What Kind of Movement Moment Are We In?

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The sustained character of the massive protests against President Donald Trump indicates that this period is more than a one-shot demonstration (as, for example, was the day of massive protests against the anticipated Iraq war, which proceeded without much obstruction after the Bush administration invasion. Here is how movement scholar Frances Fox Piven describes the power of movements:

…[W]hat makes movements a force—when they are a force—is the deployment of a distinctive power that arises from the ability of angry and indignant people to at times defy the rules that usually ensure their cooperation and quiescence.

…[P]eople in motion, in movements, can throw sand in the gears of the institutions that depend on their cooperation…

The Nation. 2/6-13/17

I was part of two such movements:  the Deep South civil rights movement (on the staff of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, mostly in the San Francisco Bay Area but also in Mississippi, from mid-1962 – end of 1966), and the UC Berkeley student movement (organizer of the slate of student government candidates that became SLATE, the campus political party, and its first chairman).  These movements did what Piven describes.  And it is important to note that in the most of the period in which I was involved with them, the political context within which they emerged was favorable to them:

+ Beginning with the end of World War II, pressure for civil rights had steadily grown.

+ In 1954, the Supreme Court rendered its Brown versus Board of Education decision to desegregate schools “with all deliberate speed”.

+ Internationally, in the Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, racial segregation, particularly accompanied by the brutal discrimination and persecution of African-Americans in the Deep South, was a deep embarrassment to American foreign policy advocates, and provided endless ammunition to the Soviet Union, particularly in Africa.

+ The northern African-American vote was a key part of the Democratic Party electoral coalition that in 1960 elected John F. Kennedy as the country’s President. The Deep South civil rights movement was seeking to drive a wedge in that coalition, and force the national party to break from the southern “Dixiecrats” who were also a key component of it.

+ In the country as a whole, popular support for civil rights was growing.

In that context, militant, nonviolent, direct action that “threw sand in the gears of institutions”—especially southern sheriffs, discriminatory public accommodations, voter registration officials who wouldn’t register black citizens so they could vote—had broad popular support.  In that context, “the ability of [righteously] angry and indignant people…[could successfully] defy the rules that usually ensure their cooperation and quiescence.”

The context changed. 

In the north, angry blacks, frustrated by the more difficult to fight, but equally discriminatory in character de facto discrimination in housing, education, employment and other aspects of their lives, police harassment and brutality, government programs like urban renewal and federally funded freeways that destroyed their neighborhoods, government-sanctioned redlining by banks and insurers and the list could on, rebelled or rioted (pick your term):  in 1964, Rochester, Harlem and Philadelphia; in 1965, Watts; and they continued to the end of the decade.

In 1966, the newly formed Black Panther Party, in full compliance with gun legislation, carried guns with them as they monitored police behavior in their neighborhoods after years of complaints about police brutality and harassment had ended with little to show for them. In 1967, in Sacramento, CA, Black Panthers marched into the state capitol building carrying guns aimed at the ceiling and followed by a large number of journalists who had been forewarned of the media event.  TV, radio and print accounts that followed were near-hysterical.  The Panther message, delivered by Party founder and leader Bobby Seale to reporters on the capitol steps, was lost to all but those who read already sympathetic newspapers or listened to Pacifica Foundation affiliates:

Black people have begged, prayed, petitioned, demonstrated, and everything else to get the racist power structure of America to right the wrongs which have historically been perpetuated against black people. All of these efforts have been answered by more repression, deceit and hypocrisy. As the aggression of the racist American government escalates in Vietnam, the police agencies of America escalate the oppression of black people throughout the ghettoes of America. Vicious police dogs, cattle prods, and increased patrols have become familiar sights in black communities. City Hall turns a deaf ear to the pleas of black people for relief from this increasing terror.”

In the November, 1966 House elections, there was the greatest turnover in seats from one party to its competitor since the Great Depression.  In the latter case, Republicans lost seats to Democrats; in the former, it was the other way around.

In the south, African-American activist frustration grew over the slowness of change.  The 1964 Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) challenge to the seating of racist delegates as the credentialed representatives of the state’s Democratic Party in the national convention was rejected by heavy-handed presidential intervention in the gathering’s credentials committee.  With support from the president, a new Democratic Party was formed in Mississippi. It coopted some elements of the Freedom Democrats, and isolated those it couldn’t influence with its moderation or seduce with its poverty program grants.  The desegregation of schools “with all deliberate speed” met with deliberate refusal by the former Confederate states.  No serious consequences followed.

MFDP arose in a movement moment.  With the important exception of some Delta Counties, and the Mississippi 2nd Congressional District, it was not broad or deep enough to combat the measures taken to undermine it.

