The new localism
October 09 2008 | Jim's Blog,
I recently read what is among the best articles I've ever read in a Surf mag. Matt Walker's "The new localism" is simply excellent.
I saw the cover to the left and honestly, I immediately dismissed it. I expected another meandering tome on the tension between crowds, fun, exploration and familiarity... all with a slight nod as if to sanction violence. Those pieces do nothing for me.
The traditional definition of localism has other names, assault and battery come to mind.
Matt is seeking to redefine this soiled and storied term...
- Matt Walker
Read Evan Slater's (always thoughtful) intro here. The entire article follows...
THE NEW LOCALISM
If surfers ever want to be a political force, we better learn to stand up. Now.
By Matt Walker
I have a dream. Actually, it’s more of a nightmare. It’s a vision of coastal communities filled with pavement — but no parking. Where cultures founded on the idea of whole towns enjoying the beach together finally give way to walled seaside country clubs for the private few. Where surfers who don’t own an oceanfront home can’t reach the ocean. And where industry and development leaves America’s waves so polluted that we finally stop trying. It’s a vision I hope won’t come true, but all signs show that, with time, it will. And it’s all your fault.
What? You can’t hear me? Oh, sorry. Your ears are probably still ringing with self-congratulatory cheering from all those “victorious” Trestles rallies. So, I’ll just speak up: WE GOT LUCKY. Ask anyone on the inside, they’ll say we should’ve met that fight head-on more than five years ago. That it’s only one fight out of hundreds. And that the only reason we even have a shot at winning is it’s a “perfect storm” mixing the most high-profile break in the country, set in the industry’s backyard, fueled by bigger, more compelling arguments.
“Perfect Storm is the perfect way to describe it,” explains Serge Dedina, executive director of Wild Coast. “It’s a sexy spot. A clear environmental issue. And it still required a hell of a lot of work. F--k, it’s Trestles, and they still might win. And that’s what’s scary.”
Or as ISA president and international activist Fernando Aguerre says: “If Trestles was in North Carolina, they’d be building the toll road right now.”
Tell me about it: I live near Cape Hatteras, the most hallowed piece of surfing property on the whole East Coast. A lawsuit over beach driving currently has more area closed than any time in history — not just to vehicles, but pedestrians — all part of an ongoing legal process that will ultimately determine public access for the next 30 years.
When the sand hit the fan in March, fishermen staged a protest spelling “Please Help Us” out on the point with more than 1,500 cars boasting license plates from across the whole Atlantic seaboard. The surfers? There were a few stories online and a lot of griping in surf shops, but when it came to act — to work, to organize, sacrifice a little free time and actually do something? Well, I regularly see more awkwardly parked 4WDs during a chest-high day at S-Turns. The fact is: for all our claims of being picked-on pariahs, we do it to ourselves. In a long history of minorities fighting for their place in driving American government, surfers willingly walk to the back of the bus — then bitch about how crowded it is.
“Surfing isn’t so much of a minority group as it is a self-defined anti-establishment group,” says Hawaii State Senator and 1968 World Champion Fred Hemmings. “That was one of the reasons I helped start professional surfing — it’s why I got into politics: so surfers could gain our place in the process of how we govern ourselves as part of a very crowded competitive world.”
In the political lineup, surfers aren’t just neophytes — we’re kooks, paddling around in circles with our rashguards inside out. And with 75 percent of all Americans expected to live in coastal counties by 2025, our lineups will only become more crowded and more competitive. The time has come to learn to stand up — or get run the f--k over. And the first lesson is to recognize it’s not us against developers, or us against the polluters. It’s us against them: “Us” is surfers and those who support surfing and our god-given right to ride waves; “them” is anyone who gets in our way.
I know what you’re thinking: isn’t that Surfrider’s job? No doubt, this granddaddy of action sports activism has been surfing’s saving grace for the past 25 years — the eyes, ears and voice for 86 victories since 2006. Still, while 50,000 members and a $4 million budget may make them the Fat Bastards of boardsports activism — they’re the Mini-Me’s of the environmental and political movement. With more than a million members, a staff of 500 and $40,000,000 to fight with every year, Sierra Club alone would swallow them and spit ’em out like a chipper shredder. Not because they have heaps of cash and signatures — but because they have an active constituency.
“Activism goes bottom up, not top down,” says Mark Massara, Director of Sierra Club’s California Coastal Campaign. “I work on behalf of tens of thousands of people in the coastal zone of California who are diligent about letting me know what’s going on and how they want it handled. They don’t just vote; they contribute.”
