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How to Create an “Ecology of Change” by Combining Movement Uprisings With Long-Term Organizing

Grassroots forces have been most effective when they have harnessed both the power of organization and the power of widespread defiance.

Transformational change attempts to achieve long-term social, political and economic change through combining acts of resistance and movement-building. (Photo: niXerKG / Flickr)

How did a global generation master the use of strategic, nonviolent mass action to inform public debate and demand political change? Mark and Paul Engler consider this phenomenon in depth in This Is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-First Century. Order the book Naomi Klein calls “a genuine gift to social movements everywhere” by making a donation to Truthout!

In this interview, Mark and Paul Engler, authors of This Is an Uprising, examine the strategy differences between traditional schools of organizing and mass mobilizations. They argue that each plays an important role in creating social change and should be used in conjunction to be most effective in reaching a shared goal.

Mark Karlin: How do you define momentum-driven organizing? What makes it distinctive from a general media perception that acts of resistance and disruption are only spontaneous and short-term?

Mark and Paul Engler: Every once in a while, we see outbreaks of mass protests that capture the public spotlight — whether it’s millions of immigrants taking to the streets 10 years ago this spring, or huge student demonstrations in Quebec or Chile, or an occupation on Wall Street that spreads to hundreds of other cities and town. Media [are] almost always caught off guard by these types of mobilizations. Reporters label them “emotional” and “spontaneous.” But the argument of our book is that there is actually a craft to uprising. If we study the playbook of strategic nonviolence, we can see that there are important principles and tactics that guide successful mobilizations. What we call “momentum-driven organizing” is a way of approaching mass protest in a deliberate and strategic manner — consciously seeking to spark, nurture and sustain periods of mass defiance, and also figuring out ways that these can complement other efforts to create social change.

There is an amazing body of knowledge about civil resistance that has emerged over the past 50 years. We want to make more people aware of this field of study. And we want to show people the incredible potential that exists if we apply it to some of the social and political challenges we are facing right now in the United States.

It’s not just media, however, that look at many actions of revolt as “failed” if they do not make immediate change. Many progressives share this perspective. What is your response to supporters of social justice who dismiss acts of resistance as courageous but failed?

A lot of people who are trained in traditional schools of community organizing or in the labor movement are focused on the power of building up organizations for the long haul. Because mass mobilizations don’t fit very well within their organizing model, there can be a lot of skepticism — and even hostility — when mass protests erupt. If you start to dig deep into social movement history, you see that this tension that has emerged again and again throughout the decades. And yet, grassroots forces have been most effective when they have harnessed both the power of organization and the power of widespread defiance. By shedding light on how these different organizing traditions help to create change in different ways, we hope to break down some of that hostility and to encourage more creative thinking about how “movements” and “organizations” can work together.

Grassroots forces have been most effective when they have harnessed both the power of organization and the power of widespread defiance.

Because mass mobilizations can burst dramatically on to the scene, but then fade out and seemingly disappear within a short period of time, they are often dismissed as flukes that do not have a long-term impact. Some organizers think that, in any case, these outbreaks cannot be relied upon. And yet, history shows that moments of mass protest can be critical in changing the political landscape and provoking major reforms. Instead of dismissing these things out of hand because we are unfamiliar with how they work, our book argues that we need to study them more carefully and learn how to tap their power.

Mark Engler, Paul Engler. (Photos: Nation Books)Mark Engler, Paul Engler. (Photos: Nation Books)

Can you summarize the differences that you highlight between the civil rights actions in the 1960s that took place in Albany, Georgia, and Birmingham, Alabama?

The protests that took place in Albany, Georgia, for more than a year, starting in 1961, were an important learning experience for Martin Luther King Jr. and his team of organizers at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). For months on end, you had major nonviolent protests against segregation in that city, and yet the movement was widely perceived as a failure. The media ended up praising the local police force, and the city’s racial discriminatory barriers remained in place.

In preparing for a campaign of nonviolent conflict in Birmingham, Alabama — a campaign that became a famous success — King and other civil rights organizers wanted to take stock of what happened in Albany and make sure that things would go differently the next time. One of the problems in Albany was that the SCLC had been drawn into a conflict it did not create. Local activists and other high-profile civil rights groups had begun a broad-based campaign without a very clear strategy, and there were a lot of different agendas at work. The local police chief exploited the situation. He used mass arrests to tamp down demonstrations, but he avoided creating a major confrontation in front of the TV cameras. Eventually, the momentum of the campaign could not be sustained, and mass protests fizzled out.