I do not want to dispute or disparage the progress that was made.  But it was for too few people, at a too slow pace, and too little in substance to make a difference for the vast majority of the nation’s African-Americans.  Take Mississippi as an example. Since 1969, when the state’s resistance to the Voting Rights Act was finally broken, black Mississippians have been elected to state and local government in numbers beyond those of any state in the country. Discrimination in some areas of employment, particularly government and the service industry, has broken down. But these stark facts remain: enormous gaps between blacks and whites in income and political power; still racially polarized voting; largely segregated public education; now-successful efforts to circumvent Voting Rights Act protections…the list could continue.

Despite its openings on the cultural and “social issues” fronts, the country was becoming more conservative: the defeat of very liberal Democrat George McGovern in the 1972 presidential contest; subsequent elections of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George W Bush, and the equally troubling failure of Democrats to do better than elect the corporate variety of their party.  Nor were the defeats limited to the presidency:  a growing number of state houses was coming under Republican control; a growing number of moderate Republicans was being defeated in the party’s primary elections—and these results too often were supported in general elections as these conservatives of the country’s conservative party got elected as well; Congress became increasingly Republican until the party controlled both houses.

Defeats were not limited to who got elected to public office:  a majority of Americans experiences a decline in their standard of living; the Great Recession of 2007-09 destroyed vast amounts of wealth that African-Americans and Latinos were beginning to build as they acquired homes and gained equity in them.  Beginning with Ronald Reagan’s crushing of the air controller’s union, and even before that, the power of unions began to shrink and the number of their members (except for the public sector) plummeted. Students acquired crushing amounts of debt as universities and colleges increased their tuition. These are all familiar stories to the people who are part of this movement moment.

What is to be learned from these defeats?

John L. Lewis, the CIO, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Democratic Party

The 1930s provide an opportunity to look at one of the country’s great movement moments.  The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), formed out of the mass movement of workers during the Great Depression, with the leadership and funds of the United Mine Workers Union and its President John L. Lewis, and organizers largely recruited from the left, brought the country’s major industries to a halt with strikes and factory sit-downs.  Congress passed, and the president signed, legislation that institutionalized collective bargaining, and gave it government protection.  CIO funds, volunteers and organizers contributed to Franklin Roosevelt’s election and a Democratic Congress.  It was an extended movement moment that led to the formation of strong, deeply-rooted and widely supported organizations.

But in 1937 Little Steel (companies that fought the Steel Workers Organizing Committee with strike breakers, goons, private security guards and state police—including the police murders of strikers) refused to follow the U.S. Steel Company’s lead and settle with the union.  President Roosevelt and the governors of Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania—all of whom owed their successful 1936 campaigns in large part to the money, staff, reputation and volunteer campaign workers of the CIO—refused to back the union.  Roosevelt famously said, “a plague on both your houses,” to which Lewis famously replied,

It ill behooves one who has supped at labor’s table and who has been sheltered in labor’s house to curse with equal fervor and fine impartiality both labor and its adversaries when they become locked in deadly embrace.

Rhetoric was no substitute for people power, and the CIO then lacked it in sufficient strength to win.  Roosevelt and Lewis split, and when the CIO declined to follow Lewis’ lead and refuse 1940 endorsement of FDR’s third term run for president, Lewis left the federation. A hoped for grand alliance of the Democratic Party and the more progressive voices of organized labor faded.  In 1946, a major strike wave swept the country as workers demanded redress of pay and other imbalances that had grown between them and their bosses during “no strike pledge” period of World War II.  Pay and other gains resulted.

But CIO unity was broken.  In 1946, the Republicans won 55 seats and regained control of the House for the first time since 1932.  They passed, and over-rode President Truman’s veto of, the Taft-Hartley Act.  The CIO allowed itself to be further broken when unions failed to endorse Lewis’ call not to sign the anti-labor law’s “non-Communist affidavit”.  Most CIO unions were too afraid to accept his challenge:  if we all refuse to sign it, it won’t be implemented. It is then that the decline of organized labor as a people power force began, not the often-cited early 1970s.

If movement moments aren’t institutionalized in powerful organizations early wins turn into subsequent setbacks.  Movement moment theorists like to talk about the conservative influences of institutionalization, but don’t want to talk about what happens when movement moments wane.  “The action is in the reaction” is a favorite organizer axiom.  Those who fully understand it add that your response to the reaction needs to be able to handle it, use it, build upon it, and win from it.

Changed Context Requires Changed Strategy and Tactics

In the context of a government that is willing to ignore protest or repress it, protestors must do more than put their bodies on the gears of the machine and temporarily bring its operation to a halt.  What happens when they fail to do that?

The nonviolent protest movement of the United States has had a deep impact across the world:  examples are Tiananmen Square (Beijing), Tahrir Square (Cairo), Taksim Square (Istanbul), and other mass protests of Arab Spring. They didn’t win the concessions they sought.  When they toppled governments those that replaced them were no better, and indeed in some cases were worse.  It turned out that temporarily stopping the machine was not enough. It had the capacity to fight back. Repression worked. Do we doubt that Donald Trump will try to impose it here, soon?

