Fighting over the fate of Scabby the Rat

Reportedly, the National Relations Labor Board (NRLB) is working to trap Scabby for good:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inflatable_rat

Scabby is a giant inflatable rodent, up to 25 feet tall, with angry red eyes, exceptionally prominent front teeth and sharp claws. Created some 30 years ago in Chicago, it’s a favorite device of unions trying to draw attention to their grievances, and it works. “Before, you could drive by and see six guys with picket signs and probably never notice them,” James Allen, president of District Council 1 of the International Union of Bricklayers, told the Tribune last year. Scabby is harder to miss…

But the NLRB’s general counsel, appointed by Donald Trump, is not smiling. Peter Robb, previously a management lawyer, “hates the rat,” one unidentified senior NRLB official told Bloomberg Law. At his direction, the agency is trying to eradicate Scabby.

The effort isn’t likely to succeed. Under Barack Obama, the NLRB ruled that putting this huge air-filled mascot outside the entrance of a hospital, accompanied by a union member holding a leaflet, was a form of free expression protected by the First Amendment…

“The rat balloon itself was symbolic speech,” said the board. “It certainly drew attention to the union’s grievance and cast aspersions on (the nonunion employer), but we perceive nothing in the location, size or features of the balloon that were likely to frighten those entering the hospital, disturb patients or their families, or otherwise interfere with the business of the hospital.”

Read a little more on how Scabby was developed in the Chicago area in this 2018 blog post.

Having seen Scabby in action several times, there at least three reasons the symbol works:

  1. No one wants to be associated with a rat. Even if there are people who like rats as pets, they are not viewed as cuddly or likeable creatures in the same way that many others animals are. A rat is a negative symbol, a reminder of urban squalor or dishonorable behavior.
  2. The size of Scabby and the particular look is not pleasant. This is not just a rat on a sign that is a cartoonish figure; this is a large inflatable that towers over the sidewalk. The eyes are red, teeth are showing, front legs are out. This is not a pleasant figure to look at.
  3. Putting #1 and #2 together, organizations or employers would not like the connotation of the inflatable rat nor the presence of it in front of what they hope to present as a welcoming or pleasant place of business or activity.

This means Scabby could help attract attention to a labor cause. As noted in the story above, it is a visceral image that grabs the attention of people passing by. Without such a large symbol, it could take a lot more work to garner attention including larger pickets or significant media attention. Whether the prolonged presence of Scabby leads to a better outcome for the union or employees is another matter.

Patterns in suburban Chicago rallies for in-person schooling, sports

The suburbs are not typically considered hot spots for protest activity. Yet, in the Chicago region, in the past few weeks several suburban rallies have taken place in support of a return to school. The latest one on Monday in Barrington:

Holding signs like “Schools not screens” and “Stop playing politics, start playing ball,” more than 200 parents and students in Barrington Area Unit District 220 took part in a rally Monday evening asking the district to allow in-person schooling and sports…

A survey conducted by the district earlier this summer showed 70% of parents wanted their children in school, he pointed out. “So why are they not in school?” he said, getting applause and cheering from the crowd.

This comes less than a week after a protest with a similar theme in Wheaton:

As students across the Western suburbs begin the school year with remote learning, hundreds of parents and students rallied in a downtown Wheaton park Tuesday night to demand a total return to classrooms and sports…

The gathering in Wheaton’s Memorial Park drew participants from as far away as Mokena and Orland Park, Western Springs and Huntley.

Along with students, some teachers and coaches, parents at the rally made the case for reopening classrooms, arguing that the loss of social interaction in schools hurts their children’s emotional, mental and social well-being.

A few thoughts on these protests:

  1. Given how COVID-19 has been politicized, would it be fair to characterize as these rallies as a conservative response to current conditions? If so, this could join a pro-police rally in Oak Brook a few years ago. This is in contrast to “liberal” suburban rallies in Naperville (example here) and in other suburbs. (NIMBY protests in the Chicago suburbs may be bipartisan.)
  2. Do suburban protests tend to take place in wealthier suburbs? I have made the case that Naperville draws particular attention for protests because it is large and has a lively downtown. Would suburban protests in more working class communities draw the same attention?
  3. Do we know if there is a recent (last five years or so) increase in suburban rallies and protests? We would need to have a baseline of collective activity over time and then compare. If there is an increase, it might be due to multiple factors: increasing diversity in suburbs and changing communities as well as ongoing battles for suburban voters.

