We Must Be Strategic To Win Social Change

| Strategize!

Protest. Petition. Call your senators. Nothing changes, right? No matter how large our demonstrations get, no matter how many millions of people write and petition politicians, no matter how many people get arrested in front of the White House or at our state capitols, it seems that our (supposedly) elected officials keep turning a blind eye and deaf ear to our cries for change.

In fact, there’s even a study out that shows that in 20 years on 2,000 different bills, we, the People, got our bills through Congress a whopping 0.0 percent of the time. (Yes, you read that correctly. Zero point zero. In other words, “never-ever-not-once”.) Only businesses and rich people managed to get legislation passed. And sure, it looked like we had a few victories, so long as one of those other groups were aligned with us. But when we wanted something they didn’t, nope. Nada. No way. Congress just wasn’t listening.

You’d think we’d learn from 20 years of experience, but to judge from the emails I’m getting as an engaged and caring conscious citizen, we haven’t. I’m supposed to give my reps and senators a ring 40 times a day on as many issues. I’ve been invited to enough DC mass demonstrations and marches this year to take up residence there. And I have to confess to a hefty dose of skepticism that voting this batch of politicians out of office in two to four years is the only way to advance social justice causes. In that timeframe, hundreds of school children could be murdered in mass shootings in schools, hundreds (and probably close to a thousand) black people could be shot dead by police, and dozens of aquifers will be contaminated with fracking toxins and oil spills – to name just a few of the problems that will rack up casualties in the next couple years.

I’m rarely happy to be lied to, but in this case the truth holds more hope that my email list organizations are letting on. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be thrilled to know that we have literally dozens more options for pushing for change than we’re generally told. Getting foot-dragging corporate and oligarch controlled politicians to pass legislation is not our only option. (Thank goodness.)

So what can we do? For one thing, talk to your favorite nonprofits, organizations, and campaigns for change. Ask them to do a thorough strategic analysis of the problem you’re working on. Look for the all the power holders, not just the political ones. Your power holders on the issue may be investors, financiers, technicians, researchers, academics, social trend-setters, police chiefs, school administrators, CEOs and shareholders, and many other types of groups. Analyze the problem carefully before you assume that politicians are the only ones with the power to change the equation. There are many books and online tools to help you with this work.

Do a Pillars of Support analysis to find your leverage points in the equation. Every injustice arises in a system. Find the points of intervention and cut off the flow of labor, money, resources, information, and/or functionality until your demand for change is met. Your best point of intervention may not be on the political front. For example, when Earth Quaker Action Team wanted to stop mountain top removal, they didn’t stop at calling their senators – they shut down the big bank that was financing the coal companies.

If you’re looking for ways to change a complex problem, one with many potential solutions that could be implemented at several levels, see if you can work for change on many fronts, building cumulative campaigns (even simultaneous cumulative campaigns if you want to get really fancy) to implement several sets of changes. For example, when peacebuilders in Gainesville, FL wanted to stop the school-to-prison pipeline, they worked to address the many layers of the problem, helping to start a restorative justice program in both the schools and the juvenile justice system, initiating police-youth dialogues, and working to resource kids and families to meet underlying needs, among other approaches.

Consider doing a Spectrum of Allies to identify your allies. You might be surprised at who/what you discover. Do you need the telecoms giants to back off from Net Neutrality? Net Neutrality supporters include some behemoths like Amazon, Facebook, and Google. If you pointed your campaign at shifting them from fairly passive allies to active allies (say, shutting down all search engine and advertisement traffic to the telecom giants), you’ll have mobilized some powerful allies. Other times, your allies pop up in less powerful groups that are, nonetheless, in powerful positions to serve as pivots of change, One example might be coders, who also advocate for Net Neutrality. Imagine an industry-wide coders’ strike for Net Neutrality . . . it might be a fairly rapid and swift way to shift the equation on this issue.

We have more power than we think. But we’ve got to go beyond the “protest-petition-call officials-vote” routine. Think outside that box, and you’ll find a world of creative solutions and strategies to tap into. I’d like to issue a challenge to all of our nonprofits and organizing groups to at least employ a one-for-one strategy. If you’re going to ask people to call public officials or join a large protest, add a second strategy that uses an organized, sustained, and strategic act of noncooperation and/or intervention targeted at a second group of power holders. The time has come to double down on strategy and make great strides toward change.

Author/Activist Rivera Sun, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is the author of The Dandelion Insurrection, The Roots of Resistance, and many other books, including a study guide to making change with nonviolent action.  She is the cohost of Love (and Revolution) Radio, and a trainer in strategy for nonviolent movements.

