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How Protesting Can Make a Difference

Black Lives Matter street protests across the United States are releasing anger and frustration about the continuing treatment of minorities with violence and disdain. The Women's Marches in early 2017–19 were declarations of intent that women will not be pushed back to the early days of suppression. Both protests quickly spread worldwide, showing that both issues are problems in the majority of countries.

If we are ever to live in a peaceful, thriving world, both of these situations need to be addressed, and it's us who needs to address them. Waiting for the national government to initiate systemic change has proven to be a waste of time. If people involved in a protest don't act locally, by pushing for change where they live (or supporting local government in its changes), then change will happen very, very slowly.

Protesting alerts people to a problem—but it makes a difference longterm only if we take it beyond the streets. Even if the federal government were to pass a new law (like the Civil Rights Act), citizens and local communities are the ones who enact the law. And when they do, they reinforce each other, and the changes rapidly spread. Let's see what that looks like.

The first Women's March in January, 2017. Taken in Los Angeles, where 750,000 women and men of all ages and colors showed up to declare their intention to protect the rights of women.

The first Women's March in January, 2017. Taken in Los Angeles, where 750,000 women and men of all ages and colors showed up to declare their intention to protect the rights of women.

Educating the Public of the Need for Change

My friend, Laurie, set up an information booth in Pasadena's Earth Day Fair in April 2011. We decorated the booth with fresh smelling branches of eucalyptus hanging from the front of the canopy, a long table with a white tablecloth backed by a huge painting of the San Gabriel Mountains, a banner with the group's name (Urbanwild Network), lots of interesting brochures, and an alert signup list. I added a whole collection of photographs of trees mounted on portable walls on both sides.

Numerous fairgoers stopped by to find out what had happened at the Arcadia Woodlands protest the previous January—to the woodlands and the tree sitters—and what would happen next.

Two of the four tree sitters held a press conference at the booth, where they answered, in calm voices, questions posed by a strident reporter. In addition to catching up on the news of the protest, the reporter asked questions about its history and why it was important.

Urbanwild's Altadena Woodlands booth at Pasadena's Earth Day Fair in 2010.

Urbanwild's Altadena Woodlands booth at Pasadena's Earth Day Fair in 2010.

The two treesitters, out on bail, were interviewed at the booth. They also gave a talk to the congregation of my church the next day. We supported them with donations to their legal fund.

The two treesitters, out on bail, were interviewed at the booth. They also gave a talk to the congregation of my church the next day. We supported them with donations to their legal fund.

Arcadia Woodlands Protest

In December of 2010, Los Angeles County's Flood Control District decided to level the Arcadia Woodlands to use as a dumping ground for dirt from sediment dams nearby. The law requires that the county notify the public 20 days in advance for projects that affect its well-being, which they did—in a single paragraph in an obscure part of a local newspaper that hardly anyone ever read. A reader caught it and spread the word. Neighbors immediately called the county and 120 people showed up at its monthly council meeting to protest.

In January, without considering the public's concerns, the county moved heavy equipment to the site and hired a private security company to “protect” it. When neighbors started gathering with picket signs, the county erected a fence. The small crowd got bigger. The press was informed. Someone called tree sitters to slip inside and climb the biggest of the native oaks and sycamores.

In the middle of the night, the county moved their equipment inside the fence and started cutting. The trees with the sitters were saved until last—until the police came to arrest them for trespassing at dawn and take them to jail. Then Flood Control finished stripping the place. And that, they no doubt assumed, would be the end of it.

The protest drew public attention to the county's lack of concern for wildlife and nature, and the prevailing governmental attitude of “business as usual,” no matter who or what it hurt. If nobody had done anything more, that would have been the end of it, but many of us were still angry and expecting another fight.

In early 2011 LA County's Flood Control District chopped down the Arcadia Woodlands to create an open space to dump dirt and rocks.

In early 2011 LA County's Flood Control District chopped down the Arcadia Woodlands to create an open space to dump dirt and rocks.