In Birmingham, the organizers laid out a very careful plan for escalation. They focused their actions on downtown stores, where they thought that they could win an important symbolic victory. And, of course, the police chief in Birmingham, Bull Connor, was hardly skillful in handling the protests as they ramped up. As his jails filled up, Connor decided to respond with police dogs and fire hoses, creating scenes that outraged the nation.

We use Birmingham as an important example in our book because it was so carefully planned. People think of these major outbreaks of revolt as being spontaneous occurrences that owe their success to the zeitgeist of history. But in Birmingham, we saw a major confrontation that was engineered from the start. Of course, not everything went as planned. Organizers had to be creative and resourceful to keep things on track. But having reflected on past failures like Albany, and having set out to create a confrontation of national significance, they deployed the tools of disruption, sacrifice and escalation in a very strategic way. And this had major consequences in US history.

What are the implications of that difference for guiding transformative nonviolent protest today?

Well, again, a key argument that we make in the book is that there is a craft to uprising — that there is a history of people grappling with the challenges of how to create momentous revolts, and that they have identified some really valuable skills and concepts in their organizing. The more we learn about this history and the more seriously we take on this craft as something that can be studied and refined, the better able we will be to guide moments of mass unrest when they break out, and the more adept we can be at creating these moments from scratch.

Can you summarize what you mean by “the ecology of change”?

In This Is an Uprising, we are most interested in mass mobilizations. We focus on these because we think they represent a type of action whose dynamics are not widely understood. But in the end, it takes a lot of different kinds of organizing and citizen engagement to create social change. Mass protests interact with more long-standing efforts to build progressive organizations. They interact with countercultural communities. They interact with political parties and people working inside the formal structures of politics.

It takes a lot of different kinds of organizing and citizen engagement to create social change.

A variety of people have described all of this activity as a social movement ecosystem. In a healthy “ecology of change,” as we call it, you have both shorter-term movement uprisings and longer-term organization building. Our hope with this book is that it will help people understand how distinct organizing traditions work a little bit differently from one another — and that by creating greater understanding, it might help break down some of the suspicion and hostility that sometimes emerges between people who come from different schools of thought about creating change. We hope that, instead of having different methods of change working against each other, they can be more creative in supporting one other and advancing common goals.

How does momentum-driven organizing create “new spaces of possibility” in public life? You state that “it produces new situations in which the normal rules of politics appear to be suspended.”

Politics can be a long slog. You can work for a really long time on an issue and not see much change. Over time, it’s easy for cynicism to set in.

That said, most people who have been involved in progressive organizing for a long time can point to exceptional moments where it seems like a fire is lit. People come out of the woodwork to join in protests. All of a sudden, after having been ignored for years, you’re swarmed with media that want to cover your issues. The 1999 protests [against the World Trade Organization] in Seattle were a moment like that. The protests exploded, and suddenly everyone was talking about trade issues, about the abuses of corporate globalization and about the need for debt cancelation in the global South. Occupy Wall Street was another moment like that. It took a national conversation that had been focused on austerity and the “debt ceiling” and changed it into a discussion about inequality, jobs and the unjust influence of the wealthiest 1%.

Mobilizations can have important impacts, even if the consequences are not immediately evident.

These types of mobilizations can have important impacts, even if the consequences are not immediately evident. They can take issues seen as political losers and turn them into matters that politicians are compelled to scramble and respond to. Certainly, the civil rights movement did that. In the book, we also spend time tracing some of the long-term impacts of the global justice movement and of Occupy. Even when media label these [movements] as failures, they can have all sorts of ramifications. In the case of Occupy, we had millionaires taxes passed in several states, we had a homeowner’s bill of rights passed in California, and the movement helped set the stage for campaigns such as the Fight for $15, which has been hugely successful.

Why is discipline an important factor after the “whirlwind” of initial disruption and resistance “dies down”?