Taking protests for racial justice to the suburbs

Data collected over the last few years hints at new venues for protests in the United States:

woman holding a sign in protest

Photo by Life Matters on Pexels.com

The engagement of Brown and others also represents one of the most striking aspects of the current protests against police violence in the U.S., compared with previous ones. They’re everywhere, in suburbs and small towns as well as major cities. Count Love, a data-collecting effort launched in 2016 to document protest activity in the U.S., has cataloged more than 1,500 distinct racial justice events since George Floyd was killed on May 25, and the site’s founders, Tommy Leung and Nathan Perkins, expect to add many more, since they have an extensive backlog of local media and reports to review. Even in the wake of the 2017 Women’s March and widespread anti-gun actions in 2018, the physical scale of these Black Lives Matter protests is striking.

While it’s challenging to generalize, given the sheer number of events that have and continue to take place, conversations with eight protest organizers, as well as historians and researchers, suggest some commonalities amid the vibrant, multiracial, and predominantly peaceful demonstrations taking place outside of large cities. They’re often led by first-time organizers in their teens and 20s, often women, who have adapted the traditional models of urban-style political demonstrations to suburban sprawl or rural areas. And they’ve done so at incredible speeds by leveraging social media.

“One of the reasons we’re seeing these protests in suburban and exurban places is because organizers don’t need connections to movements or Black institutions or churches,” says Ashley Howard, a historian and professor at the University of Iowa working on a book about urban rebellions of the ’60s. “They already have networks in place through social media.”

These protests also reflect the demographic shifts and diversification of U.S. suburbs and exurbs in recent decades, a challenge to the stereotype of a monochromatic suburbia. While much has been said about how unexpected it may be for the current wave of protests to have moved beyond urban centers, many organizers and activists say the suburbs — where many residents may not believe there are issues of systemic racism — are exactly where these protests belong.

And Naperville, wealthy suburb home to recent racist events and protests in the last decade, gets a mention.

See my own recent thoughts on the spread of protests to wealthy suburbs. As noted above, the combination of more racially diverse suburbs, the high status of numerous suburbs, and political change in suburbs means suburban protests are more normal. Whether this translates into (1) changed suburban communities – reduced residential segregation? – and (2) changed state and national politics – led by suburban voters? – remains to be seen.

I’m glad this data is being collected and I would guess it has a lot of potential for academic research. As previous research has examined, how did these protests diffuse across the United States? What are the patterns in the communities that had protests?

When protests make it to the wealthier suburbs, this means…

With protests spreading across the United States, including wealthy suburbs like Naperville, Illinois and Dunwoody, Georgia, this could hint at several forces at play:

NapervilleCorner

-Americans dislike or disapprove of blatant injustice. (Whether that extends to making significant changes or sacrifices is another story. The suburbs are built in part on race and exclusion.)

-The population composition of suburbs has changed in recent decades. As William Frey of Brookings Institution details in Diversity Explosion, minority populations have grown across suburbs.

-The image of primarily conservative voters in wealthy suburbs may not be as valid as it was in the past. The outcome of the 2020 election depends in part on suburban voters with suburbanites closer to big cities leaning toward Democrats and suburbanites on the metropolitan edges leaning toward Republicans. And appealing to suburban women are important for candidates.

-Certain upscale suburban locations have become important sites for attracting attention because of their status. For example, Occupy Naperville occurred in 2012 and Naperville attracts other protestors as the largest community in DuPage County, its walkable downtown with lively stores, restaurants, and recreational options, and its status.