Why Protesting is Important

We've all had intimate moments with trees. They helped shape my life as a child, and as an adult I learned amazing things about them through meditation and research, including that trees are the human counterpart of the plant kingdom. In addition to sheltering wildlife, birds, and people they create their own sustainable environment—by releasing chemicals and aerosols that attract beneficial plants and insects.

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But they also produce wood and wood pulp, take up space, and sometimes get in the way of “progress.” People who are focused on profit or progress don't know the real value of trees, so it falls to those of us who love them to protect them.

This is true of anything. What our government does not recognize as valuable, but the public does, it falls to us to object and inform. The government is there to serve and protect the public and its diversified interests, but it can't do that if it doesn't know what is important to us . . . and sometimes we have to insist.

Organize to Keep the Momentum Growing

Strong resistance calls for systemic change, which we can all be part of. Inherent in the Arcadia Woodlands and the following "Big Dig" protests are nine ways to extend and strengthen a protest:

  1. Give it a formal name (like “Black Lives Matter,” “Arcadia Woodlands,” or "Big Dig"). Form a support group and introduce it at local public events.
  2. Start a website and contact database to alert the public of new developments. Then let people know of upcoming protests and how they can support them. Encourage visitors to post videos and comments.
  3. Recruit partners of all kinds—anyone who could have a stake in the outcome. Call on neighbors for support too. Hold meetings to discuss how the project will affect them. Set up phone banks.
  4. Show the public what's at stake via educational talks, booths, public meetings, and news publicity. Set up additional street protests with picket signs, photographs, and press releases—or speakers and performers for big ones.
  5. Initiate and/or attend government meetings to discuss the issue—have each protester prepare a personal statement ahead of time. Be respectful to opponents, whenever possible, to build teamwork and decrease hostility.
  6. Don't forget the law. Sometimes suing perpetrators is the only way to reach them. Recruit lawyers to work with you as part of the team.
  7. With potential land abuse projects, encourage the public to scrutinize any Environmental Impact Reports (EIRs), making sure the agency is obeying the law. This is where most government agencies and companies screw up—trying to rush through reporting requirements to make it come out a certain way.
  8. Collect donations for the bigger cause. Help pay any legal fees of protesters arrested.
  9. Keep up the momentum, even when all seems lost. Look for opportunities to escalate the protest non-violently, until the perps change their behavior. You never know what could happen to swing the favor your way.

Responsibility for the Arcadia Woodlands project fell under the Flood Control District of Los Angeles County, which was used to acting independently and was highly resistant to change. They were also in charge of the next project—removing sediment behind Devil's Gate Dam.

LA County Department of Public Works building in Alhambra CA, just south of Pasadena. The Flood Control District falls under LADPW, but acts independently.

LA County Department of Public Works building in Alhambra CA, just south of Pasadena. The Flood Control District falls under LADPW, but acts independently.

Devil's Gate Dam Project

As with Arcadia, Devil's Gate Dam in nearby Pasadena had become a favorite hiking spot—with a woodlands that sheltered endangered birds, coyotes, bears, and the occasional mountain lion. The area was protected for public use by the Arroyo Seco Foundation, and was the focal point of the 47 mile region known as the “Hahamongna Watershed.”

I had never really paid attention to the dam before, although I'd done a lot of photographing in the area. To me the area was a wildlife refuge and a flood plain—a pathway down which rainwater from the mountains drifted on its way to joining the Los Angeles River. I had written articles about it

The porous soil behind Devil's Gate Dam allowed for rainwater to sink down into the aquifer. It also became a haven for herons (like the one in the center of the photo) and other waterfowl.

The porous soil behind Devil's Gate Dam allowed for rainwater to sink down into the aquifer. It also became a haven for herons (like the one in the center of the photo) and other waterfowl.

