Using Activism in Beer

While I was out on vacation, Adam Milne sent me a relieved email. The owner of Old Town Brewing had finally prevailed in his battle with the city of Portland over a trademark he owned. (For details on the battle, see this backgrounder.) The final campaign turned out to be a short one. After years of legal wrangling and tens of thousands of dollars, what it took was a little sunlight and a quick burst of very public protest.

I had a backseat view to the whole incident, and the way it played out was not the least bit surprising to me. In many cases, direct action can be a potent force for change. Folks in the beer world tend not to be activist types, and so the mechanisms of this change may not be obvious. Since there's no way this was the last outrage to visit friends in beer, it's worth mentioning how activism works and how to deploy it the next time around.

Fighting Injustice
Old Town Brewing's case was a perfect example of the dynamics that call for activism. They were the victims of very clear injustice by a single actor. The City of Portland was using their immense financial war chest to try to prize a legal trademark from Old Town so that they could license it to competing out-of-state corporate beer companies. It was so outrageous that every time someone was introduced to the facts (including me), they seemed unbelievable.

Not every case is one of injustice. Sometimes two entities have different views on matters, and the dispute revolves around preferred solutions. These cases do not lend themselves to activism because there's no outrage to tap into. Sometimes there's an outrageous situation, but the problem behind it is systemic and there's no easy solution. This is also a bad case for activism because it's hard to rally people when there's not much hope of change.

Some examples illustrate the right circumstances. A little over a decade ago, the OLCC announced that kids would no longer be allowed at the Oregon Brewers Festival. Much as with the Old Town case, this sparked immediate and sustained outrage, and the agency relented. (Kids are still allowed at the fest to this day.)

Throughout the middle aughts, the Oregon legislature kept introducing gigantic beer tax hikes, a subject that became a major theme in the early years of this blog. Breweries had a more formal defender in that case in the form of powerful lobbyist Paul Romain, but what really moved Democratic sponsors away from their own bill was the public outcry. I was at the time doing a lot of political blogging, and I started fielding calls from legislators who were saying, "Dude, what are you doing--you're killing us." But it would have been one of the highest taxes in the country, would definitely have damaged the beer industry, and had no real rationale except that Democratic legislators saw it as a potential source of funds. The bills never moved out of committee.

All of these cases shared the elements of a clear injustice and a single, easy-to-understand call to action. And they were all effective.

Clear Messaging
When a case like this arises, the activist's sole focus is bringing attention to the issue. Adam was at the end of his rope with the city, and the last thing he could think to do was bring it to the public's attention. Good call. The way local politics work is this. No matter what's happening in a jurisdiction (city, county, state), somebody's unhappy. Being a local politician means constantly fielding calls from angry constituents. Any law or rule change brings a hail of criticism. (If the politician took the opposite action, it would also elicit a hail of criticism--from people on the other side.) A big part of being a local politician is managing that criticism.

An activist's job is bringing attention to an issue so that the number and intensity of complaints rises above the usual dull roar. Politicians respond to sustained pressure and bad press. This is where clear messaging comes in. Sparking that pressure depends on 1) making the issue crystal clear in the minds of the public, and 2) making clear, consistent demands. This is the problem, and here's the solution.

Typically, the object of your ire will obfuscate, misdirect, dissemble, and delay. These are the tactics of politicians--and they're actually not particularly nefarious. Since they exist in a world of constant complaint, politicians use these tactics to separate the low-level grumblers from the truly hot constituents. From the activist perspective, this can seem like inaction, but that pressure works. In the Old Town case, we saw exactly this pattern of attempted placation followed by silence. But inside City Hall, the political actors understood that the optics of the situation were unsustainable, and they were looking for an exit. Activists have to persevere through that boring middle part of the campaign, when it will often seem like nothing is happening. That's really where the battle is won or lost.

I commend Old Town for the way they handled this issue. Adam was a gentleman throughout, always telling his story simply and asking for a reasonable outcome. He was in many ways the worst foil the City could have faced--a likable small businessperson who never used incendiary language or made unreasonable demands. (Folks like Nat West of Reverend Nat's and Huck Bales, who blanketed social media, were also great allies.) It was a model case for activism, and whether you live in Portland or Peoria, serves as a valuable lesson in how to effectively use activism when regular channels fail.

Jeff Alworth1 Comment