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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.

[This article was originally published at Waging Violence on June 22, 2020] 

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 themovement action plan 1987 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 moyer - 4 roles (2)moyer - 4 roles (3)

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.

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As we walked into Manchester’s Veterans Park, where yesterday’s Black Lives Matter march would begin, the first person we saw up close was a white man carrying a large rifle.  He was approached right away by Matt Lawrence, one of the activists who had volunteered to be peacekeepers (or “ushers”) for the march.

Organizers of the march had asked people not to bring weapons, Matt calmly explained.  The rifle-bearing man said he was there to help the police with security.  He would be joined by others openly carrying weapons throughout the next two hours. 

As the Back Lives Matter crowd swelled to more than 200, the number of counter-demonstrators grew as well.  By the end, a group of men who were apparently members of a motorcycle club were attempting to goad activists into heated arguments about whether or not “all lives matter.” 

Several members of Manchester’s police department stood by, generally on the edges of the crowd. 

For the duration, a small group of peacekeepers, identified by their white arm-bands, kept an eye on the counter-demonstrators, often walking and chatting with them.  At other times they placed themselves between the two groups as way to provide a buffer, diffuse tensions, and discourage the anti-racism activists from engaging in the types of heated arguments that could have easily escalated into violent conflict that would put lives at risk and interfere with the march’s purpose.

Given the recent events in Dallas and provocative statements from the city’s police chief, this was not an idle concern. 

By the time we left at about 9 pm, most of the demonstrators and counter-demonstrators had already departed.  Two activists were still arguing in a generally calm manner with a young woman carrying a large rifle.  But by then it was clear that the march had successfully created an opportunity for people to express outrage against the pattern of police killings of Black people.  Participants, many of them young, felt the strength of people coming together in a call for change.  It was loud, spirited, and peaceful, which had been the organizers’ intent. 

A few observations:

First, it was constructive for the organizers to be clear that the march was intended to be peaceful and to post guidelines on Facebook:

-if confronted by a counter protestor or violent person, remain calm and peaceful and try to keep moving

-if someone comes at you with their fists, weapon, etc, step back and call for one of the ushers to take control of the situation until law enforcement arrives

The explicit guidelines made it easier for peacekeepers to do their jobs.

Second, peacekeepers demonstrated several techniques that proved to be effective. 

– Talk one-on-one with people who appear hostile.  Introduce yourself.  Try to make a human connection.  Keep them busy talking to you. 

– Remind activists that the purpose of the action is best served by refusing to take the bait from hostile counter-demonstrators looking for a fight. 

– Stay calm and help others do the same.

In a Facebook post after the march, Alex Fried reflected on peacekeeper training he had received several years ago.  “I’ve never had to use the skills I gained in that training until tonight,” he wrote.  “I went up to one of them and introduced myself. I kept my hands open and in front of me at all times. We shook hands and spent the march together. I talked with him about his life, his political opinions, his childhood growing up in NH, and his job working for a weapons manufacturer. As much as possible we kept the armed protesters separate from the march.”

I’ve seen plenty of counter-demonstrators over the years, but last night is the first time I’ve seen them show up with weapons.  If that’s a sign of things to come, let’s get more peacekeepers trained.  

 

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