Radicalized by the Barnes: My new life as a public protester

The Barnes: A protester’s story

4 minute read
Protesters at Friday's groundbreaking: Who you calling selfish?
Protesters at Friday's groundbreaking: Who you calling selfish?
I was never much a fan of '60s-style protest. Age-wise, I'm from the tail end of the boomer generation, and in my formative years, I may have felt less of the tyranny that drove older boomers to revolt. What I saw of the results of the efforts of those who lined up with banners and leaflets or chained themselves to gates in protest of a particular issue, seemed of minimal long lasting results. Sometimes people got shot.

Safely out of the '60s, I grew to believe that patience and working within the system was the way to make wrongs right. If I voiced my opinion respectfully, those in charge would thoughtfully consider what insight I brought to the table and act or not act after careful consideration of all sides of matters. In most of my endeavors, this attitude has served me and the organizations that I've worked for in good stead. In my experience, rationality usually prevails, where decision-making is concerned.

Not with the Barnes Foundation, however. Rational discourse seems to have no effect on Philadelphia's power brokers and their dubious plan to spend millions building a faux Barnes on the Parkway at a time when libraries and arts organizations in this city are in peril. So— out come the signs and the leaflets.

My first protest experience occurred last Friday at the Barnes Foundation's second groundbreaking on the Parkway. It was not a particularly pleasant day; raw, cold, and rainy for protest activities. But the 20 or so who showed up, some taking time off from jobs, showed remarkable resolve.

What the media didn't see

They were of varied backgrounds: some students, some artists, some business people, some teachers, a college professor, a doctor, mothers, concerned citizens. Many have been involved with Barnes Foundation issues for decades. Some of the Merion neighbors were there as well, and unlike the picture painted of them in some of the news media, I was surprised to find that they are quite thoughtful individuals, who have been active in promoting the well-being of the public Barnes.

As the guests of the groundbreaking shuffled past us, many of them with eyes cast downward, some of the protesters gently chided that we need not proceed with this move. One guest called the protesters "selfish"— and, despite my resolve to merely bear silent witness, I found myself countering, "No, you are the selfish one!" None of the protesters on Friday would benefit personally from the Barnes either moving from Merion or staying put.

Support from Lincoln students

A busload of students from Lincoln University, invited to the festivities to sing to the audience, were dropped off nearby. As they filed by us, some students called out, "Hey, we're with you on this. We have to be here for class credit." Another student expressed fears that Lincoln University would donate cash to the move. The money would have be better spent developing and maintaining Lincoln's library, she said.

While the celebrants gave self congratulatory speeches, ate boxed lunches from the Four Seasons and dug dirt with their shiny ceremonial shovels, we protesters decided to remain in place until the assembled officials had left, in spite of the damp and the cold. I found myself wondering: How long could Violette de Mazia could have kept the Barnes Foundation operational just for the cost of Friday's party tent, the boxed lunches, the public relations hoopla, and the truck hired to cart off one load of dirt?

Unsolicited comments

Emboldened by the steadfastness of my fellow protesters, I headed over to the Art Museum, my brand new "No Barnes Move" button pinned to my coat. As I walked the halls, wonderfully busy with Gorky activity, I received usolicited comments from visitors and employees who weren't so happy about moving the Barnes either. Could it be that the rosy picture painted by the Inquirer— of widespread public support for the move in the face of a small, ineffectual opposition— is mistaken?

And if the Barnes Foundation ultimately moves to the Parkway despite our best efforts, I'm already envisioning possible future protests, perhaps with banners and buttons saying, "Move It Back." For me, at least, this issue isn't going away. And I suspect I'm not alone.♦

To read a related commentary by Robert Zaller, click here.
To read a reply, click here.

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