How “good” social movements can triumph over “bad” ones


In June 2015, a white supremacist opened fire inside the historic African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, killing nine black worshipers, including the minister. The massacre sparked a crescendo of anti-racist protests, including often successful demands for the removal of statues of Confederate generals from public spaces throughout the South.

Two years later, a coalition of white nationalists arrived in Charlottesville, Va., for a ‘Unite the Right’ rally to protest and overturn the local city council’s decision to remove the Confederate general’s century-old statue from downtown. Robert. E. Lee.

Also gathered in Charlottesville were civil rights activists seeking to support the city’s resolve to remove the statue and push for further reforms aimed at dismantling institutional white supremacy. The event turned violent after white nationalists attacked racial justice advocates with tiki torches, pepper spray and lighter fluid. Fighting broke out, injuring at least 30 people. The weekend protest ended when one of the white nationalists deliberately rammed his car into a crowd of anti-racism counter-protesters, injuring 19 people and killing one. Refusing to condemn the aims or actions of white nationalists, President Trump commented that there were “very bad people…and very good people on both sides”.

Trump was right about that. In this meeting between white nationalists and civil rights activists, there were undoubtedly good people and bad people on both sides. How, then, can we judge which movement was “good” and which was “bad?” »

The answer lies in the sociological study of social movements. Over decades of focused research, the field has demonstrated that assessing the moral compass of individual participants does little to advance our understanding of the morality or actions of a great movement. Only by evaluating the objectives, tactics and results of movements as collective phenomena can we begin to discern the distinction between “good” and “bad” movements.

Modern social movement theory developed from fundamental studies by several generations of scholars, including WEB DuBois, Ida B Wells, CLR James, EP Thompson, Eric Hobsbaum, Charles Tilly and Howard Zinn. Their work analyzing “big” historical processes later provided social scientists with three work proposals.

First, the morality of a movement is measured by the kind of change it seeks. “Good” movements are emancipatory: they seek to pressure institutional authorities to reduce systemic inequalities, extend democratic rights to previously excluded groups, and mitigate material, social, and political injustices. “Bad” movements tend to be reactionary. They arise in response to good movements and they seek to preserve or intensify the structures, laws and policies of exclusion that emancipatory movements challenge.

Second, large-scale institutional changes that expand freedom or advance the cause of social justice are rarely initiated by institutional authorities or political elites. Rather, most social progress is the result of bottom-up pressure from ordinary people pushing for reform by engaging in collective, creative disorder outside the confines of traditional institutions.

And third, good intentions – aspiring to achieve emancipatory goals – in no way guarantee the success of a movement.

The hugely popular and emancipatory protests of the 1960s, together with the influence of the groundbreaking works in social history mentioned above, inspired a renaissance in the study of social movements in the following decades. Focusing primarily on “good” moves, a new generation of social scientists sought to identify the environmental circumstances, organizational characteristics, and strategic choices that increased the likelihood that “good intentions” would result in tangible change. This research generated a wealth of discoveries:

Successful movements must clearly define their goals and target institutions that have the power to bring about the changes they want requiring.

Successful movements must operate in a political environment in which they have the power to demand a cash. Authorities who control institutional politics only make concessions when organized disturbances harm their power more than caving in to the demands of power. movement.

Successful movements must include the constituency base they represent in decisions about goals and tactics. This often involves working in tandem with organizations that link the movement to the communities that will benefit from the movement’s action. Success.

Successful movements must cultivate “conscience” groups – sympathizers, celebrities, patrons – who may not directly benefit from the movement’s goals, but are willing to contribute in terms of money, facilities, equipment , media access and more. Resources.

Successful moves cannot be “greedy”. They must recognize and respect the privacy and personal obligations of members, prepare participants for the dangers and risks of each event and allow everyone to choose, without constraint, the actions they take. ready to take.

Successful movements generate the solidarity needed to take collective action by creating an active and supportive community. inner life and culture among their participants. The internal life of a movement must foreshadows the emancipatory changes sought in society at large. It should provide opportunities for interaction and decision-making not available outside the movement, including social and cultural events that are enriching and fun, and which build the mutual trust necessary to sustain collective action.

Successful moves must anticipate repressionincluding clashes with institutional authorities, forced dispersal by police, confrontations with counter-protesters, long-term interference by intelligence agencies, and mass arrests.

Successful moves implement processes that enable effective collective responses to repression – including strategic retreat, sustained repression, active confrontation and escalation of protest.

And again, there is no guarantee of success. Because social movements form organically, outside of traditional institutions, they are inherently messy. Meaningful change rarely happens relying exclusively on peaceful and legal means. Petitions, marches, litigation and songs are only part of the protest repertoire. Achieving systemic change invariably requires create disorder: Social movements gain influence when they disrupt the normal functioning of the institution they target – by stopping traffic, blocking commerce, surrounding buildings or interfering with administrative activities. Generations of activists, as well as scholars who study social movements, have been challenged by the need to deploy effective strategies when nonviolent disruption reaches an impasse without generating concessional responses; or when it provokes violent reactions from the police or counter-protesters aimed at defeating demands for institutional change.

In the face of severe repression, good movements generally back down. But dispersing disruptive action can often guarantee failure, as the movement may lack the ability to rebuild its strength and regain leverage. The alternative is to stand your ground, facing the police or counter-protesters, thus prolonging and intensifying the disruption. The police and counter-protesters, who aim to dismantle the protest, must therefore target the bodies of activists. The casualties that can occur on both sides can, in an instant, turn a protest site into a sensationalized event, diverting attention from the movement’s political goals.

Places of contestation are therefore both dynamic and vulnerable. But social movements that attempt to ameliorate the “big” social problems and gaping contradictions of the democratic order – economic inequality, racism, patriarchy – are long-term process. As such, the clash between white supremacists and racial justice activists that took place in Charlottesville in 2017 should be considered a recent “moment” in the long civil rights movement that began in late 2017. civil war. Perseverance – sustained commitment, perhaps over a lifetime; expanding networks while forming and reforming coalitions; evaluate failures and design new strategies; exploit new political opportunities with new tactical repertoires; and the integration of new generations into the life of the movement – is the key to ensuring new moments of success. As the pioneers of social history have shown, this is how “bad” movements are defeated and “good” changes are won.

This is an opinion and analysis article.


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