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Why some movements work and others wilt                                                                                     Print this essay

Posted at: Sep/30/2013 : Posted by: mel

Related Category: Education, People, Perspectives,

Creating change is never easy. Change is also one of the great contradictions of humanity. As individuals we thrive on stability; knowing that what worked yesterday will work well again today and tomorrow. Despite this individual lust for stability, as a mass we continually push for things to be different. On the largest scale the changes we seek are often considered movements or revolutions. You would think that once you achieve enough size, success would be inevitable, but results clearly show otherwise.

Non-violent change through the germination and growth of grass roots movements is one of the most endearing characteristics of a free society. The civil rights movement, women’s rights, gay rights, the Occupy movement, the Vietnam anti-War movement, Ross Perot’s Reform Party, the Arab Spring, China’s June Fourth Movement of 1989 and the conservative Tea Party movement are a few that come to mind. Some of these examples have become enduring institutions, foundations of change, or part of the current social fabric. Others on my list have blossomed, and then wilted very quickly with little real or enduring impact. I would love to say there was some magic formula, if so, then any desiring group could copy and implement the plan and success would be guaranteed. In my years of reading and watching these events there does appear to be a few ingredients that cannot be ignored. These ingredients represent a way to take on established institutions (aka “The Man”) without bullets.

Spontaneity is over rated:
Spontaneous events can inspire others with and irrepressible urge. A Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire is credited by most historians with setting off the dominos of the Arab Spring. For those of us alive at the time, who can forget the lone student in 1989 that stood in front of a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square; I thought he should have been Time Magazines “Man of the Year”, but they gave it to Mikhail Gorbachev. During the 1963 March on Washington, a spontaneous event gave the March and its keynote speaker Martin Luther King one of his most memorable moments. King completed his prepared speech before the gospel singer behind him was ready. The singer yelled to him “tell them about the dream”, he responded impromptu with the now legendary “I Have a Dream” speech.

Nevertheless, most historians and observers say spontaneity is overrated. Successful movements are built on years of planning, trial and error, along with honing strategies for accomplishing successful change. A good movement should already have an organizational structure set up to take advantage of a spontaneous act that captures the public. Occasionally, movements will stage their own “spontaneous” event.

Remember Rosa Parks? We were all taught as children that Rosa Parks was the quiet and unassuming black woman who sparked the civil rights movement when she spontaneously decided one day that she was not going to move to the back of a segregated bus.

In truth, it's a good story but bad history. Parks had been carefully chosen for that moment. The woman who looks so docile in the historical photographs was actually a tough, seasoned civil rights activist who had been with the NAACP for 12 years. Along the way Rosa Parks had attended an elite training school for civil rights and labor activists. Parks was just one in a line of black women chosen to stage "spontaneous" sit-ins on segregated buses. (Reference: Parker J. Palmer, author of "Healing the Heart of Democracy"). The NAACP had already staged the same spontaneous event with 6-7 black women before Parks, but they had simply been ticketed or arrested and did not become historical icons or nationally news worthy. The NAACP was refining its technique, but even with Parks, they had no guarantee of success.

Parks attracted attention because her arrest could not be ignored, historians say. The other women arrested were unmarried or single mothers who could be caricatured based on the standards of the day by segregationists as women of ill repute. Parks was a married seamstress who was respected in her community. "She could not be thrown in jail and forgotten and there would be no publicity" according to Jerald Podair, a history professor at Lawrence University in Wisconsin.

A number of years ago a multiracial coalition was formed in North Carolina under that state’s chapter of the NAACP. Originally formed to focus political attention on increasing voter registration, labor rights and public education issues, they are now much more nimble. According to their current leader Rev. William Barber, “you have to build trust with people and be prepared to go where the sparks are.” Most recently known for their movement called “Moral Mondays”, they have been garnering a lot of attention as an apparent “spontaneous” reaction to decisions by the North Carolina States legislature’s on education funding. Barber's advice for movement builders: Don't wait for the right spark to organize. Do it now.

