There’s No Predicting When Movements Will Erupt
Above photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP/Shutterstock. Demonstrators protest, near the White House in Washington, over the death of George Floyd.
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With Black Lives Matter in the midst of an unprecedented moment, now is the perfect time to read “The Movement Action Plan” — a model for understanding the long arc of movements.
When Claudette Colvin, a Black teenager from Montgomery, Alabama, was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a city bus, few people paid attention. A few months later, when Rosa Parks was arrested for the same act, it touched off a yearlong bus boycott and ignited a movement.
When Seymour Hersh revealed the details of the My Lai Massacre in 1969, it touched off Congressional investigations but not mass action. When President Nixon announced that U.S. troops had invaded Cambodia the following spring, college campuses, including Kent State, erupted in protest.
The partial meltdown of the Enrico Fermi nuclear reactor in Michigan in 1966 captured little public concern or attention. A decade later, the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979 sparked demonstrations, songs, legislation and a reversal of Wall Street’s bullish attitude toward nuclear power. (The coincidental release of a major Hollywood film, “The China Syndrome,” was an unexpected factor.)
When news came out that Ahmaud Arbery had been killed by vigilantes in Georgia, it touched off waves of outrage — like, sadly, many other incidents of police violence before it. But just two months later, when videos of George Floyd being murdered by Minneapolis police went viral, that outrage grew into something completely unprecedented for the Black Lives Matter movement.
According to a recent New York Times story, demonstrations have taken place in 2,000 cities and towns, with hundreds of thousands of participants. That’s probably an understatement, and it doesn’t even count demonstrations in Mexico, Britain, Australia and elsewhere. Meanwhile, legislation to restrain police violence is advancing across the country, as are calls to divest from policing and reinvest in communities.
While it can’t be predicted exactly which outrages spark major uprisings and fuel social movements, the mere fact that some do reflects a pattern described 40 years ago by activist and author Bill Moyer in a newsprint pamphlet called “The Movement Action Plan.” It’s especially worth reading, or re-reading, now.
Moyer was a community organizer active in the 1960s and 70s, working for fair housing with the American Friends Service Committee in Chicago. He helped organize the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, and later joined the Movement for a New Society in Philadelphia, which developed skills to help movements for peace, equality and environmentalist goals.
After years of deeply analyzing social movements, Moyer identified a particular set of stages that successful ones go through. The first stage, which Moyer called “Normal Times,” is characterized by the public being unaware of the issues and supporting power holders. Then comes Stage Two, as opposition groups form and begin to “Prove the Failure of Official Institutions.” In Stage Three, “Ripening Conditions” lead to significant public opposition to power holder policies — but not yet a majority. Stage Four is when movements “Take Off” — and that’s what we’re currently seeing with Black Lives Matter.
During the earlier phases, issues like police violence and militarism might get the attention of researchers, politicians and what Moyer calls “professional opposition organizations,” but he says those groups are too wedded to the stability of their own institutions to instigate and lead massive social uprisings.
Then comes a “trigger event,” like the videotaped murder of George Floyd. “During these times,” write Mark and Paul Engler in their invaluable book, “This Is an Uprising,” “new participants are inspired to join in their first demonstrations, and groups that had previously been building slowly find themselves amid a tempest, surrounded by a rush of urgent activity.”
Trigger events make an issue impossible to deny and, as Moyer explained, set off “a profound sense of moral outrage within a majority of the general citizenry.” Sufficiently triggered, the public responds, for example, by joining demonstrations for the first time. These trigger events also act like “a trumpet’s call to action for the new wave of local movement opposition groups that built up around the country during the previous stage.”
Together with JoAnn McAllister, Marylou Finley, and Steven Soifer, Moyer expanded on his previous work with a book titled “Doing Democracy: the MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements,” published nearly 20 years ago. The George Floyd murder, of course, was hardly the first time that police brutality against African Americans was revealed, but otherwise Moyer’s words aptly describe the current “Take Off” moment.
In what could be a description of Donald Trump’s reaction to recent protests, Moyer says that during the “Take Off” phase, “Powerholders take a hard line in defending their policies and criticize the new movement, describing it as radical, dangerous, communist-inspired, violent, led by outsiders and irresponsible.”
