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Habits of Highly Effective Social Movements
August 17, 2013 12:44 PM   Subscribe

What makes a movement work in the first place? Why do some movements like the struggle for civil rights take off while others like Occupy Wall Street wilt? Four ways to beat 'The Man'.
posted by shivohum (20 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is a point I often make with would-be revolutionaries. You're much better off seizing the apparatus of local party power (hell where I live, there's usually only one candidate that bothers running anyway so a good chunk of the elections are completely unopposed) and working within that system than harrumphing from the outside and demanding the power structure be perfect before you deign to step into it. Some places I worked, you and a group of ten friends could take over what passed for the local party and step into some minor offices that would be great steppingstones for further ambitions, but that's way less sexy than reposting things on Facebook and bleating about the revolution.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 1:07 PM on August 17, 2013 [19 favorites]


Urgh, they refer to the Pinkertons as "detectives". That's like referring to the Gestapo as "police": technically true but damned misleading.
posted by Ndwright at 1:11 PM on August 17, 2013 [12 favorites]


Two thoughts:
a) This is like a million times more thoughtful than I ever expect to see from CNN.com, and
b) The comments section, on the other hand, is exactly what one would expect.
"They were called out for what they were - lazy hippies and anarchists that, if they were to have a job, would simply complain about something else (likely the job itself) because their sole m.o. is to be contrarian and aggitative. That was the only thing that "set them apart," not creative thought or productivity."
Or, to paraphrase, I recommend you do as your parents did, and GET A JOB, SIR. The bums lost, Lebowski! THE BUMS LOST!!!!!
posted by kaibutsu at 1:18 PM on August 17, 2013 [12 favorites]


"Coalition-building: follow us!"
"Empowering everyone: five ways you're doing it wrong"

While no one I hang out with considers posting on facebook revolutionary, a small vanguard taking over the reins of power without changing the fundamental structures isn't considered particularly revolutionary in some circles either. Which isn't to say that it can't be a useful way to obtain reforms that can improve some people's quality of life. But sometimes people have different goals, and that's okay too.

Ndwright: yeah. But it's CNN; one can only expect so much, I suppose.
posted by eviemath at 1:18 PM on August 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Claudette Colvin deserves her proper recognition. As does Thurgood Marshall. As does the NAACP. Legal change and perceptual change are different, but both important, things.
posted by stanf at 1:36 PM on August 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


I can't understand drawing parallels between Occupy and the Tea Party - one is grass roots, and the other is astroturf. Of course the Tea Party is doing better - they had big money behind them from the beginning.
posted by bashos_frog at 1:46 PM on August 17, 2013 [14 favorites]


The article's analysis of the Occupy movement falls victim to a lack of corresponding article on "four ways to report on social movements" I think. I know, for example, from alternative news sources that many of the people who were quite active in Occupy Wall Street and some of the other larger occupy groups (eg. Chicago) have been doing a lot of the quiet, slow, unsexy organising work that point #1 recommends. Often in coalition with other groups rather than explicitly under the occupy banner. This doesn't make conventional news though (eg. CNN).
posted by eviemath at 1:55 PM on August 17, 2013 [10 favorites]


"Movements at some point have to get support from the elites," says Kazin, the Georgetown historian. "You need legitimation. You need some authorities to sort of say we may not support everything you're doing but basically you're in the right."

This actually reminded me of something I read earlier today about the use of violence (including the 'violence' of organised state power), and how tactics of non-violence response to violence can sometimes be a courageous strategy to divide elite opinion rather than a decision to refrain from aggression.

Consider one of the tactics King used to undermine segregation in the South. King often led peaceful groups into hostile communities where he was confident that local authorities would assault the protesters. Those images helped build support for his cause and for demands that the federal government intervene, by convincing Northern audiences that Jim Crow was brutal, evil, and fundamentally un-American.

