It's a familiar happening. Some event stimulates an outpouring of concern about a societal issue. Like mass shootings, global warming, police killings of Blacks, Postal Service slowdowns, Trump's outrageous actions.
Protesters march in the streets. Facebook and Twitter erupt. Legislators are contacted. Passionate views are expressed. Vows of "we've got to do something about this" are plentiful.
And then... the familiar trajectory of the bell-shaped curve is evident. What goes up, comes down. A peak level of societal concern is reached, then declines to about the same level it was at before.
Maybe a bit higher, but nowhere near as large as when it seemed that lasting change finally was going to happen.
Then a new issue takes hold in the national consciousness and the same dynamic plays out. This is natural. Nothing last forever. Change happens. It isn't possible for people to stay focused on a single issue forever, or even for very long.
We need to be realistic about what can be achieved by these periodic displays of concern.
Yes, they're exceedingly valuable. They draw attention to a pressing problem, as has been evident with the Black Lives Matter movement. The spark of George Floyd's murder set off a firestorm of justified outrage that brought many more people on board with the Black Lives Matter cause.
So how can this social energy be harnessed for lasting good? As with other causes, somehow a commitment to lasting change has to be institutionalized.
Yeah, I know. That's a dreadful term for many, institutionalized. It conjures up an image of a patient in a mental hospital, or a prisoner in a penitentiary. Rigid procedures, a lack of freedom, stultifying routine.
Well, routine is what we're looking for when it comes to lasting societal change.
After activists bring a problem to our attention though special means -- protests, passionate speeches, calls to action -- a transition into institutionalized policies needs to happen. Otherwise the bell-shaped curve thing occurs, a big flurry of ascendent activity followed by a descent into business as usual.
I realize that this is difficult for activists to hear. It's the truth, though. For example, Black Lives Matter protests have done their job in raising public awareness of systemic racism and other inequities within police departments.
But now those protests have reached the point of diminishing returns. People tune out protesters when the same message is repeated over and over for months on end, as has been happening to the city to the north of where I live in Salem -- Portland, Oregon.
This has been exacerbated by a small group of troublemakers who hijack the otherwise peaceful protests, setting fires in police buildings, breaking windows, and such. That encourages counter-protests by the law and order crowd, fueled by Trump's lie that Democrat-led cities are being wrecked by angry mobs.
What's needed at this point is institutional change within police departments. That process isn't nearly as exciting as marching in the streets. It is equally or more important, though.
Here in Salem, Oregon's capital, our city council has embarked on a months-long effort of conducting a performance audit of the Salem Police Department which will be led by an outside consultant. Sure, a performance audit doesn't exactly lend itself to a stirring chant: What do we want? Performance audit! When do we want it? In a few months!
However, if all goes as planned, and that's a big "if," the performance audit could produce marked improvements in the police department in line with the demands of Black Lives Matter protesters and allied groups.
Institutionalizing change is how lasting progress has been made in civil rights, women's rights, gay rights, environmental rights, all sorts of rights. It is more difficult when political leaders on the local, state, or national level are opposed to the cause being promoted.
Difficult, but not impossible. Elections can alter the political landscape. Pressure can alter political minds. So let's strike a balance between raising awareness of societal problems through in-your-face methods, and institutionalizing the needed changes.