Granted, in parts of Florida and California, as well as the Northeast — places with a longer history of fighting battles — Surfrider’s cultivated an enviable and engaged grassroots network. But nationwide, they can’t provide nearly enough resources for the guerilla war of issues that’ll ultimately siege our shores, neighborhood by neighborhood. Furthermore, they may not want to. Surfrider is clean oceans first, access second, everything else third. If the water starts to get murky — in Hatteras, it’s environmental groups like Audubon and Defenders of Wildlife suing to close beaches; or think of the anti-PWC battle in Northern California tow-in spots — don’t expect Surfrider to carry your protest sign. And God forbid a “perfect storm” of factors puts them on the other side of the picket line.
“We’re an environmental group first and foremost,” says Surfrider Marketing and Communications Director Matt McClain. “I like to think we can stay balanced, but is there a possibility of advocating an environm ental position that was a detriment to the sport of surfing? Absolutely.”
So, while it’s nice to think all you have to do is write a check once a year and they’ll send you a t-shirt, a sticker, and a troop of surfing activists encased in glass “in case of emergency,” the truth is: you’re the troops. And you’re also the hammer.
“The new localism is not running off some kook from ‘the valley’ or Dade County or Virginia Beach,” says Terry Gibson, a long-time surfing activist currently suing the city of Palm Beach over beach replenishment. “It’s establishing yourself as a stakeholder user group, and going to meetings so you stay informed and can’t be ignored.”
SMALL MEN, BIG MOUTHS
When I was a kid, I used to dream of a giant fence at the end of my block. Not on the street — in the water. A chain-link cage that trapped swell for me and my friends, but barred the rest of the world. Apparently, I wasn’t the only person with that fantasy. Except today’s enemies aren’t selfish groms with grandiose ideas, they’re full-grown adults with small minds, big mouths and deep pockets. People who see the ocean as little more than a saline cash machine that spills rental income and equity. Who think a beachfront home comes with the beach. And once they spend a few million, they’ll spend another $10,000 on lawyers to protect their investments. And they’ll do even more.
“I used to work as a prosecutor under Rudy Giuliani in Manhattan,” says Robert Garcia, Executive Director of The City Project, a non-profit civil rights group. “I’ve prosecuted mafia cases, drug-trafficking cases, white-collar corruption. Nothing was as intimidating as testifying for public access in Malibu. People were screaming, yelling, shouting people down. It was truly scary.”
Malibu is just the most high-profile battle zone in a nationwide war to privatize public coastline that’s seen cases on every shore — including the Great Lakes. Usually the fights are much smaller — and quieter. Silently creeping up, beach town by beach town, in the form of freshly posted no-parking signs and suddenly-private walkways. Sometimes the restrictions aren’t even legal — they’re just hoping nobody will know the regulations. But if necessary, they can always create new laws, often Jim Crow-style legislation that cherry picks who gets to play, such as Long Beach Island, New Jersey’s decision to outlaw changing outside any permanent structure — then sticking all the structures miles down the beach.
“They’re using plausible deniability,” says Dr. John Sides, a political science professor at Georgetown University. “They can say, ‘we’re not targeting surfers, we just don’t want people disrobing.’ But often these fights work locally just to keep it hidden, to avoid negative attention from a potentially hostile and subsequently better organized minority trying to respond.”
At press time, police in LBI had yet to write a ticket, but the mainstream press wrote plenty of stories — including a piece in the New York Times — advertising the idea for any like-minded governments to adopt (just as Long Beach Township did from nearby Ocean City). So while it may not affect you now, it very likely could tomorrow. How will you know? There’s only one way. “Surfers seem to have the idea you don’t have to show up because your leaders will take care of it,” says Massara. “Well, you know who is showing up? The lawyers and lobbyists for developers and polluters. If the decision makers don’t see anyone from the public, you’re gonna lose every time.”
“The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” This Arabian proverb doesn’t just apply to Middle Eastern warlords — it’s also the political motto of every successful minority. Building a coalition is how tiny interest groups gather enough critical mass to flex serious muscle. In some cases it’s simply a matter of shoring up your numbers. In others, it’s leaning on the skills of the better-connected organization. But it always starts the same way. “You have to figure out where your alliances are,” says Dedina, “then build a more diverse coalition. We’ve found if it’s cowboys and ranchers, people from the Navy and on the border patrol, our elected officials respond better [than if it’s just mainstream environmentalists] because any single-issue group doesn’t have enough clout.”
Think the ACLU and NRA teaming up to defend the constitution. Or tree-huggers and right-to-lifers raging against genetic modification. Or, more fittingly, look at Hatteras, where people defending wildlife come together with others who just want to defend their property values. The reason doesn’t matter, the result does — often marrying the oddest of couples.
“Gay activists are particularly good at this,” says Dr. Tom W. Smith, the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center. “They say, ‘the religious right hates us because we’re gay, and you because you’re Jewish, and you because you take a progressive view on the New and Old Testament.’ They’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of pointing out similar enemies.”