One of the most famous protests King organized, in March 1965 at Selma, Ala., is instructive. King picked Selma partly because racial discrimination there and in surrounding Dallas County was so obvious. For example, only a tiny percentage of the county's registered voters were black, even though blacks accounted for more than half the county's residents. King was also confident that the state and county political leaders were fools. He expected them to respond with violence and, in doing so, imprint themselves on the collective consciousness of a national television audience as the brutal oppressors of heroic and defenseless crusaders for freedom and democracy. With network cameras rolling, Alabama state troopers viciously attacked marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, seriously injuring many of them in what the news media called "Bloody Sunday."

Images of the violence unleashed enormous sympathy for the civil-rights cause and helped lay the groundwork for the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which sent an army of federal law-enforcement officials into the South with the power to suppress white resistance to the registration of black voters.

In essence, this nonviolent protest succeeded because the protesters' allies had an even greater capacity for violence than their foes. But in a case like Tiananmen Square, where protesters had no allies able to deploy or at least threaten the use of force, nonviolent protest will almost always fail.


When I read that, I think of Bull Connor as a literal bull in a bull-fight. A big dumb animal that doesn't understand the situation he's in. He thinks he's more powerful because he is big and he has horns, he has no idea that in the larger context his horns and size are not actually very impressive at all. He charges at the enemy, he might think that he is defending his territory, that he is the aggressor. Sometimes he hurts or even kills a human being. He is doing precisely what the matadors want.

Read that first bolded quote above again, and consider the courage and the discipline required to do it. The leadership and moral courage required to ask other people to go and receive a beating. Some of those people died. Think about what it requires, not just to do it on the day, when everyone you know is watching - but what it takes to agree weeks in advance to go marching. Knowing all that time what is going to happen to you. Knowing that you can probably get out it, fake an excuse, illness in the family. And... not doing that, showing up to accept the certainty of physical violence in order to provoke the possibility of legal violence in your favour.

It's hardly an original observation that in many of the most powerful pictures taken of that violence the disciplined and dignified protesters look like humans and their assailants look like wild animals with their faces contorted and twisted with hate.

The bull thinks that he is one with the power. Doesn't he have horns? Big dumb old Bull Connor had fire-hoses and night-sticks. He thought he was winning when he inflicted violence but all he did was move the machinery of federal government in precisely the way that the marchers wanted it moved. He no more understood what was going on than a bull understands a bull fight.

I see those faces contorted with rage and police behaving like an ill-disciplined mob. They look like prey.

If the lesson is to divide the elite then that means dividing the businessmen out from the bankers. The problem with that is that American business in particular is now so thoroughly financialised that there is no longer a very clear division. When management at manufacturers comes from the same institutional system as bankers and consultants - and they do. Then that kind of split will be very difficult to effect.
posted by atrazine at 2:14 PM on August 17, 2013 [36 favorites]


I know, for example, from alternative news sources that many of the people who were quite active in Occupy Wall Street and some of the other larger occupy groups (eg. Chicago) have been doing a lot of the quiet, slow, unsexy organising work that point #1 recommends.

Not to mention the unsexy regulatory deep-dives and policy work that Occupy the SEC has been doing.
posted by atrazine at 2:16 PM on August 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


What if the tea party and the rise of the xenophobic, the racist, and the great gay hate has actually been a liberal conspiracy to destroy the republican party gone wrong? That really the liberals are responsible for this obstructionist single-minded politicking in the united states!

Shame on you liberals! Rupert Murdoch speaks the truth when he directs his talking heads to claim the liberals are besieging traditional American values.



Wow, I just improved my Fox news cred... Am I getting this right?
posted by Nanukthedog at 2:22 PM on August 17, 2013


I have seen The Man and The Man is us.
posted by telstar at 2:30 PM on August 17, 2013


Wow. I expected to hate this ("some jackass at CNN.com who will undoubtedly pontifcate about twitter" was my initial thought) but this is really smart and on-the-mark. I've been involved in social/political movements for a long time (and even studied them and now it's sort of my job because I'm a nerd like that) and the first point cannot be overstated. All movements need their "moment" but if it's not backed up by years of organizing and movement-building, it'll fizzle.