 

Martin Luther King, atomic energy, open housing, and DuPage County

In 1967, the federal government had selected a site in southwestern DuPage County, Illinois, on the land of the small community of Weston, for a new National Atomic Laboratory. Dozens of locales across the country had applied, including places with existing concentrations of physics facilities and scientists. As the government worked to confirm and develop the site, in June 1967 protestors marched to Weston against the selection of the site because of open housing problems in nearby communities and the State of Illinois. Connected to the marchers? Martin Luther King, Jr.

The DuPage County site came through an interesting political process (see the book Fermilab: Physics, the Frontier, and Megascience) and the selection offered an opportunity for civil rights activists to pressure the state of Illinois and local governments, particularly in light of the lack of change after the Chicago Freedom Movement and Martin Luther King’s protests in Chicago in 1966. (See, for example, the subsequent push for open housing in nearby Naperville as detailed by Ann Durkin Keating in “Behind the Suburban Curtain.”)

King announced a rally for June 1967. Organizers talked of a “tent-in” and marchers had plans to walk from a nearby religious retreat center in Warrenville (where the Chicago Tribune reported they faced hecklers) to the Weston site. According to the Tribune, King made a short visit to the tented protestors on June 23:

Dr. King, a leader of the Chicago Freedom movement which is sponsoring the “tent-in,” spoke to the dozen campers and a battery of newsmen and called the Weston protest a necessity to keep civil rights alive.

Asked by newsmen if he was losing support for his civil rights programs, King said:

“I don’t know how much support we are losing, but I will say the vast majority of white Americans are against us. We hope the government will hear our pleas and our cries.”…

Dr. King spent about 15 minutes with the campers, who had pitched their tents Thursday afternoon in an effort to urge Congress not to approve the Atomic Energy commission’s request for the Weston accelerator.

The Chicago Tribune ran a small article on June 25 summarizing the march:

An estimated 350 civil rights demonstrators marched without incident yesterday into west suburban Weston to protest the Atomic Energy commission’s decision to build a proton accelerator there…

In Weston, Raby and McGermott addressed the crowd from a sound truck. “We are beginning to see the end of the 1964 civil rights act,” said Raby. “The Illinois state legislature, in failing to pass an open housing law, has demonstrated its total disregard for the laws of the federal government,” Raby said.

King did not attend the march. Yet, lending his name and effort to the protest helped publicize open housing issues facing Illinois suburbs as well as many other communities across the country. Furthermore, his efforts in suburbs are not widely known  as compared to efforts in large cities in which he spent significant amounts of time.

Open housing officially came through Congress in 1968 after MLK was assassinated. The Fermilab facility broke ground in December 1968 and operated as a premier science facility for decades. DuPage County continued to have a reputation of few minorities for decades and a long-running lawsuit alleged exclusionary zoning in the county and the county public housing authority faced issues. And while increasing numbers of minorities have moved to the suburbs in recent decades, the suburbs can still be exclusive and exclusionary.

Sources:

Chicago Tribune. 1967. “King Admits His Movement Loses Ground.” Chicago Tribune, June 24, 10.

Chicago Tribune. 1967. “Marchers Protest Weston.” Chicago Tribune, June 25, 7.

Hoddeson, Lillian, Adrienne W. Kolb, and Catherine Westfall. 2008. Fermilab: Physics, the Frontier, and Megascience. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.\

Johnson, Michelle Kimberly. 2016. “”Who Speaks for Chicago?” Civil Rights, Community Organization and Coalition, 1910-1971.” https://www.brown.edu/academics/history/sites/academics-history/files/images/MJohnson%20Who%20Speaks%20for%20Chicago.pdf

Keating, Ann Durkin. 2017. “”Behind the Suburban Curtain”: The Campaign for Open Occupancy in Naperville.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 110(1):59-86.

