The lady doth protest too much, methinks. — William Shakespeare
Is there such a thing as "bad activism"? I'm asking because I'm seeing a lot of criticism of the folks who are protesting the Memphis Zoo's encroachment onto the Greensward at Overton Park.
Some people mock the protesters for making such a fuss over "grass." These folks don't understand that parks are public spaces, created as a natural and necessary escape for uban dwellers who spend their lives negotiating streets, parking lots, and traffic. This city has plenty of asphalt already, and it can make more. Green space? Not so much. Turning an historic and beautiful lawn into a parking lot is foolish, when so many other options are possible. It's not about "grass."
The "misplaced priorities" argument is also getting a lot of play on social media (often from people whose Twitter feeds are filled with commentary on such vital issues as the Grizzlies, barbecue, and craft beer). It goes something like this: "With all the problems this city has, why are people wasting time and energy (and space on my social media) on the Greensward? There are bigger issues."
Well, of course, there are bigger issues. Lots of them: Poverty, illiteracy, crime, rampant obesity, income inequality, to name a few. But why would you presume that the folks protesting the zoo's takeover of the park only care about one issue? Because the other issues are not showing up on your social media?
How do you know that some of these park activists aren't mentoring underprivileged youth, giving their time and money to fight poverty and racism, working to spread the arts to the underprivileged, trying to change our transit system, fostering children, volunteering for literacy, delivering meals for MIFA, fighting for a living wage, cleaning up our rivers and streams, or opposing our stupid gun laws? You don't. In fact, I know that many of them are doing these things. But those activities don't often lend themselves to television coverage.
People who have been working for years to improve Memphis Animal Services hear a variation of the same criticism: "If only they cared about people as much as they do puppies." It's a specious slight. People care about what they care about, and they can care about many things. You may not have the same priorities, but recognize that every activist is working to improve something or to right a perceived wrong — which helps your city and helps you. They should be applauded for caring enough to work for change, not criticized.
Then there's the criticism that the Greensward is a "white people" crusade, that this squabble is about Caucasians exercising their privilege. And I get it: If you're poor and black and struggling, spending your Saturday protesting parking on the Greensward is not a priority. But if you visit Overton Park on a weekend — the playgrounds, the picnic areas, the dog park, the trails, and the Greensward, you'll see that the users are diverse — old, young, black, white, Hispanic — a classic city park crowd. These activists are not working to save Memphis Country Club.
Maybe those protesting the zoo's ever-growing encroachment into Overton Park would get less criticism if a private entity — controlled by a board of wealthy white folks and the city's largest corporation — were filling Riverside Park or Tom Lee Park or Audubon Park with hundreds of cars several days a week. I don't know.
I do know that we're ill-served as a city by sniping at each other for caring passionately about something — no matter the issue. And we need more people willing to put themselves out there for a cause. We're all in this together.
(such a sky and such a sun
i never knew and neither did you
and everybody never breathed
quite so many kinds of yes) — e. e. cummings
Exactly seven years ago this week, I wrote a column decrying a proposal by city engineers to turn the Overton Park Greensward into an 18-foot-deep "detention basin" designed to stop flooding in Midtown. The engineers claimed we'd hardly notice the football-field-sized bowl. "Except," I wrote then, "when it rains hard, at which time, users of Overton Park would probably notice a large, 18-foot-deep lake in the Greensward. Or afterward, a large, muddy, trash-filled depression."