  • mwildfire

    While I approve the overall point here, I have three quibbles–a tiny one, a small one and a huge one. The tiny one is that I believe it isn’t quite true that popular will has resulted in zero changes–the Page and Gilens study called it a “near zero” chance. The small one is that the EQAT action did help persuade one bank, maybe even more than one, to stop funding MTR, but MTR goes on. It’s much reduced–but that may be because the economically recoverable coal is about gone and the price is low.(My gratitude to the EQAT people,however; I believe they’re all northerners who live nowhere near MTR, but undertook this effort and risk on our behalf). And that leads to the huge quibble. To use the last example, WV is now faced with a huge threat from the gas industry. We haven’t eradicated MTR, climate change is an enormous yet rarely mentioned threat and now we have to gear up for a gargantuan battle against another fossil fuel industry (set of industries, since cracker plants, plastics and chemical plants, as well as pipelines are lining up). Maybe we need ask more fundamental questions than what other power-holders can we address, maybe we need to attack all of these problems at the root rather than endlessly battling the toxic fruits. Maybe we need to move past the paradigm of assuming the Powers That Be mean well but need to be educated, and what we need to do is petition them for redress of grievances. Moving beyond politicians to also petition the financial powers is a step in the right direction, but only one step. Should we try to get Google and Facebook to help fight for net neutrality–knowing that these tech empires are very much like the railroad and oil empires of the past, and Bezos and Gates and Zuckerberg are much like J P Morgan, J D Rockefeller, Carnegie etc? Sure, if it will defend net neutrality, but understand that this collaboration with the enemy is one tactic to win one battle for awhile–we desperately need a global revolution so we aren’t always struggling desperately to fight an ever-worsening battle against the death march of the sociopathic elite class now running and ruining the world. So (you ask), what would be the more profound actions I advocate? It starts with asking the deeper questions, and talking about this. One key is in the sign pictured at the top–“you have the power.” Well no I don’t–but maybe WE do, as long as you understand that “we” is not that group of people who came to the rally, but also all the people in the houses around them, watching TV or working or sleeping–people who won’t join any of the battles because they’re trained to passivity and misled about issues. Why are activists such a small minority? Largely because corporations control most of the media (which is why net neutrality is a key battle). Facebook and Twitter and Google are already censoring dissenting viewpoints, but there are alternatives like Popular Resistance, Commondreams, resilience.org, the Real News. We need to spread those, and find more ways to communicate with our fellows.

  • Jon

    Fantastic advice, Rivera. The ruling class has come to regard our petitions and marches, event the massive ones, like we regard ordinary mosquito bites–a bit annoying but soon forgotten. I have signed petitions until the proverbial blue in the face, and tend to agree that maybe I have wasted my time in general. A few I think have made a difference. So what if each time we get a request to “urge politician XYZ” to vote for/against something, we instead write back to the org making the request a message like “Is that the best you can do? How about something deeper and heavier?” Is it time for Occupy part 2, but more focused and strategic? Let’s brainstorm on these matters.

  • paulsprawl

    I think Rivera is suggesting we do more than just petition, whether it’s the government or others. Information campaigns leading to boycotts aren’t petitions, for example.

  • mwildfire

    Aren’t they? To some degree a boycott is a way of petitioning a corporation for redress, instead of going through the political intermediary. They can be effective…but to really solve the underlying problems we need a permanent boycott. Not “we won’t buy your product until you stop dumping effluent into that river” but “let’s make our own, let’s trade locally, let’s end our dependence on big corporations for both jobs and products.” Talk about pillars of support, participating in the capitalist economy is a chief way WE support our enemies. Temporary boycotts may win concessions but then sometimes those turn out to be equally temporary, or merely cosmetic. The paradigm, the system, must change, not just individual harms.

  • kevinzeese

    We are not fans of petitions unless they are part of a campaign that involves more variety in tactics. Petitions alone are nothing and there are groups that seem to just use petitions for list building. By themselves they are a waste of time.

    Not sure about Occupy 2. Repeating a tactic is not usually very fruitful. Our view is Occupy served its purpose as the take-off of the movement that is ongoing. We were recently cleaning our closet and came across five editions of the Occupied Washington Post that had been published during Occupy Washington, DC. It was amazing to see that all the issues of today that have developed into deeper and large movements were part of Occupy. This includes police violence against blacks, protests over oil and gas, low wage protests, debt refusals, tuition protests, corruption of democracy, healthcare for all and opposition to war and empire, and of course, the wealth divide and unfair economy.