 

Fighting harder against gentrification

Activists in Los Angeles and a few other cities are ramping up their efforts to fend off gentrification:

That’s because it was organized by Defend Boyle Heights, a coalition of scorched-earth young activists from the surrounding neighborhood — the heart of Mexican-American L.A. — who have rejected the old, peaceful forms of resistance (discussion, dialogue, policy proposals) and decided that the only sensible response is to attack and hopefully frighten off the sorts of art galleries, craft breweries and single-origin coffee shops that tend to pave the way for more powerful invaders: the real estate agents, developers and bankers whose arrival typically mark a neighborhood’s point of no return…

By “making s*** crack” — by boycotting, protesting, disrupting, threatening and shouting in the streets — Defend Boyle Heights and its allies have notched a series of surprising victories over the past two and a half years, even as the forces of gentrification continue to make inroads in the neighborhood. A gallery closed its doors after its “staff and artists were routinely trolled online and harassed in person.” An experimental street opera was shut down after members of the Roosevelt High School band — egged on by a group of activists — used saxophones, trombones and trumpets to drown it out. A real estate bike tour promising clients access to a “charming, historic, walkable and bikeable neighborhood” was scrapped after the agent reported threats of violence. “I can’t help but hope that your 60-minute bike ride is a total disaster and that everyone who eats your artisanal treats pukes immediately,” said one message. The national (and international) media descended, with many outlets flocking to Weird Wave Coffee, a hip new shop that was immediately targeted by activists after opening last summer….

These harsh realities aren’t lost on millennials of color — especially young men and women from gentrifying neighborhoods, where such inequities tend to be on vivid, daily display. To that end, a 2016 Harvard Institute of Politics poll found that only 42 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds now support capitalism; a third now identify as socialists. Among those who backed Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy, the number was even higher — a full 54 percent — and minorities and people without a college degree were more likely to support socialism as well…

“We are devoting our time to building a national movement against gentrification,” they wrote in a February blog post titled “Defending Boyle Heights and f***ing s*** up: A 2017 summation and report back from our Hood Solidarity tour.” “Boyle Heights has … become a beacon of hope for other communities facing similar threats. … We are hopeful that in the coming years, with the effort necessary to sustain a movement, poor and working-class people can escalate the class war against gentrification and actually hinder and possibly reverse its effects.”

As the article notes, gentrification is not new but reactions to it have changed over time. Most major cities are beholden to development and have been for decades: development and growth is good, particularly when it is taking place in neighborhoods that have seen better days (think of older urban renewal programs), and politicians and developers can have a symbiotic relationship. Yet, this development often does not help poorer residents who even if they are not pushed out of the neighborhood do benefit in the same ways as developers and politicians.

A few ongoing questions about these efforts:

  1. Do more strident responses to gentrification then allow more negotiation to take place about the future of neighborhoods?
  2. At what point do cities, developers, and business owners push back harder against such protests?
  3. Can protests like these slow or stop gentrification? Can they prompt a larger spirit against gentrification in the community?

Something to keep watching.

Rat balloons – “Scabby” – started in the Chicago area

I have seen at least a few large inflatable rats while driving around in recent years – even in front of my own employer – and these rats have their roots in Chicago area union protests:

The rat balloons, nicknamed “Scabby,” started in the Chicago area in 1990 and have grown into a worldwide symbol for union strikes. But the balloons aren’t without controversy. From the picket line to the courtroom, employers have tried to snuff out Scabby many times…

Ken Lambert, a former organizer with the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers, says he was searching for a way to draw more awareness to a 1990 picket in north suburban Chicago…

Lambert says he chose a rat because the animal has long been used as a symbol to call out those who oppose unions. Fellow organizer Don Newton helped secure the funds for the first balloon, Lambert says…

The legality of using Scabby as a form of union protest has been contested, with many of the rulings relying on the interpretation of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act. The act ensures rights for striking unions to picket the location of an employer or contractor, while also protecting nearby companies or other organizations employers from being targeted.

The article goes on to say that the unions believe the rats attract attention and informing informing the public about union workers. But, some of the material online suggests the rats serve another purpose: to provoke employers and organizations. I wonder how the mixture of trying to gather public support while poking at your opponent with a giant rat works out. The article suggests at the end that it is not known whether inflatable rats lead to better outcomes for union. Does it cause the two sides to double down or make other organizations think twice?