When I saw that the Arroyo Seco Foundation was offering a walking tour of the woodlands, I decided to take it. That's where I learned what was happening with the Devil's Gate Dam Restoration Project—later nicknamed the “Big Dig.” The county claimed the displaced soil from the Big Dig would be dumped into the very spot vacated by the Arcadia Woodlands (which it wasn't), but they had a good reason for wanting to dredge.

The County's Fear—Another Station Fire

In 2009 a devastating wildfire had broken out in the foothills named the "Station Fire." After big wildfires in the hills, it's common for the next rains to wash massive amounts of debris downhill that blocks roads and buries houses. The rains following the Station Fire washed more than one million cubic yards of sediment down to the dam, which then blocked it.

However, the dam was filling up (2.7 million cy) and the county was worrying about its imminent collapse. In 2010 they announced a plan to dredge behind the dam and, as required by law, made public a tentative EIR for comments.

Smoke from the Station Fire in August, 2009, as seen from the Antelope Valley side of the mountains. It was the largest wildfire in California that year and the largest in Los Angeles' history.

Smoke from the Station Fire in August, 2009, as seen from the Antelope Valley side of the mountains. It was the largest wildfire in California that year and the largest in Los Angeles' history.

Walking along the shady paths of Hahamongna, the fifteen or so of us on that tour saw the beauty of the woodlands, discussed the problems the county was facing, and learned about the conflict between keeping the beautiful riparian woodlands intact versus digging out the sediment. Our guides urged us to review the county's EIR and comment upon it. Afterward, members of the public attended every council meeting to share their concerns and those of their peers.

The shady paths of the watershed gave us unexpected views of flowering trees and other beauties.

The shady paths of the watershed gave us unexpected views of flowering trees and other beauties.

Four years later in 2014, after receiving numerous detailed and knowledgeable public comments, the county published their final EIR . . . which turned out to be pretty much the same as the draft. Public outcry followed. Clearly the county was again appeasing, but not really listening.

Recruiting Wider Support

Tim Brick, longtime Executive Director of the Arroyo Seco Foundation, had already worked with the City of Pasadena to develop Hahamongna into a natural public park—with horse trails, nature walks, a frisbee park, and a habitat for endangered species. Much of that would be destroyed with the county's plans for an extensive dig, so Brick recruited the city to help develop an alternative dredging plan.

Flood Control ignored that too.

Meanwhile, neighbors on both sides and downstream of the arroyo were discovering the extent of the county's plans and what it would mean to their neighborhoods:

  • Dump trucks and dredging equipment working day and night, accompanied by motors rumbling, bright headlights, site spotlights and hundreds of dump trucks running up and down the streets day and night for three years.
  • Dust flying through the air day and night for three years.
  • The complete ruination of the woods and horse paths neighbors regularly used.
  • An ugly gravel pit next door that would devalue their properties.

It didn't take long for neighbors, Arcadia protesters, environmental protectors, and Arroyo Seco supporters to coalesce into a strong protest movement, which the county continued to try to ignore.

Residents Speak at County Meetings

The Audubon Society Joins In

In December 2014, Pasadena's Audubon Society joined with the Arroyo Seco Foundation to sue the county for ignoring the potential impact on water quality, and willfully destroying the habitat of threatened bird species and other endangered wildlife. The lawsuit claimed that the Flood Control District had not taken habitat into account when they wrote the EIR—that the EIR was inadequate and flawed, and that the project didn't need to be nearly as big as it was.

The county's lawyers fought back, but in 2017 it lost the case. The court required a new dredging plan, which the supervisors approved later that year, with minor changes—still showing little concern for habitat.

On behalf of the public, the Arroyo Seco Foundation and Pasadena Audubon Society filed a second lawsuit. While the 2nd lawsuit was still pending, Flood Control moved its equipment to the dam in 2018 to start clearcutting and moving out dirt.

Starting to dig at Devil's Gate Dam. The community protest attempted to save the watershed from being completely stripped to a bare, dirt field. Photo courtesy of LADPW.