    Since the encampments ended all of these fronts of struggle have broadened and deepened with more people getting involved in each as well as getting involved in the movement for economic, racial and environmental justice as well as peace. The movement is doing what it is supposed to be doing in this stage of development, i.e. building national consensus on issues and mobilizing people on them. We predict the 2020s will be a decade of transformation when these issues that have been ignored or mishandled by the people in power can no longer be ignored and the movement has evolved, grown and matured.

    We need to keep doing the work of building a movement of movements.

  • kevinzeese

    A boycott is a significant escalation from a petition. Above I say that petitions by themselves are not of much significance but if they are part of a campaign they can be useful. A petition can educate people about the problem and begin to organize them. From that you can build a campaig that escalates. A boycott could be part of such a campaign.

  • mwildfire

    Well, I wasn’t talking about a petition, which I agree is about the lowest form of activism (least effort asked of people and least effect). I was talking about the act of petitioning “for redress of grievances”, and questioning the underlying assumption which is that some people legitimately have power and if we don’t like policies we may ask them if they would please consider changing them. Petitions, calls to those laughably referred to as our representatives, protests all amount to ways of petitioning political “leaders” while a boycott is way of petitioning an economic power. Actually it’s a way of exercising some leverage, usually after petitions have been ignored–but it still comes short of TAKING power. Of an approach that disputes the legitimacy of the existence of corporations, or of representative democracy that only represents the interests of funders, who are allowed to purchase legislation like any other commodity. In my experience winning political battles is a long hard slog and often fruitless. Things keep getting worse because there are endlessly more important battles to fight and while I’m pleased to see the younger generation getting involved, there are still way too few of us willing to fight (even as there are way too many willing to fight the literal battles of empire!) So I’m not as optimistic as you are.

  • kevinzeese

    Yes. The old use of the word petition was more in the sense of petition for redress of grievances and was not just signing a statement. Thanks.

  • Jon

    I had proposed to begin thinking about an Occupy 2, with the further experience since then and maybe with a different strategic goal, clearly defined, as, for example the W V teaches did. I am not saying to jump into it without careful analysis; maybe the right next move, maybe not. Let’s ponder together.

  • Rivera Sun

    Hi Jon, I do like the idea of sending feedback to the organizations that are asking us mainly for donations and petition-signing. I like the approach of doing some strategic legwork, rather than just critiquing. We can make wise suggestions. We can also uplift campaigns on the same issue that are doing more strategic actions, asking the organization we are writing to, to at least support their work and ask their base to support it, too. (Though cooption is not the goal here.)

    From what I’ve heard, this feedback approach could be potent. We all have seen how problematic many of our nonprofits have become as they gobble resources into unwise tactics or promote watered down demands on the issues we need significant systemic solutions for.

    I’m with Kevin on the idea of Occupy 2.0. I think the movement of movements is fulfilling this purpose already. I can see that the MoM can generally increase collaboration, a trend that is already underway.

  • Rivera Sun

    Hi mwildfire,

    I completely agree with you about your largest critique. I used EQAT as an example of finding different powerholders, not as an end-all, be-all perfect strategic approach. I think EQAT sees their campaign as just one among many necessary campaigns, even toward the work of ending MTR. Beyond that, as you said and they understand, the broader problem of climate change and fossil fuel based environmental destruction requires many fronts, campaigns, and most of all, your suggestion of looking for roots of problems.

    I see these roots as the utter lack of real democracy, the profit motive of capitalism that enables greed-based destruction, the ability of corporations to externalize the environmental costs of their industries (and other costs), the enshrinement of money and wealth in our power structures and culture, and the acceptance of “sacrifice zones” for the privileges and conveniences of people in other places … to name just a few.

    We certainly have our work cut out for us in trying to change the underlying issues of the many symptomatic problems that we face. One hopeful thought, however, is that a wise campaign for change on a symptomatic problem can challenge the underlying issues as well.

    As for the tech giants, I agree that they are a ball of wax unto themselves that must be challenged on many issues, even their foundational structures perhaps. My purpose in invoking them in the context of looking for allies is that as power structures currently stand, we would be wise to encourage all players to put their resources and tools to work in a positive direction of change. That does not mean we “let them off the hook” for areas in which they need to improve or transform.

  • Rivera Sun

    mwildfire, you raise important points. In the effort to change the paradigm/system, constructive programs and alternative institutions are vital.