Moyer has warnings for movement organizers, though. There’s a danger that activists, especially those who have been drawn into dramatic demonstrations for the first time, will confuse public attention with victory. Failure to win changes quickly can lead to burnout, frustration, and resignation, or lead activists to take paths which might feel more “radical,” but can be counter-productive.
It’s worth noting that Moyer developed the “Movement Action Plan” after he gave a presentation to members of the Clamshell Alliance in 1978. The “Clams” had just pulled off a historic occupation at the construction site for a nuclear power plant in the small seaside town of Seabrook, New Hampshire. More than 1,400 people (me among them) were arrested and packed off to National Guard armories scattered across the state and held there for nearly two weeks. The size of the demonstration, its nonviolent discipline and the standoff with the state’s rabidly pro-nuclear governor earned considerable attention — as did the movement’s claims that nuclear power was too risky, too expensive, and unnecessary as long as the sun was shining and the wind was blowing.
As the Englers noted in their book, the No Nukes movement “had created a model whirlwind: In the wake of the Clamshell actions, hundreds of new grassroots groups formed around the country. The Seabrook protest inspired further occupations of places such as the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant in California. Moreover, the organization’s methods — its affinity groups, spokescouncils, consensus projects and focus on militant nonviolent blockades — would ultimately become an influential template for direct action in the United States.”
Yet, instead of finding an upbeat band of organizers ready for the next step in the campaign to shut down nuclear power for good, Moyer saw something else entirely. As he later wrote, he was “shocked when the Clamshell activists arrived with heads bowed” and were “dispirited and depressed, saying their efforts had been in vain” because their short-term goal had not yet been achieved.
It is fitting, then, that the phase following “Take-Off” in Moyer’s MAP is called “Perception of Failure.” It is a time in the movement when activists who have deepened their understanding of the problem at hand, including “the agonizing suffering of the victims” and the complicity of those in power, sink into despair when change is not immediate. Moyer wants them to know they’re probably winning and that they need to keep up the pressure for change.
It’s at this point where another element of Moyer’s analysis bears examination. Activists fit into four roles, he says, all of which are needed for success: citizen, rebel, change agent and reformer. Those who fill the four roles can be effective or ineffective. For example, ineffective change agents might advance agendas that are too tepid or too bold. Reformers from the world of “professional opposition organizations” can find the rebels just as problematic as the powerholders do and try to maintain control over movement dynamics. Citizens can be naïve about the forces resisting change or subservient to the powers that be. And rebels can be so programmed to rebel that they disrupt the very processes they helped to instigate. Those he calls “negative rebels” may even see the growth of popular support for activist goals as an indicator that the movement has grown too comfortable with the status quo rather than as proof of progress.
As movements pass through the phases from “Normalcy” to “Success” (and “Continued Struggle”), the relationships between people in the different roles shift. For example, no one pays much attention to the change agents before the take-off phase, but after the rebels have gotten attention from powerholders and the general public, their function rises in significance. Of course, some people may be adept at playing multiple roles, while others stay put in just one.
I have some quibbles with Moyer’s plan, though they are relatively minor. He terms Stage Six as gaining “majority public opinion,” as if we live in a society in which the majority actually rules. While change may be driven in part by public opinion, there is no magic to topping 50 percent in a poll. When the numerical minority still has its hands on the levers of power, for example via the dynamics of our money-drenched election system, movements can’t rely just on majority support.
Despite that, Moyer’s advice for Stage Six is still worth heeding. While powerholders may come calling, movement activists should still be more attentive to reaching and activating more people through strategic campaigns that weaken the forces propping up an unjust status quo. Nonviolent protest can still be effective but can’t be relied upon as the major driver of change.
Interestingly, Moyer refers to the occurrence of “re-trigger events,” which “touch off a replay of the take-off stage.” That’s a pretty good description of the resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests, nearly six years after Ferguson police killed Michael Brown. The fact that Black communities and allies have been through this before and have developed agendas for change is one reason why the movement is progressing so quickly this time from Stage Four to Six.
Ultimately, the protest is not the movement. To succeed, movements need research, training, organization, communications strategies, resources like money and staff, and a spirit to press on even in the face of setbacks, repression and backlash. However, without the pressure and attention generated by protest, movements may get stuck in slow motion when the crises we face demand something more dramatic.