Noise fades, policy endures:
In 2011 a group of protester occupied a park in New York City’s financial district to protest the growing power of big financial institutions and a related gap in income inequality. Their slogan was "We are the 99%.'' Despite having a pretty nifty slogan and a lot of early media coverage, the Occupy Wall Street movement has largely faded from public view.

In 2009 a conservative movement formed to protest government spending and debt. Now known as the “Tea Party,” they still wield substantial influence on American public life and policy. The big difference between the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movements is that the Tea Part didn’t just make noise; it put people in office to impact policy. While the Occupy Wall Street group made a lot of noise and for a while “raised hell,” the Tea Party from the outset focused on winning elections and setting up a structure that could affect the political process.

While the March on Washington of 1963 had the charisma of Dr. King, it also had the organizational skills of Bayard Rustin in the background. As one observer noted, Bayard could not only get a quarter of a million people to the Washington Mall, but knew exactly how many portable toilets they would need. The Occupy folks used a very smart tactic – sit in’s at parks where people could join the protests. At the same time, this was just a tactic and not a movement. A lot of people got excited by the tactics and they owned the headlines for a few weeks, but they didn't have a second act. Successful movements just don't take it to the streets. They elect candidates, pass laws, set up institutions to raise money, train people and produce leaders.

People remember the March on Washington because it did have a second act. Civil rights leaders used the political pressure generated by the march and the subsequent assassination of President John F. Kennedy and his successor to pressure Congress into passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Yet, none of this legislation accomplished everything they were seeking. Stories of failed movements are filled with legends of idealistic that were unwilling to compromise. While not glamorous, most successful movements have leaders who understand the value of compromise. (Is there a lesson here for the factions of our current Congress?)

According to Jerald Podair; the original March on Washington wasn't supposed to be just about race but about economic issues as well. Organizers originally billed it as a march for "jobs and freedom." King and others argued to de-emphasize the jobs' focus of the march because they thought it would dilute their efforts for passage of the pending civil rights bill. Additionally, talking about poverty and inequality at the 1963 march would have alienated potential Northern white supporters who would have seen this rhetoric as a ploy to redistribute money from the white middle class to the struggling black population of the south. It was decided that the focus should be to give blacks in the South the political rights that they should have received 100 years earlier. This compromise helped ensure that the March of Washington of 1963 was focused on a viable target.

When it hurt enough:
On July 6, 1892, 125 armed detectives and nearly 200 private deputies confronted a group of unionized steelworkers who had been locked out of a steel mill in Homestead, Pennsylvania. The workers, who were striking for better wages at a time when people routinely worked 12-hour-per-day, six-day weeks, fought back the detectives with stones and a few guns. Supported by more than 2000 townspeople, they eventually forced the 125 armed agents to back down. Three workers and seven detectives died in the clashes.

That confrontation is now known as the Homestead Steel Strike. It pitted ordinary workers against steel titan Andrew Carnegie and his manager Henry Frick. Carnegie and Frick eventually crushed the worker's union, reduced wages by nearly half along with eliminating nearly 500 jobs as they continued to automated more and more of their continuous production process. While the strike ultimately failed to accomplish its intended purpose, it did further isolate America’s industrial elite and create a fertile environment for eventual legislation supporting the right to organize against management.

The bold actions of the past can often inspire us, yet they can also be intimidating legacies. Some historians believe that contemporary Americans are too jaded and lazy to take the risks that 19th century workers at the Homestead Steel Mill took. Can anyone envision striking fast-food workers fighting pitched battles against armed troops today? But, maybe the notion that modern Americans lack the same zeal is not that farfetched.

Sam Pizzigati is the author of "The Rich Don't Always Win," a book that traces how ordinary Americans in the first part of the 20th century rose up against plutocrats like Carnegie to create a vibrant middle class. Pizzigati calls that battle a "forgotten triumph." While I don’t entirely agree with Pizzigati’s conclusions, history gives us plenty of examples where people ultimately mobilize once they have experienced “enough pain.”

"When people's situation becomes worse, when something changes and things that people took for granted have suddenly gone by the board and they see their position in society sinking, that's a powerful factor that can drive movements," Pizzigati says. On the eve of the Great Depression, the top 1% of Americans took in 23.9% of the nation's income. The rich ruled. While the rewards of capitalism had fueled America’s rise as an economic and manufacturing powerhouse, without restraints, capitalism had also become infected with abuse.

Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized the potential political power available and positioned himself as the spokesman for the victims of capitalistic excesses. Over the next 20 years the “New Deal” political movement changed the face of America introducing a number of reforms including Social Security, strong banking regulations, federal banking insurance, and protections for unions’ rights to organize along with raising taxes on the richest American’s.

The New Deal is considered by many to be a classic example of the weak and powerless banding together to triumph over the resistance of many of the wealthiest and most powerful of American society. On the surface that sounds like socialism, but history has shown that most of the New Deal was only corrections for excesses of an unregulated system. I have mixed feelings about the value of labor unions overall, but see that without some regulation and oversight, America’s wealthy and powerful could have potentially created an environment inhibiting the potential “vertical mobility” necessary for capitalism to be successful.

Divide the elites:
It's easy to demonize "The Man." I can remember being young, idealistic and talking politics with college friends in late-night dorm room rap session. Fueled by a little alcohol, these sessions could go till dawn. We would frustrate over issues of US politics, international policy, or just the classes that were and were not available for the next semester of college. Despite the hours of heated discussion, we seldom accomplished more than perpetuating the income of our favorite brewery.

During these gripe and beer sessions we were nearly always narrowing our complaints to an individual or small group of individuals. On the good side, this showed that we recognized who the power and authority rested with; on the down side we clearly missed an important point. Most historians will tell you that successful movements and change nearly always have the support of at least a few in the elite structure. Essentially, you’re going to need “The Man” if you’re going to beat "The Man." Gaining the support of at least a few in positions of power and influence garners a sense of legitimation for your cause.

The civil rights movement got that support from political elites when the Democratic Party backed a civil rights bill during its 1948 national convention even though representatives from southern states walked out. A few years later the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the separate but equal doctrine was unconstitutional in Brown vs. Board of Education.

Getting people of influence to join your cause or movement seldom succeeds exclusively on altruistic motives. Most often, appealing to the most powerful in our society is about ensuring that they feel their own interests aren’t threatened. One of the clearest examples of this was the New Deal policies during the 1930’s.

Economic conditions were so bad in America during the 1930s that many of the rich in America feared social upheaval. In most of the newspapers and radio commentary the excesses of the rich were being blamed for the miserable economic conditions. The Communist Party held a rally in New York in 1932 that was attended by 60,000 people. Similar rallies were conducted in other parts of the country and those at the top of society’s ladder clearly feared social instability and a potential crumbling of the American capitalistic system.

Clearly, those Americans who benefited most from capitalism heard the message that if they did not endorse change, their position in society and personal wealth was at risk. Under the influence of people like Randolph Paul, a wealthy Wall Street tax lawyer, many of the wealthiest Americans were warned that they were courting with disaster. The people at the top feared that social instability would cause the American society they had profited from to crumble. Many wealthy Americans brought into Paul's rationale, allowing, and in some cases encouraging their taxes to go up. Communist party spokespersons said capitalism spawned the growing gap between the rich and poor, and the American elite went out of their way to prove this argument wrong.

It is difficult to say if a similar movement could be successful today, while capitalism and its wealth has created millions of American jobs, the excesses of capitalism have again created an environment that may be ripe for change.

The institutions and society of America are continually evolving. The questions that society will face about sexual orientation, work equality, income disparity, education access are merely some of what America may see change in the future. The good news is that change through organized movements in America is always possible. Some people will protest that they do not have access to creating change or that change is too hard to accomplish. Clearly, there are strategies that have proven successful for implementing change, but none are guaranteed and none are fast moving. Making change difficult, but not impossible is actually a good thing. If our society were always incorporating large scale change, we would be devoting all our energy to figuring out how to survive under an evolving set of rules. Even for our politicians, despite elections on a regular basic, their ability to enact substantial change in a short time cycle is inhibited.

America is always changing, and always open to debating the value of change. If you are hoping to be the leader of a change, expect the task to be long and difficult even though there are proven strategies your movement can adopt.

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William Safire
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