    The key thing about strategic knowledge for me is that everyone can use it and apply it. Not everyone is interested in unraveling capitalism. Some wish to reform it. I may see that differently, but I also think they have a right to know how the tools of nonviolent struggle can help them toward their goals. Frankly, while I love alternative and parallel institutions, and am a member and supporter of dozens of ethical and local businesses, I also respect the work to pressure and push all businesses into less harmful and exploitative behaviors. Both approaches have value at this point.

  • kevinzeese

    In fact Google and Microsoft are on the side of net neutrality and are joining the litigation challenging the FCC’s new rule repealing it. http://fortune.com/2018/01/06/google-microsoft-amazon-internet-association-net-neutrality/

  • kevinzeese
  • Dariel Garner

    1.) Statistically Zero is the correct term. However considering that opinion and culture in the USA has been influenced and controlled by the elite class for generations it is unlikely that the true heart of the people has ever been served except by the chance of unintended consequence.

    2.) While weakness in coal markets and cost of production may be part of the reason for success of anti-MTR actions it is important to keep in mind two factors a.) that part of the reason the banks were targeted was that they were most vulnerable to loss because of market factors and consumer action and that b.) corporate interests are unlikely to give credit to winning tactics and more likely to give credit to winning strategy. Once when I was a developer I withdrew one of my projects not because of public opinion, demonstrations and petitions but simply because the wife of an administrator was against the project. The public comments and opinion meant nothing…but I gave credit to the environmental review public comments as it was the least offensive and meaningless tactic used.

    3.) For me this article is about learning to create strategic campaigns outside the box. Protest marches, petitions and demonstrations are symbolic. While tools to create awareness and gather email lists they do not create change. Change is created by withdrawing support from the oppressive structure. It is most effective when support is withdrawn from the most vulnerable supports of the structure (banks in the MTR example). In my mind the best use for a big march in DC is to throw a victory party after the hard work of winning revolutionary change has been accomplished.

    People have to start somewhere. While democracy will not exist until we have equality and equality will not exist until we have equalized wealth (which BTW is $1.25 Million net worth and $240,000 virtually tax free yearly income for every family of four) working for a $15 minimum wage starts the process and gets people on the road to empowerment.

    We can also get smart even in doing protests as the successful campaigns in Quebec that make protesting a community effort and had significant success at holding off fracking. It would be fun to see a West Virginia twist put on this– Maybe Bluegrassers not Frackers ,,,
    http://www.riverasun.com/rockers-not-frackers-quebecs-creative-resistance-to-fracking/

  • mwildfire

    Agreed. We need to fight both for temporary victories, sometimes with dubious allies, and more permanent ones, and both in the push to block further damage and in the pull to create a path to better ways. And sleep, too…:)

  • Rivera Sun

    Very well said. You might consider writing up an opinion piece on some of the thoughts you’ve expressed here. We need more discussion of strategy from the micro to the macro!

  • Jon

    “but it still comes short of TAKING power.” Bingo! The term I coined and use is revel-ution. Jon

  • Dariel Garner

    In my experience power is much more subtle and complex than something that can be “taken”. It is not as simple as deposing a national leader which may not significantly affect power dynamics at all. My thinking is that power is structurally, systemically and defacto culturally created. The concentration of power is made and unmade by our daily contribution to society either as consumers and even as radicals.
    Making change may best be made by recognizing the true nature of power, where it is currently concentrated, it’s support structures and the avenues easiest to approach and change.
    Boycott is an awesome tool. Boycotts (along with alternative institutions and other strategies) won American independence long before the revolutionary war. Imagine if we were able to create sector wide boycotts with 97% effectiveness as was done repeatedly in the years before the defacto declaration of independence. Corporations now with daily profit and loss accounting, CEOs attached to quarterly earnings reports and reputations hanging under a social media thread are clearly open to offensive tactics

  • kevinzeese

    Excellent points. Developing the power to boycott in a united way would create awesome power for the people that could not be ignored by the power structure. Similarly, a series of nationwide striks, beginning with a few hours, growing to a day, growing to a few days etc. would also be incredibly powerful. The people would show those in power that without the support of the people the country cannot operate and the economy will not function.

    Thank you for pointing out how the decade before the Revolutionary War was when freedom from the English Empire was won. Many of the tools people have learned since then about nonviolent resistance were used by colonists revolting against the British Crown. That phase of the revolution was a movement filled with leaders, direct democracy assemblies being held around the country, boycotts of British goods and replacement by good made in the colonies, women had a much more important role in leadership, protests of British government officials, replacing British judges with colonial justice etc.

