UNBELIEVABLE! We actually pulled it off. Our underdog, ragtag, come-from-behind campaign defeated Measure A1. The zoo will not have more than $100 million of our tax dollars to destroy our beautiful Knowland Park. And that’s a good thing, because the creatures that already live there depend on that habitat. (More about them in a bit.)
But okay now, time to put things in perspective: The zoo started with a full year to conduct polling and prepare its campaign, a million-dollar war chest, highly paid campaign consultants and full time PR staff, a campaign organization and a mailing list of some 30,000 zoo members plus a high-powered board of directors and well-honed political connections. And they claimed the polls showed 75% support. AND they had cute captive animals always available to be displayed for a new feature story in the press.
We underdogs started a little over 2 months ago, suddenly learning about the measure being put on the ballot through a Tribune news story (thank you, reporter Angela Woodall), with our funds drained after losing a lawsuit made harder to win by the community’s previous agreement with the zoo CEO (which the zoo and city, in another classic bait and switch, had decided not to honor). We had no organized campaign, no giant team of campaigners, and no political connections. And a whole county to cover. And did we say no money? And no animals we could produce on command—only wild native ones, shy and elusive, whose presence we knew only by seeing their signs, hearing them, or rarely glimpsing them when they allowed themselves to be seen. But we had a message. And somehow, with everyone’s help, we got it out there.
The zoo looks to have spent the million dollars zoo CEO Joel Parrott admitted to spending at the Piedmont League of Women Voters debate – and then some. Again, let’s put that in perspective. Some estimate that total US spending on the Presidential race (for both candidates) was $700 million. So for this one measure in a single county, the Oakland zoo spent 1/700 the cost of the entire US Presidential election campaign!
We haven’t totaled up everything yet, but it looks like we might have spent about $20,000 on the whole No side campaign—and thanks to all of you coming through to help, we probably won’t end up too far in the hole—we will let you know once all the receipts are in. So we were only outspent by about 50 to 1! But what is most exciting to us, and what was celebrated last night as the nail-biting vote count dragged on, was this: despite having almost nothing to start from but our absolute determination to protect Knowland Park, the campaign on this measure just grew organically as people heard about it and heard about the Park. Almost magically, people appeared left and right to volunteer, bringing an amazing range of creative skills and then bringing others along with them – and many others just did things on their own. Amid the slick million-dollar campaign arrayed all around us, so many people across the whole county stepped up to help that it got so intense we couldn’t even keep track of things any more—people organized themselves and just went out and did it. That is awesome! And that tells you that people can truly still make a difference acting locally and spreading the word.
Now, we admit we would have loved to have knocked the other side down below 50%. But we have to be realistic, too. There were more than 400,000 potential voters to reach in a county the size of many small countries, and the zoo started off with a Pollyanna image and a big advantage. (That Pollyanna image certainly got dented for us by the hateful personal attacks by zoo employees on our campaign’s leaders as it became clearer we were having an impact). And we had no one paid to work on this full time as the zoo employees clearly did. So we will settle for winning this battle by looking at what we really accomplished.
According to the Registrar of Voters website with 100% of precincts reporting early this morning, we knocked their claimed 75% support in polls before the election way down below the 67% they needed to win this thing—in fact, down to 62% and change. That’s more than a 12 point drop—a LOT of movement for a citizen group that was meeting in people’s living rooms, via email, and out in the street. So take a moment and savor this. While this may seem like a win for us, it’s really a win for Knowland Park, and it’s a big win for citizen engagement in protecting our remaining public open space.
We had some lucky breaks. All those environmental and social justice groups that courageously cast their lot with the NO side, in the face of the political juggernaut the zoo had assembled, deserve our commendation. The East Bay Express investigating the zoo’s illegal use of public property for campaigning was a break for our side. The Oakland Tribune calling the zoo out on its lack of financial justification for the need for a 25-year tax was another. For the first time, we began to see some media starting to pay attention to issues we have been raising with the city for years.
Now comes the hard part: sustaining our momentum to tackle the next phase. We know that this defeat is not going to cause the zoo to suddenly have a change of heart and decide that conservation really does mean something different than “bulldoze and build.” We know that the expansion project is still on the books, and even though the permits and the money aren’t there yet, we haven’t yet saved the park, either. But we have changed the game with this win. So many more people know the park exists now. And as more and more people discover what has been kept hidden from them for so long, they have a stake in defending it.
Here’s one of the reasons it’s worth defending: to protect the wildlife that live, rear their young, and hunt there. To kick off the next phase of our campaign, check our website today for our latest slide show of Knowland Park wildlife. (http://www.saveknowland.org/2012/11/06/wild-animals-of-the-maritime-chaparral-in-knowland-park/) This wonderful new set of photos taken in the planned expansion site by wildlife photographer and teacher Christian Naventi shows our view of what “animal care” means: preserving this habitat so beautiful animals like these can simply live within their natural environment.
Ruth Malone is a resident of Oakland since 1983, a founding member and co-chair of Friends of Knowland Park and a longtime Oakland neighborhood activist. Since 2007, she has been working to educate and organize environmentalists, park users, and community members to protect the park. In her day job, she is a professor of nursing and health policy at University of California, San Francisco, where she helps students study the links between health and political, social and natural environments, and conducts research on the tobacco industry and its efforts to thwart public health efforts worldwide.
Ruth Malone’s Reflections Blog offers a combination of reflective essays and updates from the Protect Knowland Park Campaign, linking the fight to protect Knowland Park to broader environmental and ethical issues.