More broadly, this could be a powerful protest device for other groups. Why don’t more movements have large inflatables that can fit on sidewalks or public easements? The presence of certain symbols or words could draw attention, particularly near busy roads and intersections.

Naperville as a center for suburban protests

Several hundred people gathered in Naperville Saturday to demand PResident Trump release his tax returns:

The sidewalks of downtown Naperville were filled with hundreds of marchers Saturday, many waving signs and chanting “release your taxes” in a Tax Day rally that gathered at the Riverwalk’s Free Speech Pavilion…

Foster said the Naperville protest was one of 180 Tax Day Marches held across the United States and in four other countries to demand Trump make his returns available to the public…

Both organizers and Foster said they were pleasantly surprised by the turnout, estimated to be between 300 and 600 people. Stava-Murray said the group initially requested a permit to hold the rally at the larger Grand Pavilion and to march along the Riverwalk, but the Naperville Park District rejected the requests, citing a rule prohibiting protests at both locations. She said the American Civil Liberties Union is looking into challenging the district’s rule as unconstitutional.

As a result, they rerouted the march to public sidewalks – east on Jackson Avenue, south on Main Street, west on Aurora Avenue and north on Eagle Street. Police stationed along the route confirmed the marchers were following guidelines worked out with the city for a peaceful protest.

Suburbs, particularly wealthier are more conservative ones like Naperville, are not usually known for their political rallies and marches. Yet, Naperville has had its share of political activity in recent years including an Occupy Naperville group in 2011 and a Trayvon Martin march in 2012. Why is Naperville a place for such activity? Some possible reasons:

  1. The city is the second largest suburb in the Chicago region behind Aurora. This means there are both a lot of residents who could be mobilized and a variety of viewpoints.
  2. Naperville may have a reputation as a business-friendly conservative community but it has more Democratic voters than before.
  3. Naperville has a highly educated population.
  4. It has a vibrant downtown where any sort of political activity could be viewed by a lot of people.
  5. DuPage County lacks other good protest sites. Other communities are smaller and sleepier. Could a march in Oak Brook draw the same amount of attention?

It will be interesting to see if (1) such activity continues and (2) how the city might respond to where activists can march.

The most congested city in the world is…

…Not much of a surprise. But, Los Angeles does lead the way by quite a bit over other cities:

Drivers in the car-crazy California metropolis spent 104 hours each driving in congestion during peak travel periods last year. That topped second-place Moscow at 91 hours and third-place New York at 89, according to a traffic scorecard compiled by Inrix, a transportation analytics firm.

The U.S. had half the cities on Inrix’s list of the top 10 most congested areas in the world and was the most congested developed country on the planet, Inrix found. U.S. drivers averaged 42 hours per year in traffic during peak times, the study found. San Francisco was the fourth-most congested city, while Bogota, Colombia, was fifth, Sao Paulo ranked sixth and London, Atlanta, Paris and Miami rounded out the top 10…

Study authors said a stable U.S. economy, continued urbanization of big cities, employment growth and low gas prices all contributed to increased traffic and congestion worldwide in 2016, lowering the quality of life.

The city built around the car and highways lives and dies with those same cars and highways.

What would it take to dramatically reduce that time in Los Angeles? The city has both a history of mass transit – extensive streetcar lines in the early 1900s – as well as rumblings about increased mass transit options in the future. See this 2012 post that sums up this potential “mass transit revolution.” But, any such effort must be monumental and involve both infrastructure as well as cultural change. Could we truly envision a Los Angeles in several decades where the car is not at the center of everyday life (both in practice and mythos) or will we have piecemeal efforts (including continuing trying to maximize driving through schemes like boring under the city) that don’t add up to much? Large-scale transformation would take a significant shift in focus by the city and other bodies and require sustained pressure for decades.

Another thought: are there effective ways for angry drivers to protest congestion? Yes, they can vote for certain candidates or policies. What if drivers one day symbolically walked away from their cars during the afternoon rush hour? (Such a protest, unfortunately, only would add to the congestion.) Could drivers clog the downtown streets in protest to block politicians? Refuse to go to work? There does not seem to be many options for the average driver to express their displeasure.