Discipline is always important for social movements using mass mobilization. Since media coverage plays a big role in determining whether these revolts can sustain their momentum, demonstrators have to be very attentive to how their actions are perceived — whether a given tactic is helping them to attract a greater number of active supporters, and to win over an even wider base of passive supporters among the public.

But at a certain point, momentum will always die down. It is impossible to sustain a period of intensive protest forever. When media attention falls off, social movement participants often feel that they have failed, even if their actions have had an impact and laid the foundation for future action. In fact, a theorist named William (Bill) Moyer identified the “perception of failure” as a predictable stage that shows up in all sorts of social movements. During this stage, it can be easy for movements to splinter and lose discipline. That’s why it is important that movements have long-term strategies to help participants understand that temporary lulls are not the end of the story, and that they can go on to create multiple cycles of rebellion.

You state two primary metrics for judging the success of momentum-driven mass mobilizations. What are they?

Mass mobilizations often create change in a little bit of an indirect way, by shifting public opinion and creating a new climate of debate around an issue, allowing solutions that were previously seen as impractical to become plausible. This process is less understood than conventional organizing campaigns structured around specific, incremental demands — for example, winning a small regulatory reform, a ban on a specific pollutant or a gain in a contract for a targeted group of workers. Because mass mobilizations can be more indirect, and because they’re not necessarily focused on a single incremental goal, they need other ways to measure whether they’re on the right track. Two important measures are whether they are shifting public opinion in their favor, and whether they are building their capacity to pull off more ambitious actions in the future. If, after a given round of protests, movements can live to fight another day, with more popular support and a better network of active participants, they’re doing a lot of things right.

You write that “even small and unknown groups can capture the public spotlight, provided that they are willing to take the right risks.” You identify “disruption” as a key factor. How so?

The more that an action directly impedes business as usual, the harder it is to ignore.

We identify three factors as key drivers of momentum: disruption, sacrifice and escalation. Each one is important, and they interact with each other in complicated ways. But disruption is a good place to start. Disruption can help to dramatize an injustice, forcing an issue into public view. The more that an action directly impedes business as usual, the harder it is to ignore. A few demonstrators holding signs and marching on a sidewalk are easy to overlook. But students occupying the administrative building at their college, or Black Lives Matter protesters blocking a highway, or factory workers sitting down at their stations on an assembly line — all of these things make a much bigger statement. Theorist Frances Fox Piven argues that the great periods of equalizing progress in the United States were responses to times when disruptive power was most widely used by grassroots forces.

Of course, a lot of strategic judgment is needed when undertaking these types of actions. Actions that are disruptive are always controversial; they’re very polarizing. Organizers need to make sure that, even if people say that they don’t like a movement’s tactics, these people are more likely than not to be sympathetic with a movement’s cause. Disruptive actions force people to take sides, so you want to make sure enough of the public falls on the right side of the issue when it is time for them to decide.

Can you describe the difference between transactional politics and transformational change?

A transactional approach to creating change is focused on making a realistic assessment of the current political climate and extracting small wins within that context. A transformational approach, in contrast, is oriented toward altering the climate of public debate to make more far-reaching changes possible over time.

Both of these approaches are important for advancing social progress. They each make contributions. The problem arises when people focus only on transactional politics, fixating on incremental reforms without having any appreciation for the role of mass movements in creating transformational possibilities. People who do that always see social movement outbreaks as being unrealistic and naïve about how to “get things done” within the system. What these critics fail to appreciate is that, again and again throughout history, “impractical” movements have succeeded in setting the agenda and forcing politicians to act on issues they would have preferred to ignore.

There is a lot of study and attention devoted to the ins and outs of transactional politics — to lawsuits and elections and legislative advocacy. Much less attention has been given to how outside movements can change the system. Because the ebbs and flows of mass mobilizations are not widely appreciated, and because their methods for creating social change are poorly understood, we wanted to help correct this imbalance. This Is an Uprising aims to take the potential of social movements seriously. From Gandhi’s campaigns of civil resistance in India to ACT UP’s protests around AIDS, to more recent movements such as Occupy, the Fight for $15 and Black Lives Matter, we believe that a lot can be learned about the skills and strategies needed to create transformational progress. It’s our goal to shed some light on those skills and strategies — to highlight an underappreciated art that we believe has the power to change our world.

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