The Revolution is Being Protested

Occupy at PB Tim BonnemannOccupy Targets Participatory Budgeting in Chicago

My first thought was “how clever of the conference organizers to welcome us with street theater”.  At the entrance to the Second North American Participatory Budgeting Conference, held last month in Chicago, stood a half-dozen casually dressed people wearing photo face masks and holding hand-written signs with questions like “Does my voice matter now?” and “Is this what democracy looks like?”

A young woman, visibly shaking, stepped out from the group to say “we’re from Occupy Roger’s Park. We think participatory budgeting could be great, but Alderman Moore is using it as political cover, and he’s suppressing the vote of poor residents of color.” She directed me to a campaign website www.pb49.org to learn more. Before I could fully comprehend that the conference was being protested, the protestors were shuffled off.

Participatory budgeting, “PB” for short, is something I always imagined the Occupy movement would support. Embedded in the very DNA of PB is the goal of empowering poor and marginalized people through a form of direct democracy. PB began in the slums of Brazil, and then spread worldwide. It’s a process through which ordinary residents decide how to spend a government budget. Residents identify projects, research them, and then decide through a popular vote how to allocate funds.

First introduced in Chicago in 2009 by Alderman Moore, PB has been a real democratic bright spot in a city of top-down decision-making and back-room deal-making. Inspired by Moore, four of the city’s 50 aldermen adopted PB this year to allocate their wards’ “menu money” for spending on things like street repair and parks. A fifth will join them next year. Some democracy reformers even dream that PB might be the beginning of a veritable revolution in empowered public engagement in local government.

Yet here, at a conference designed to strengthen participatory budgeting, PB was being protested…on behalf of poor, marginalized residents….demanding more democracy.

Were the protestors misinformed? Were they using the conference to protest policy decisions by Alderman Moore unrelated to PB? Or did they have something important to say, perhaps about the messiness of democratic reform or the challenges of engaging marginalized residents?

Alderman Moore, the protestors’ main target, is an enigma. A savvy politician, he adopted PB when it looked as if he might be voted out of office. Once criticized for being out of touch with his constituents, he has become a model of high-quality public engagement. In addition to PB, he regularly consults residents on decisions like zoning and liquor licenses. He writes eloquent, detailed articles explaining his decisions.

Yet, at the same time, Moore has become an enthusiastic booster of Mayor Emanuel, supporting all his policies, even those which are deeply unpopular with his constituents. This may be heart-felt, politically expedient, or necessary for political survival. Ironically it may even be a way to preserve PB. The mayor is no fan of PB. He has threatened to remove aldermanic control over or reduce the size of the “menu money” budgets allocated by PB. The city has already chipped away at PB’s popularity by limiting how these budgets may be used, this year banning their use for public arts projects popular among PB voters.

The protestors put forth three main critiques of PB in Chicago: 1) Moore and other aldermen use PB as populist political cover while they pursue policies favoring the wealthy 2) the majority of PB voters in the city are white, educated home-owners 3) aldermanic offices refuse to work with community groups to improve PB. I’ll briefly look at each of these.

Residents love PB and tend to support politicians who adopt it. It helped Moore to easily win reelection, as well as improved overall civic engagement in his ward. This has in turn made Moore one of PB’s most convincing promoters among fellow politicians. Politicians will only adopt democratic reforms like PB if they are politically beneficial. Sure, some may also use PB as political cover for unpopular policies. But that does not diminish PB’s democratic value.

Residents involved in PB in Chicago, like voters in local elections, do indeed tend to be whiter, better educated, and more affluent than the average resident. However, voter survey data also showed that the PB voter demographics in Moore’s ward, which uses mobile voting sites and multilingual outreach, were relatively comparable to its population. The real problem is that engaging marginalized populations requires significant time and resources — which PB in Chicago simply does not have. At the conference, community organizers repeatedly emphasized that massive outreach and multiple conversations are often needed to convince people to participate in PB. Deciding which streets to repair can seem a minor concern to residents facing issues like violent crime and public school closures.

The protestors claimed that community outreach efforts, to be funded and run by non-profits, as well as a high-school voting site, were rejected without discussion by Alderman Moore’s office. I have not been able to verify the validity of these claims. A few conference speakers did though welcome the protestors’ critiques as healthy. They said that open dialogue between politicians and residents is vital so PB can evolve to best serve its community. However, seeking to publicly humiliate a major PB promoter is probably not the best way to start a productive conversation.

I began the conference listening to critiques of how PB in Chicago was not fulfilling its social justice mission. I left the conference pondering its fragility. In his closing remarks, a French academic who has worked for decades on PB in South America and Africa lamented that “PB in the US is built on sand”. It does not have anywhere near the funding, human resources, or political support it needs to succeed. That, it appears to me, is the real problem with PB in Chicago – not that its implementation is flawed, but rather that it could very easily disappear altogether.

Photo: Tim Bonnemann

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