Keeping Protest Local
By Karen Garcia
In January 2004, the infamous “Hi, How Are You” frog mural in Austin, Texas, was set to be destroyed and replaced with windows for a new Baja Fresh chain restaurant. And Dan Soloman needed to stop it.
The mural, which at first glance appears to be just lazy graffiti, was painted by the musician and artist Daniel Johnston in 1993. Johnston, a schizophrenic, became somewhat of a cult hero, having his songs covered by the likes of Beck and Tom Waits and amassing a large underground following.
Writing for The Texas Observer, Soloman insists “the frog mural represents a lot of things to people in Austin. To me, it’s a monument to a time when there was no point to cynicism, and street protest was the most viable form of activism I could imagine.” And guess what? He ended up saving the frog (also known as Jeremiah the Innocent), because, he claims, exerting change upon your immediate environment is infinitely more productive than attempting to affect change across the world.
“Street protest gets a bad rap these days, and for good reason,” Soloman writes:
Despite hundreds of thousands of marchers during the lead-up to the war in Iraq, despite more than 1 million demonstrators nationwide rallying for immigration reform, despite even more people in London, Pittsburgh and Toronto protesting the G20 summits, the result was: a war with Iraq, a failed immigration bill, and agreements among G20 nations that took no account of the masses in the street.
Ultimately, Soloman and some of his friends saved the mural by approaching the owner of the Baja Fresh and explaining how important the mural was to all of Austin and to the thousands of Johnston fans across the country. After initially refusing, the owner finally agreed to redesign the restaurant around the mural–costing him $50,000 in architect fees and lost revenue.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by everything that needs reform in our world. But, as Soloman points out, admitting that mass protest usually doesn’t do anything to help isn’t cynicism; it’s just reality:
The late House Speaker Tip O’Neill famously said that “All politics is local.” Most of the demonstrations held up as proof that protest doesn’t work have been about big national and international issues. A group in Toronto isn’t going to change what leaders in South Korea and Turkey and Australia decide about the G20; amassed immigrants in Chicago and Dallas aren’t liable to effect change on an issue that’s so divisive throughout the country; a bunch of people with signs down in Texas aren’t able turn heads in the Pentagon.
If I were still in my early 20s, that might sound like cynicism to me. When it feels hopeless, though, I just have to go back to my old neighborhood to see that big, googly-eyed frog to remember that when you keep your focus on your immediate world, you can be a lot more powerful than you’d have thought.
Source: The Texas Observer