By Miriam Raftery
December 27, 2012 (San Diego’s East County) – The power of social media has given rise to a new phenomenon seen across our region and around the world: residents are taking to the streets, sending tweets, and discovering the power of the people. They’re organizing online, launching petitions, posting viral videos on Youtube, promoting causes on Facebook. A year aqo, in 2011, the world witnessed the power of citizen activism when the Egyptian government was overthrown. Here at home, the rise in citizen activism in the past year has led to some remarkable achievements and some noteworthy upsets.
Here are some of the results of citizen activism in our region over the past year.
Halting a power plant near Mission Trails Regional Park: Save Mission Trails, a coalition of community groups and residents, banded together to persuade San Diego’s City Council to oppose the Quail Brush Power Plant. Near year’s end, two California Public Utilities Commission officials recommended denial of the application.
Preventing SDG&E from charging ratepayers for wildfire costs: East County residents outraged by SDG&E’s proposal convinced the California Public Utilities Commission to hold a hearing in San Diego, then packed the room with fire survivors and ratepayers who gave compelling testimony. State regulators heeded the public to charge SDG&E shareholders—not ratepayers--and in December, denied SDG&E’s request.
Saving community planning groups: When a developer-backed “Red Tape Reduction Task Force” proposed eliminating planning groups in rural areas, online media alerted the public. Readers showed up in droves, successfully convincing Supervisors to just say no to the developers . Though some reduction in powers was later approved, the people’s right to have discussion of major developments at the local level was preserved.
Occupying everywhere: The year opened with the Occupy movement calling for laws to protect “the 99%” instead of big banks. By year’s end, new laws to help stem foreclosures and hold lenders accountable had been passed by our federal, state and local governments.
Organizing cash mobs: To bolster business for local stores and restaurants in a slow economy, Susan Barron organized cash mobs in El Cajon. Shoppers flocked to businesses on Main Street, helping to boost the bottom lines for delighted merchants.
Ousting incumbent Congressman Brian Bilbray: Much Better Choices, operating on a shoestring budget, created videos that went viral to portray Rep. Bilbray as a crony of lobbyists and a slumlord to boot. TV and print publications picked up on the stories, leading to Scott Peters narrow victory over Bilbray.
Keeping state parks open: When the state announced plans to permanently close 70 state parks due to budget woes, Friends of Palomar Mountain State Park launched an online fundraising drive that saved the park from closure. Moreover, State Parks embraced the public-private partnership model and reached out to nonprofits in other areas, ultimately sparing 68 state parks from shutting down.
Protecting public health: Jacumbans Against Eye Gnats marched in protest against a local farm fueling an investation. They soon joined with citizens in Escondido also plagued by the pesky insects. Together, they convinced Supervisors to declare eye gnats vectors and strengthen enforcement against farms creating conditions that allow eye gnat populations to swarm.
Fighting the fire tax: Rural residents flooded legislators with e-mails and petitions objecting to the fire parcel tax. Many claimed it was unfair to property owners who already paid local fire district fees. Faced with vocal public objections, the state ultimately reduced the fees.
Giving school board members an education in accountability: Word spread virally over the Internet of revelations that Grossmont Union High School District’s board majority was under a Grand Jury investigation. Angered to learn that bond monies were diverted away from their intended usage to build a high school in Alpine, voters ousted incumbent Gary Woods and voted in Jim Stieringer, who has pledged to support an Alpine High School.
Flexing labor’s muscle: Tired of being vilified over wages and retirement benefits, public workers took to the streets to walk precincts, defeating an anti-union statewide ballot measure. Labor also played a big role in electing Bob Filner as mayor of San Diego—a man who has pledged to empower people in all communities. This year also saw labor protests in East County, including picketing at Wal-mart and Grossmont Hospital.
Exposing dangers of industrial wind power: Area residents have staged protests from La Jolla to Ocotillo drawing attention to the dangers posed by industrial wind energy projects. Citizen-journalists helped document destruction of the environment, wildlife, and Native American sacred sites and cast serious doubts on energy produced vs energy consumed. East County’s Manzanita Indians have enrolled in a university study to confirm whether serious health problems are caused by stray voltage from wind turbines and power lines. Local activists are now working with groups nationwide to urge Congress not to renew wind production tax credits, calling for support of rooftop solar instead.
Funding public education: The majority of local education bond measures passed in November, along with Proposition 30 on the statewide ballot, reversing the downward spiral in California's education funding after fed-up parents, teachers and administators spoke out and spread the word about the impacts of budget cuts on local schools.
Electing a “people’s mayor”: Bob Filner credits boots-on-the-ground precinct walking with his election to San Diego’s City Hall, where it won’t be business as usual. Filner has pledged to provide power to disadvantaged communities and minorities, leading one African-American activist to dub the white Jewish liberal “San Diego’s first black mayor.” Like him or not, the feisty former Congressman clearly owes his victory not to corporate power-brokers, but to the people he aims to represent.
Keeping San Onofre shut down: Citizens Oversight Projects in East County, along with other groups, have thus far waged a successful battle to keep the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant closed following revelations of leaks, serious safety violations and alleged sabotage. Rallies staged by local groups have included speakers who survived the meltdowns in Fukushima, Japan, highlighting potential hazards.
Saving the East County Performing Arts Center: When the El Cajon Council announced it was considering tearing down the city's theater to build a hotel, concerned citizens launched a Save ECPAC drive. They convinced councilmembers to spare the theater from the wrecking ball and while it remains closed, the prospects of seeing the theater repaired and reopened by December 2013 now appear promising.