THE BLOG

What Happens When the Protests Are Over?

06/01/2015 05:41 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2016

Recent events in Baltimore are a reminder of the need to build "civic infrastructure" in inner-city communities like Sandtown, the neighborhood in which Freddie Gray lived, a neighborhood I studied closely when writing Black Baltimore: A New Theory of Community, more than 20 years ago.

Sandtown then was home to many community-based, self-help efforts that provided examples of what participatory democracy, on a small scale, should look like. News reports from Sandtown in the wake of Freddie Gray's death show they are still there -- Rev. A.C. Vaughn's Sharon Baptist Church, the New Song Community school, the Sandtown-Winchester Improvement Association, "helicopter" parents and grandparents, trying to guide their kids through the maze.

I celebrated the indigenous social capital of these small-scale efforts in the book, calling them "base communities" because they reminded me of the Christian study circles organized by liberation theologians in Latin America. Groups of no more than 20, seminar-size, where people could connect, reason together, figure things out and take action.

Friends and colleagues challenged my idea, arguing that while intimate and powerful, these small groups were not scaled to solve the problems they could see. Employment? Education? Police misconduct? Environmental damage? How could a group of twenty people respond to such large-scale issues?

So I went back to the drawing board, trying to figure out how to take base communities to a scale large enough so they could impact the issues people in neighborhoods like Sandtown face without sacrificing the intimacy and trust that made them so powerful, so important, so precious.

It was quite an undertaking, assisted by serendipity and caring people as much as by scholarship and hard study. It's taken a long time.

The process started at a National Civic League annual meeting I attended, where former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley gave a speech comparing American society to a three-legged stool. There is a government leg, a business leg and a community leg, he said. Bradley got the audience's attention by declaring that the government and business legs are very long while the community leg is very short, making the stool -- and the society -- unstable.

How can community be lengthened, strengthened, so that it can balance business and government? Episodic flare-ups, through demonstrations, protests and other forms of mobilization, are not enough. Once grievances have been addressed, or the protesters silenced or co-opted, activity tends to subside. Civil society needs an ongoing civic infrastructure if it is to impact government beyond periodic elections, and business beyond individual consumer choice. Physical redevelpment alone is not enough.

But how to build that infrastructure, how to knit those base communities together?

Then I met Don Anderson, a lawyer and social activist who was also an African-American descendant of Thomas Jefferson. He had come across some of his ancestor's writing on "Citizen's Assemblies." The assemblies were to be sized to a Congressional district, and would select their Member through a series of caucuses. The Assembly's most intriguing aspect, however, was its structure, and its potential to do a lot more than elect a Member of Congress.

The building block of Jefferson's assembly was a neighborhood council of seven families, comprised of one representative from each family. Each council in turn selects its own representative, and these seven people meet as a "conference" representing seven councils (49 families). Finally, each conference sends a representative to an assembly representing all the conferences in the congressional district. The assembly conveys information -- and instructions -- from the constituent base to the member of Congress. (The model's democracy was apparently a bit too direct for the Founding Fathers, and it never left the drawing board.)

This was what I was looking for.

Today, Sandtown numbers approximately 9,000 people. A Sandtown Citizen's Assembly would number about forty people, aggregating Sandtown families to empower the people of the neighborhood. Such an Assembly could hold local government more directly accountable -- schools, the police, elected officials -- not from the distance of the voting booth, but up close and personal. The Assembly could also perform some functions parallel to government, such as community mediation.

The Sandtown Citizen's Assembly could also check businesses and banks engaging in exploitative or high-handed practices. Past examples include the boycotts and selective buying campaigns of the civil rights movement, and labor's boycotts and public shaming campaigns. Co-ops such as those Gar Alperovitz has described could round out the Assembly portfolio, creating "social" businesses, micro-enterprises, and other "off-the-grid" sources of income.

Protests emerging from the hassles people in neighborhoods like Sandtown face every day have erupted all across the country. These protests are, at bottom, about a political and economic system that just doesn't care about little people until, like Lilliputians, they get organized.