So you don’t dig young guys in leather chaps? How about old ones in rubber waders? After years of dodging sinkers in the water, fishermen have become one of surfing’s strongest allies. Not only will they fight for access and clean water, they’re extremely organized on every level, from local groups to national lobbies, recreational users to a commercial industry. But in politics, nobody’s ever your life-partner. (In fact, in Montauk, fishermen are leading the effort to ticket surfers). That’s why the trick is to hook up one issue at a time. “Seasoned lobbying groups often go to bed with each other at night with the agreement that we’ll break up in the morning over other issues,” says Terry Gibson. “Over the past few years in Florida we’ve become quite good at one-night stands — or I guess the better metaphor would be ‘open relationships.’”
And the more open the better. One of the strongest arguments for saving Trestles involved Robert Garcia and The City Project, who showed that the proposed toll road would pass within feet of a 9,000-year-old Native American site. Does that mean Outer Banks surfers need to start digging for arrowheads? Maybe. Or maybe it’s tapping parents groups, churches and synagogues with surf camps, even — eek! — teaming up the tourism board. Maybe it’s asking Jesse Billauer to point out that not all surfers can walk to the beach. Cynical? Opportunistic? Maybe. Then again, maybe not.
“I don’t think it’s cynical or opportunistic at all to recognize there are values at stake beyond your own,” says Garcia. “Because on the other side are a lot of private property owners who are highly diverse, and you’ll need a diverse alliance that includes surfers, civil rights activists, environmentalists — everyone. That’s what it takes: to realize you can’t do it alone.”
Fortunately, ‘surfers’ are inherently a diverse coalition, consisting of young and old, men and women, rich and poor. We’ve got Republicans and Democrats, straights and gays. For every surfer, we have another identity with which to identify. The hard part will be convincing them to identify with us.
TURN DOWN THE STEREOTYPES
Are you a spoiled rich kid — or a low-class teenager? A slutty ‘pro-ho’? An old, towel-changing nudist who flashes young children and double-parks? Or are you just too damn lazy to get a job so you can buy a car? Surfers come with a quiver full of negative images. Some we even embrace, turning lovable stoner Jeff Spicoli into our own personal Step’N Fetchit. But while these quirky icons seem to be harmless entertainment to those of us on the inside, on the outside they keep our enemies well-armed.
“When I was running for mayor, they never called me ‘Council Member,’” says San Diego’s Donna Frye, “They called me ‘Surfer Chick,’ which was sort of a double-dig at both surfers and women. But it doesn’t matter which group you are: surfers, women, Latino — there will always be an attempt to degrade and marginalize people so they can’t come together as a force of change. So, you have to take the negative connotations and prove them wrong.”
That’s easy — assuming you don’t fall out of a pot-smoke-filled VW bus and walk into class late with a bagel stuffed down your trunks. Just be yourself. As our beach communities grow with new faces unfamiliar with the surfing lifestyle, the better example we set as normal, hardworking human beings — the more we celebrate our own diversity — the harder it will be for people to see us in a negative light.
“During World War II there was a tremendous demand for workers in northern factories,” says Gerald Rosenburg, a University of Chicago Associate Professor of Political Science. “And that brought millions of African Americans out of the rural south and into the north. And as whites worked alongside blacks, it began to break down knee-jerk racism.”
Furthermore, just as motorcyclists have actively changed their image through charity work like toy drives, better publicizing beach cleanups, and goodwill efforts like Surfers Healing, we can prove we’re not just a bunch of self-centered high-school dropouts. And while we’re talking publicity, there’s an even more high-profile weapon, one that dates back to the Duke himself: fame. Just like Kahanamoku’s Olympic gold medals helped put surfing on the map, today’s stars can change the landscape of how people perceive us. Not just hardcore exports like Jack Johnson, but newbies like Cameron Diaz and Pierce Brosnan. Because while “Remington Steele” pearling his SUP looks kookish to us, he’s worth 1,000 Jimmy Slades every time he steps up to he microphone.
“You have to break down this dominant stereotype, so when I say ‘surfer,’ what comes to mind is something more variegated and complex,” Dr. John Sides explains. “Prominent celebrities help accomplish that because you see and hear them all the time. And in my limited knowledge of celebrity surfers, I doubt very many sound like Jeff Spicoli.”
OK, so you’ve got your coalition of surfing moms, gun-loving fishermen and Dune Buggy Drivers for Buddha. You’re standing on a Native American Indian burial ground alongside Matthew McConaughey and the Special Olympics swim team. And the developers and private interests are still winning. What now?
“After being characterized as a surfer and a hippie for years, I’ve learned to couch all my arguments in economic theory,” says Mark Massara. “I’m thinking of nature, I’m thinking of waves, but I’m doing it for the economy.”
