensitive to disruptions that perpetuate the current mass media frenzy to disproportionately sensationalize another Baltimore story to audiences in the region and beyond.

For example, even anchor institutions such as higher education are affected as parents weigh whether to send to students to college in Baltimore in light of what they just saw on CNN. Health care centers are affected as patients weigh whether to come to Baltimore for treatment.

Few sectors, however, are more dramatically affected than the tourism industry. Lately, it’s been on a roll – statewide and in the Baltimore area.

For example, hotel room sales, tourism-related tax revenue and employment all grew in Maryland during the first 10 months of fiscal 2015, including 3,000 new tourism-related jobs statewide in April.

The city is benefitting from strong visitor interest. Major tourism events such as Artscape and the 2014 Star-Spangled Spectacular, a week-long event, drew throngs of visitors. The latter event pulled an estimated 1.4 million visitors into Baltimore, according to media reports.

This strength in the industry is fueling needed tax revenues and jobs, both of which are vital to the city’s efforts to stabilize and promote our neighborhoods, build a strong education system, and draw new businesses to the area.

Visit Baltimore, a private, not-for-profit marketing organization for Baltimore City, estimates that the tourism industry directly supports 55,000 jobs, with another 25,000 jobs indirectly benefitted by it. In other words, more than 7 percent of the Baltimore workforce is somehow tied to tourism.

The tax revenue impact of tourism in the city is also significant. Tourism-related taxes alone pumped more than $88 million directly into tax coffers in 2014, according to the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development. Overall, tourism-related employment and economic activity generate more than $266 million in city taxes and fees, according to Visit Baltimore.

It’s important to keep in mind that those tax revenues help support neighborhood programs, parks and pools, and so much more – including jobs and salaries tied to the public funding.

With so many jobs and tax revenue on the line, perhaps it would be wise for organizers to plan future protests with an eye toward more substance and tactics that are less disruptive to businesses that drive the economy where we live.

Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a regular contributor to Center Maryland.  

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