A fifth point I'd add, borrowed from the brilliant Marshall Ganz: a movement needs a "theory of change." You need to be able to show/tell people what you're trying to do, how you're going to get there, and how their involvement will make it happen.
posted by lunasol at 2:32 PM on August 17, 2013 [6 favorites]


Even if you think Occupy the SEC has written some impressive regulatory comment letters, they're still not engaging the democratic process. A single comment letter probably has less impact than a letter to the editor: a heavily footnoted letter to the SEC is still, when all is said and done, just a letter sent out into the ether.
posted by jpe at 2:56 PM on August 17, 2013


I can't understand drawing parallels between Occupy and the Tea Party - one is grass roots, and the other is astroturf.

astroturf that involves millions of people believing and voting for the people who espouse tea party beliefs

it's time to wake up and smell the tea - the tea party is real, the ordinary people who support it are real, and yes, this is a genuine grass roots movement that has bubbled up from the bottom, not the top - although those at the top are very skilled at manipulating and profiting from it

i have heard people saying tea party like things for DECADES - they BELIEVE this shit - and as long as people like you continue to insist that they're just pawns being moved by astroturfing chess masters, they're not going to be recognized as the problem they are

the reality is that millions of americans are reactionary jerks who will do anything and vote for anyone who will stand up against our vision of civilization, equality and social participation

we ignore this truth at our own peril
posted by pyramid termite at 5:52 PM on August 17, 2013 [17 favorites]


Yeah, we all wanted to believe that the Tea Party is a fakey astroturf movement, but it's not. It's very real, although you can argue about how effective it is. It's backed up and often funded by big, powerful players, but then, so is the marriage equality movement.
posted by lunasol at 7:03 PM on August 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


Even if you think Occupy the SEC has written some impressive regulatory comment letters, they're still not engaging the democratic process.

....However:

Three recent crackdowns on big-gun financial institutions suggest to me that maybe, even though they're not engaging the democratic process, maybe whatever it is they are doing is possibly even better and more effective.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:59 PM on August 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


We should clarify atrazine's quote that "In essence, this nonviolent protest succeeded because the protesters' allies had an even greater capacity for violence than their foes. But in a case like Tiananmen Square, where protesters had no allies able to deploy or at least threaten the use of force, nonviolent protest will almost always fail."

It's not simply a "greater capacity for violence" per se. Non-violence is foremost a method for demonstrating that your ideas deserve society's attention, often winning converts from both elite's and ordinary people. In so doing, you create a potential for disruption, including violence, that forces clever moderates into taking your side.

India was not afaik in a position to declare independence from British rule militarily, but they demonstrated the power to make India unrulable by the British. So the British rationally decided to grant India independence.

Why did the federal government allay with the civil rights movement? I'd understand the cold war played a huge part. If the feds had crushed MLK's movement then black leaders and white might've allied with the soviet union. It's not a violent communist revolution inside the U.S. that they feared per se, so much as all the side effects, like foreign policy being paralyzed by America losing the moral high ground, too many Americans communists, etc.

At present, we've such a labor excess that elite's don't fear disruptions too much. Yet, the more computer savvy are disproportionately against many current abuses of power. In particular, right-wing computer savvy people usually identify as libertarian or similar. That's hopeful.
posted by jeffburdges at 3:09 AM on August 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


the only thong occupy the SEC has done is issue a letter on the Volcker rule. that had nothing to do with recent enforcement actions.
posted by jpe at 4:17 AM on August 18, 2013


OWS activities create a political pressure that helps protect SEC investigators, prosecutors, etc. who wish to take on larger cases, jpe. All influence peddling incurs exposure risks so you obstruct fewer investigations when protestors are in the streets.
posted by jeffburdges at 4:29 AM on August 18, 2013


the only thong occupy the SEC has done is issue a letter on the Volcker rule. that had nothing to do with recent enforcement actions.

...Except to let the enforcers know that people are actually paying attention to what they do for a change, so they'd better get off their asses and do something.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:22 AM on August 18, 2013


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