For all the efforts by Outer Banks access groups, what forced politicians from town hall to the US Senate to step in wasn’t some philosophical commitment to beach access, but the roughly half-billion dollars in tourist income that beach access generates. And it’s a number that doesn’t even consider the surfers’ input. Why? Because the information doesn’t exist. While the NRA can tell you how many Americans own a gun and the Audubon society can track the migratory patterns of 2,800 pairs of piping plovers, we can’t tell you with any real accuracy how many surfers exist, much less where they live or what they spend. And it’s one of the primary reasons people who make decisions don’t consider surfers on just about every issue. In fact, want to know why golfers don’t pay oversize baggage fees for their clubs on airlines? The same reason you can watch eight hours of PGA action without a commercial break. “Many more Americans bowl than play golf,” says Allan Sanderson, professor of Sports and Economics at the University of Chicago. “But there’s a whole lot more golf on TV because golfers tend to be wealthy. So if you can show you’re a pretty high socio-economic status group, that’s well educated, that you spend money where you surf, those are good compelling arguments.”
That’s what makes Chad Nelsen’s research so important. Besides being Surfrider’s Environmental Director, Chad recently completed a doctoral study on who’s surfing Trestles and his work shows that surfers not only spend millions of dollars in areas, they are better educated and claim a higher SES — socio-economic status — than other users. It is a hugely important piece of research — but it has one problem.
“Trestles was an obvious choice for a lot of reasons,” says Chad. “It’s in our backyard, there is the toll road fight, and it’s one of the country’s most recognized breaks. But it has a lot of shortcomings when it comes to extrapolating the data to other places. There really is only one Trestles.”
But guess what? Chad figures he could tweak his survey to any break in America and have a fleet of grad students crunch the numbers. In a year, we could simultaneously smash stereotypes and spew big-dollar amounts that would make any fight infinitely easier. The only obstacle? Money. And who has money? The surf industry — a whopping $7,000,000,000 last year alone.
Instead of the Billabong Challenge — why not the Billabong Market Study? Instead of the Quiksilver Crossing— how about the Quiksilver Nationwide Attitudinal Survey? Or how about the big five companies pool $200k each and ask SIMA to do it? Every endemic and non-endemic news source would quote this thing like the Wall Street Journal, giving it way more shelf-life than a WCT event. And not only would that be good for the industry, it would help every surfer in the water. As one insider noted, “A lot of these companies will spend a million bucks a year to sponsor one surfer — it would be nice if they’d spend a million to sponsor the other 1,999,999.”
On the other hand, if we all invested something of ourselves, we wouldn’t need the industry’s help at all. As McClain says, “The whole reason people get away with this shit, is because we let them. It’s upon every surfer to stand up on their soap box and say, ‘Enough.’”
He’s right. From pot-smokers (NORML) to child-molesters (NAMBLA), the list of groups who are better organized and more outspoken is embarrassing. But the good news is surfers are born politicians. We spend our whole lives battling for limited resources. Sometimes we lobby together and split a peak — sometimes we stand off. If needed, we throw punches. But in every case, we’re committed to the democratic principle of expressing the will of the minority — ourselves — in a mass of competing interests. And the time’s come to take that philosophy further by announcing our own out-and-proud interest group: Surf-First.
Think of it as the radical arm of the access movement. No clean water. No dolphins. Whatever is the best for our interests as surfers — we’ll do what it takes to protect them. The NRA may have the Second Amendment, but we’re just as entitled to the “Pursuit of Happiness.” And whether it’s guns, fishes or longboards, you’ll have to pry ’em from our cold dead hands.
Now, now — put down the camouflage and flare guns. We won’t be blowing up any beach replenishment dredges or throwing oil-coated seabirds on Dick Cheney. (Although the latter sure sounds kinda fun.) In fact, we’re not even a splinter-group — we still want you to sign up for Surfrider, Wild Coast, Save the Waves and Clean Ocean Action. The more activism, the better. But what if the day comes when we find ourselves in a fight with no environmental leg to stand on? (And it will.) Or for all you lazy bastards who won’t sit through a tw o-hour meeting — or all you cheap bastards who can’t cough up $25 a year — please go to Surf-first.org and cough up a little info. With that tiny bit of effort, we can finally show a critical mass of a million names. Maybe we can actually get some sense of our own migratory patterns and economic impact. Maybe we can even put up a PR campaign that compiles a spectrum of respectable surfers, ready for any would-be protester to download and prove that Spicoli is the exception — not the rule. Whatever we can pull off, we’ll share it, so that any surfer in any fight can walk into any meeting — from Town Hall to the US Congress — armed and ready to stand up for all of us. You do your part, we’ll do ours, and maybe, if we’re just as selfish, aggressive and determined as we are in the water, we’ll never lose another wave. And if we do, it’s because we looked hard, considered it carefully and let it go for a greater good — not because someone snaked it from us.