    The war was Britain’s attempt to hang on to their colony. And, the war brought forth the so-called founding fathers who were slave holders afraid of losing their “property” as there was a British court ruling saying there was no legal basis for slavery. There were also land speculators who had taken Indigenous lands in violation of Britian saying land west of the Appalachians were for the Indigenous. This led to a property rights constitution that stifled democracy, limiting participation to the rich land owners. It is important to understand our roots are not in the so-called founding fathers but in mass resistance that was strategic and mostly nonviolent.

  • Dariel Garner

    Developing the power to boycott is really the key, ditto with strikes. recognizing ones own capabilities is important. Calling for general strikes and system boycotts demonstrate weakness to everyone. Fine tuning to weak targets would be much more successful. Celebrating those triumphs even more important…That’s why I like reading popular Resistance…you celebrate triumphs…the corporate media will never do that.

  • Rivera Sun

    I was heartened to hear this. I think that’s a good use of their capacities and power. Not many of us have the financial capacity to wage the legal side of the struggle.

  • mwildfire

    Okay, this is weird. I got a response from Dariel Garner that still hasn’t shown up here, tho it’s been in my inbox for over an hour. I want to reply so I’ll start by pinning in Garner’s comment:

    1.)
    Statistically Zero is the correct term. However considering that opinion and
    culture in the USA has been influenced and controlled by the elite class for
    generations it is unlikely that the true heart of the people has ever been
    served except by the chance of unintended consequence.

    2.) While weakness in coal markets and cost of production may be
    part of the reason for success of anti-MTR actions it is important to keep in
    mind two factors a.) that part of the reason the banks were targeted was that
    they were most vulnerable to loss because of market factors an d consumer
    action and that b.) corporate interests are unlikely to give credit to winning
    tactics and more likely to give credit to winning strategy. Once when I was a
    developer I withdrew one of my projects not because of public opinion,
    demonstrations and petitions but simply because the wife of an administrator
    was against the project. The public comments and opinion meant nothing…but I
    gave credit to the environmental review public comments as it was the least
    offensive and meaningless tactic used.

    3.) For me this article is about learning to create strategic
    campaigns outside the box. Protest marches, petitions and demonstrations are
    symbolic. While tools to create awareness and gather email lists they do not
    create change. Change is created by withdrawing support from the oppressive
    structure. It is most effective when support is withdrawn from the most
    vulnerable supports of the structure (banks in the MTR example). In my mind the
    best use for a big march in DC is to throw a victory party after the hard work
    of winning revolutionary change has been accomplished.

    People have to start somewhere. While democracy will not exist
    until we have equality and equality will not exist until we have equalized
    wealth (which BTW is $1.25 Million net worth and $240,000 virtually tax free
    yearly income for every family of four) working for a $15 minimum wage starts
    the process and gets people on the road to empowerment.

    We can also get smart
    even in doing protests as the successful campaigns in Quebec that make
    protesting a community effort and had significant success at holding off
    fracking. It would be fun to see a West Virginia twist put on this– Maybe
    Bluegrassers not Frackers ,,,

  • mwildfire

    and now my reply, which is to the last part–again the trivial bit first, which is that Bluegrass is Kentucky, WV is the Mountaineers. The other thing is the statement that equalizing income and wealth would give us all over a million dollars net worth, etc. I see three problems with this: For one thing I don’t think there really IS that much wealth, I think most of the wealth of the super-rich is hypothetical, zeroes in electronic form somewhere; it’s about power rather than spending after a certain point. This might not translate into spendable wealth if divided equally. Second, this is surely USA only and even if we’re all supposedly poor as the sign above says, in fact by global standards most of us are rich. Which leads to my final concern, a big one I didn’t get into in my initial critique: the reality of what lies ahead, given the almost universal refusal to discuss climate change, serious mitigation efforts, other environmental crises, and overpopulation. Also the looming threat of a global police state. Because we aren’t addressing any of this, instead pretending it’s still 1982 and we can all live in the style to which we’ve become accustomed–driving gasoline cars, keeping large houses comfortable by burning fossil fuels somewhere, flying when we please, etc–we are guaranteeing a crash, the only question is when. Well no, another question is how. Such a collapse looks like a virtual certainty to me. So approaches to a cooperative, civilized future have a certain hypothetical look in my eyes. To me the best approaches are therefore those which not only withdraw support from the Machine (the global economy) but also set up the individual, the family, ideally a whole community, to come through a collapse in the best possible condition, and preserving the bits of ecosystems and cultures they care about most.

  • Gerry

    What an extraordinary conversation. Thank you to all participants.