Starting to dig at Devil's Gate Dam. The community protest attempted to save the watershed from being completely stripped to a bare, dirt field. Photo courtesy of LADPW.

Whose Needs Take Precedence?

Conflicts such as this raise questions for the government about how the public, as a whole, can best be served. Each of the groups involved had their own interests and their own resources and, in a democracy, all concerned bodies need to speak up to be considered:

  • Flood Control was standing up for property owners and insurance companies worried about destruction of property. They had precedence, power, and equipment.
  • The City of Pasadena was standing up for its Hahamongna Park development plans. They were the local government with jurisdiction of the area.
  • The Audubon Society was standing up for its insistence on protecting endangered birds. They knew that law and had access to lawyers willing to challenge the county.
  • Neighbors were standing up for their property values and the right to live in a peaceful, attractive neighborhood. They were willing to make phone calls, attend county meetings, and join in street protests.
  • The Arroyo Seco Foundation was the main organizer and a bridge between neighbors, the general public, and the city. It was standing up for the right for natural habitats to exist and be healthy. The nonprofit had public and government contacts, creative plans, and an understanding of how habitats worked. They knew the area well and could articulate the problems from the public's point of view. They also had the respect of the city, the neighboring Jet Propulsion Lab, and environmental activists who joined in the street protests.

All of these groups—the county and public alike—were willing to do what it took to prevail.

Tim Brick holds a press conference on top of Devil's Gate Dam. With him are Attorney Mitchell Tsai,  Pasadena Audubon Executive Director, Laura Solomon, and several protesters of the Big Dig.

Tim Brick holds a press conference on top of Devil's Gate Dam. With him are Attorney Mitchell Tsai, Pasadena Audubon Executive Director, Laura Solomon, and several protesters of the Big Dig.

Resolution of the Big Dig Protest

In 2019 the Flood Control District lost the 2nd lawsuit. The COVID pandemic hit in early 2020, which made public safety the county's top priority—including county staff and workers in ALL county departments. That put the Flood Control District in the same boat as the public. We all had to find ways to curb our activities and isolate.

The Arroyo Seco team had already presented a new variation of the county's plan, which County Supervisor Katherine Barger urged Flood Control to adopt. At the beginning of July, 2020, Flood Control accepted what turned out to be a reasonable compromise. Among other things:

  • 20 acres were shaved off the dredging area. They will stay woodlands, and the part that's been destroyed will be replaced with native trees and brush. Migration corridors will be created along both sides of the dredging area, so wildlife and people can get from the upside of the dam to the downside.
  • The county will request that the US Army Corps of Engineers do a thorough study of the entire Arroyo Seco Watershed to see how it can be restored. This would be in connection with the restoration/creation of the new Los Angeles River.
  • The county will also request that the US Forest Service study Brown Mountain Dam upstream to see if it can be safely removed.
This shows how much the "Big Dig" was reduced, due to public protest. Flood Control will be replacing the outlined greyed area with native plantings, along with building wildlife corridors and fish streams along the sides of the dig (light green).

This shows how much the "Big Dig" was reduced, due to public protest. Flood Control will be replacing the outlined greyed area with native plantings, along with building wildlife corridors and fish streams along the sides of the dig (light green).

This shows the area already stripped. It used to be riparian woodlands, with a big pond in the middle. Now the pond will be much deeper.

This shows the area already stripped. It used to be riparian woodlands, with a big pond in the middle. Now the pond will be much deeper.

Although resolution with the county has been reached, the fight for wildlife protection is not yet over. Brown Mountain Dam upstream is the next step to restoring the watershed. This dam is owned by the US Forest Service, was built in the 1940's, and has pretty much never been tended. The dam basin is full of rocks and sediment, and the dam is ready to collapse. According to a Pasadena News report on the culmination of the lawsuit, now that conservation groups and the county are working together, Brown's Dam is next in line.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

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