In a Newport defeat, lessons for the 99%

The Public Square
By BRIAN C. JONES  |  December 29, 2011

TJI_Newport_main
BATTLEGROUND The approved proposal.

The Battle of Queen Anne Square ended in a terrible rout for opponents of a private foundation's plan to renovate a charming, tiny park in downtown Newport.

After six months of a vigorous, emotional campaign to scuttle the project, they lost an overwhelming 5 to 1 vote by the Newport City Council, with one member absent. So unafraid of the critics were some council members that they scolded the losers for "maligning" the project's designer, renowned artist Maya Lin, and insulting the council's integrity.

Still, the humiliating December 14 loss may have tactical lessons for other populist uprisings, namely the Occupy movements, which, decamping from parks in Providence and across the nation, are plotting their next moves.

The Newport protest shared some characteristics of the Occupy movements: a spontaneous, idealistic, grassroots rebellion against powerful, private interests.

What could opponents have done differently?

Certainly, they employed the usual tools, speaking at hearings, flooding newspapers with letters, running a comprehensive Web site and attracting national attention, including a report in The New York Times.

Laurence S. Cutler, founder of the National Museum of American Illustration in Newport, and part of the loose confederation of critics, noted his steps:

He buttonholed supporters, including Marion Oates Charles, the president of the Newport Restoration Foundation, which had proposed the park makeover with $3.5 million in private funds, and hired Lin, designer of Washington's Vietnam memorial. Cutler lobbied City Council members. He invited a national expert, Paul D. Spreiregen, to Newport to review the design, and then publicized Spreiregen's devastating assessment of Lin's plan.

"I think we did everything we could have done," Cutler told the Phoenix, saying the council majority seemed oblivious to arguments that changes to a public park needed a public process, such as a competition inviting alternative designs.

"What happened, at least in Newport, and maybe nationally," Cutler said, "is that democracy died a little here."

But Justin S. McLaughlin, a council member who voted for the project, said opponents might also have concentrated on the simple math of local politics.

A former naval defense analyst, McLaughlin said that if an issue is up to a seven-member council, "you must get four votes, no matter what."

The council sensed that the opposition consisted of 20 to 30 people, McLaughlin said. While he heard from and spoke with many in the core group, he said he was contacted by only five other constituents, out of a potential 4500.

He did read opponents' letters to the newspapers, but McLaughlin would have been more impressed if critics had persuaded 100 voters to tell him that they also opposed the plan.

Even that might not have worked. McLaughlin prides himself on judging the merits of an issue.

But the lesson of Queen Anne Square seems as obvious as it is difficult to accomplish: for an underdog, grassroots movement to succeed, it has to do it the old-fashioned way — door-to-door, one person at a time, until the votes add up.

  Topics: This Just In , Newport, Occupy, 99 percent
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