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Jury-rig solutions (or, How would MacGyver protest?)

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“Egg whites are good for a lot of things — lemon meringue pie, angel food cake, and clogging up radiators.”

In Sum

Fix a problem as best you can to pressure authorities to fix it properly.

Imagine a problem that you, as a regular citizen, can’t solve alone. For example, let’s say your street is paved with cheap, bad materials after your city privatized road repair, and now has lots of potholes. You could complain about it, you could create a petition to pressure local authorities and the company, or you could idly wait for somebody to take action. In any of these cases, you would still have to risk damage to your car or bicycle until the company steps up or the city steps in.

But what if you choose to fix it yourself? There is, of course, no comparison between what you and your friends can do with a limited amount of time, money, and expertise, and what a professional fix would look like. But if you fill the potholes temporarily with cement, traffic would immediately move better and you, as a creative activist, could use the action to gather support and build pressure against the privatization of public services.

Call it a jury-rigging protest: temporarily solving a problem with quick, small, concrete actions that can build support for bigger and better solutions. You could put a sign in each covered pothole saying “citizens, not politicians, fixed this mess.” It’ll hopefully embarrass the city’s administration, which will be compelled to live up to its responsibility to provide public services.

The Black Panther Party made excellent use of this tactic. Sick of waiting for the City of Oakland to build a traffic light at a busy intersection near a school where several children had been killed or injured by vehicles, the Panthers set up an armed crossing guard to escort children across the intersection. No further deaths or injuries were reported until the traffic light was finally installed — more than a year ahead of schedule.

As another example, the Rolling Jubilee campaign, which saw activists raise money to buy off Americans’ bad debts for pennies on the dollar, and then forgive that debt, was never conceived to be the silver bullet for people’s debt problems. While it does indeed help those who are facing bankruptcy, of equal importance is the message it sends about the arbitrary and unfair nature of the entire bank system. This was a jury-rig that underscored just how broken the entire banking system is, and how easy and beneficial it would be to simply erase that crippling debt.

Similarly, when a city has no recycling policies, citizens can’t create selective garbage collection by themselves, but they can bring visibility and respect to the informal workers that made their living by jury-rigged a solution (see CASE: Pimp my… carroca!). Society can celebrate them as heroes, improve their work conditions and galvanize support for universal and selective trash collection.

Or take the Max Feffer tunnel, in São Paulo, Brazil, whose walls were totally covered by grime from engine exhaust. Alexandre Orion chose to selectively clean some parts of it through reverse graffiti — erasing some of the soot to expose the wall beneath, rather than drawing over it. No police officer could ever arrest him for cleaning a public space, so local authorities had no choice but to clean the walls, which is what Orion wanted in the first place!

When a citizen is able to fix something completely, but opts to only jury-rig it, that’s bad. But a jury-rigged solution can be used as a provocative first step towards bolder and more lasting solutions (see PRINCIPLE: Escalate strategically). It requires nothing more than creativity and a willingness to get your hands dirty to come up with an unconventional and funny solution that will attract attention to your cause.

Potential Pitfalls

1) Remember that this is all about temporary solutions and be clear in pointing to the actual change that you are fighting for. You don’t want your jury-rigged solution to let the authorities off the hook from fulfilling their responsibilities. 2) Don’t jury-rig something that could break and hurt someone. D’oh! (See PRINCIPLE: Take risks but take care.) 3) Be clear about whether you want to just jury-rig a fix, or fix the problem for real. Sometimes what you really want is to have the community solve its own problems in a way the State never could, so more than just a jury-rig is called for.

Gui Bueno is a native of Brazil and completely crazy for theoretical discussions about the media, its central role in capitalism, its disadvantages and (why not?) benefits. He works for Open Knowledge Foundation Brazil where he takes care of communications (but learns much more than he communicates). Interested in “artivism,” he was lucky to be Andy Bichlbaum’s student and to absorb a lot from him.

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