In the context of a government that has been elected, protestors must not only bring the machinery to a halt but convince those who operate it that ignoring or repressing them will lead to subsequent political defeat.  When they fail to do that, they are ignored or, more dangerously, repressed.

To overcome the power and legitimacy of an elected government and its appointed officials requires both breadth and depth of support.  That existed for the 1964 Free Speech Movement (FSM) at the University of California when FSM leader Mario Savio proclaimed:

There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious—makes you so sick at heart—that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.

But please note the following:  the campus coalition that was the decision making body for FSM ranged in its membership from socialists to the campus Young Democrats and Young Republicans.  When they said they would shut down the campus, they did so, and they sustained the shut down:  thousands of students on a campus of about 30,000 students sat down in front of the Administration building, and hundreds of them staged an Administration Building sit-in that led to their arrest.  When campus administrators sought to mobilize the faculty on the side of law-and-order, the Academic Senate voted by a substantial majority to support the students instead.

And even with all this there was a downside to the action:  Ronald Reagan, then governor of the state, built his political career on the reputation he gained by vigorously opposing the student movement of the time.  Breadth and depth on university campuses or already liberal, progressive or radical cities is not sufficient for the times we now face.

That is the problem, for example, in this story by David Talbot, now a regular opinion writer for the San Francisco Chronicle.  In its pages, on New Year’s Day, 2017, he wrote,

There’s a growing disconnect between the social crisis in San Francisco and the political machine’s inability to deal with it, says Becky Bond, co-author of Rules for Revolutionaries:  How Big Organizing Can Change Everything. “Where’s Mayor Ed Lee? Where’s the bold vision?” This is the kind of failed leadership that sparks a revolution. “We will see more direct action, more anti-eviction protests, more occupations, more efforts to build homeless shelters. If the politicians don’t act, the people will.”

Efforts to get the politicians in San Francisco to do something about the affordable housing crisis have been going on for years now.  Yet despite the crisis, the radical (i.e. going to the root of the matter) policies required to slow, halt and reverse it are not on the horizon. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how any city, no matter how progressive, could adopt them and sustain them in the face of landlord, realtor, developer, financier, lender, builder, building trades unions, et al opposition unless overwhelming popular pressure forced them to.  Nor can we imagine, unless we want to delude ourselves, that such legislation, if adopted, would withstand state and federal court challenges.

What might get the politicians to act, both locally and nationally, is a movement with the depth and breadth that FSM had on a single campus at a movement moment time in the 1960s.  We are far from that. We need to build it. That will require talking with people who now don’t think the way present movement activists do; it will mean listening to them, and gaining their trust; developing relationships with them; engaging them in not only protesting but in becoming co-creators of the movement and organizations required to turn around the ship of empire that the U.S. has become.

To imagine what this might look like, add a “0” to the numbers of people participating in what are now considered “mass actions”. And imagine them being sustained over a long period of time.  And imagine already existing civic organizations (unions, congregations and others) growing in membership because of their involvement in the cause.  And imagine new organizations being formed by people who now don’t have a continuing voice in civic affairs.  And stretch your mind a little further to imagine permanent organizations being built that unite all these forces. That’s what “big organizing” would look like.

The Tea Party/populist right wasn’t built in a day. Nor will the fight back against what it has unleashed by built in a day, a month or a year.  And even taking a longer time will be the conversations that are required among all the people who need to be united in an effort to create something new, something that will not only wrest concessions from existing power but transform it.

  • Aquifer

    ” …protestors must not only bring the machinery to a halt but convince those who operate it that ignoring or repressing them will lead to subsequent political defeat. When they fail to do that, they are ignored or, more dangerously, repressed.”

    Yup – and that is what we have not done …

  • mwildfire

    Weak. It ignores reality; that our enemies are not simply that manipulated little astroturf organization called the Tea Party, but the power of money to influence what most people think–increasingly, to ensure that various factions live in essentially different worlds, because they are exposed to radically different information. All it takes to accomplish this is money, and that’s what the other side has. Yet I think this little history is unnecessarily bleak–did we really have NO wins in the past century? A long succession of movements, every single one successfully crushed?

  • mwildfire

    Weak. It ignores reality; that our enemies are not simply that manipulated little astroturf organization called the Tea Party, but the power of money to influence what most people think–increasingly, to ensure that various factions live in essentially different worlds, because they are exposed to radically different information. All it takes to accomplish this is money, and that’s what the other side has. Yet I think this little history is unnecessarily bleak–did we really have NO wins in the past century? A long succession of movements, every single one successfully crushed?