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Nurturing Action to Influence Public Opinion

   

When people think of political activity, their thoughts are usually directed at efforts to achieve solutions of force. They go to the legislature to pass laws or file court cases to set a judicial precedent. But much wrong in this society is not government-mandated. It comes about through acquiescence to intimidation. For this type of problem, the better remedy is political action directed at changing public opinion. Passing laws cannot coerce the human heart.

Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee started out pursuing coercive solutions. We filed a class-action lawsuit against the city of Minneapolis in federal court. A judge tossed out our suit. We also made an effort to introduce legislation at the state capitol but were overpowered by opposing interest groups. That left us with the option of influencing public opinion. I believe that this last-chosen approach has succeeded brilliantly.

Ten years ago, the city’s landlords were on the run, picked off one at a time by hostile neighborhood groups, SAFE officers, inspectors, and City Council members. The public was persuaded that uncaring, absentee landlords were the root cause of crime in inner-city neighborhoods. Over the years, we have managed to convince the public that (1) buildings do not cause crime, (2) city police, not landlords, are the community’s main crime-fighters, and (3) city efforts to combat crime by tearing down buildings substantially contributed to the shortage of affordable housing. It was a sea change in public opinion which bore fruit in the 2001 municipal elections.

Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee, as its name suggests, is an action-oriented group. We show up at public events to voice our opinions. We picket sites to protest situations to which we object. We hold a monthly meeting at which landlords and others speak out on issues of the day. In such things, we are, of course, hoping to amplify our image by attracting media coverage.

Perhaps the most powerful way to influence public opinion is to tell a story based on personal experience. Our meetings often feature stories of landlords, small business people, and others who have been abused by Minneapolis city government. The meetings are videotaped and shown on cable television (Fridays on Channel 6, 11 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.). Political action can take more creative forms such as the “crack tours” which a pair of landlords, posing as would-be drug purchasers, used to conduct in the Phillips neighborhood for the benefit of public officials seated in the back seat of a van.

Our biggest asset has been our ability to communicate directly with the public. Besides the cable-television show, we have a free-circulation newspaper (Watchdog), which reports activities of the landlord group. Our activities have also received coverage from the Star Tribune, other newspapers, and radio and television stations, when something we did struck their fancy.

Media coverage is like oxygen to an action-oriented political culture. Political actors like us often feel that we are being ignored by the commercial media either because the media people are unsympathetic to our cause or because serious political stuff does not sell newspapers (or attract television viewers). In our increasingly entertainment-oriented culture, the commercial media focus on celebrities, crime, natural disasters, and the like. Small-time political actors are left out in the cold.

Now the landlord organization is at a crossroads, having experienced recent political success but losing part of the reason for our existence as the incoming Minneapolis city administration exhibits a much more friendly attitude toward landlords and tenants. I feel that it may be time to adapt to the new situation by extending the focus of political concern beyond housing and crime to many other types of issues. What we landlords did in Minneapolis can be replicated by any political group, conservative or liberal, wishing to change public opinion.

Therefore, some of us recently leafletted the DFL and Republican state conventions on behalf of a phantom organization called “Orange Party” hoping to interest political activists in forming a coalition which, like the landlords, would undertake political action and develop the media capability to amplify the image of that action. A somewhat romantic idea of mine is that such activists might cover the gamut of opinion from extreme left-wing to extreme right-wing and the very fact that they existed within the same “organization” would cause ideologically opposed groups to stop demonizing each other and give each other a certain grudging respect.

In this way, the Minneapolis landlord group could lead our community to move beyond self-absorption, apathy, and passive-aggressiveness in developing a more expressive and vibrant political culture.

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