3 Ways Movements Spread Nonviolent Civil Disobedience
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Civil Disobedience Misconceptions
We have entered an age of protest. Social media tools allow new ways to mobilize activists into public and private spaces and also provide new avenues for amplifying their actions. The Internet, when used properly, can drive activists to an action — or a worldwide coalition of actions — and then make sure thousands more people see and hear about them afterwards. Using simple tools like hashtags, we can monitor the response to actions in real time in a way never possible before.
Social media buzz during and immediately after a direct action is an interesting measure of its success. Actions which capture the imagination of their viewers, or which take place in very visible ways can quickly multiply beyond their numbers. Less than a dozen people took part in planning and executing Austin’s Free Santa chalk action, but perfect timing and smart use of social media drew international attention.
Of course, the critics will flood onto social media too. In some ways, they are also a measure of success — a tiny action with little impact is unlikely to attract trolls. The more of your opponents (and their sock puppets) who respond, the more you are getting noticed. Successful movements also find themselves under fire from mainstream media propaganda, like the NYPD and New York Post after recent arrests unrelated to Occupy Wall St. Unfortunately, this propaganda quickly becomes accepted truth — I’d wager that more people can repeat police & media-spun myths about widespread public defecation and destruction at Occupy camps than can speak to the movement’s actual demands, however clearly members have articulated them.
When I glanced at the #IdleNoMore hashtag recently, I was disheartened to see someone suggesting that the movement should cease civil disobedience and instead organize around cleaning up trash on the roadways and beaches of Canada and the United States. Obviously, some statements like this come from a position of racism (or at least privilege) — there’s a long tradition of telling the oppressed to just settle down rather than engage in troublesome free speech. Even taken charitably, such statements are ridiculous — the Adopt-A-Highway campaign is hardly a hotbed of revolutionary change.
Yet some of these statements come from genuine ignorance about the effectiveness of direct action as part of a movement. The same mainstream media that happily spreads anti-activist propaganda is loathe to share stories of the effectiveness of mass movements; when they do show up at a protest they are notorious for highlighting the “weirdest” looking, least articulate protester they can find in their sound bytes. Before last year’s #NoNATO protests, police deliberately kindled fear of widespread disruption among the city’s people and business owners. Chicago peace activist Sue Basko told me that because she was a public organizer of the protests with her name on march permits, she fielded many calls and emails complaining about public transportation delays and disruption, even though most or all of this disruption was caused by the NATO conference and its security apparatus.
Some people will always be “inconvenienced” by civil disobedience, mass protest, and other forms of nonviolent direct action. It’s the job of the activist to educate the public about the necessity of free speech in all its forms, even when it makes some people late for work. What follows should not be taken as another white guy telling Idle No More or other new activist movements what to do, but rather highlighting some of what I think they are doing right.
Create Your Own Conversation
It is important to court the mainstream media and major alternatives by sending out press releases and cultivating relationships with sympathetic journalists. Yet even the most understanding of reporters can’t tell your story as well as you can tell it yourself. Make smart, consistent use of whatever tools you have available to start your own conversation. The true effectiveness of street movements is how they break through the mass media’s messages and make real people have real conversations. Don’t waste your time fighting with trolls, but instead look for opportunities to cultivate dialogue.
In my opinion, it’s better to master a few social networks rather than to push to be on them all. Idle No More has spread effectively onto Facebook, Twitter and beyond by playing to the strengths of each site. Pinterest may be the hottest new thing, but if all you’re going to do is cross-post links to your Facebook page then you might want to wait. Don’t overlook old fashioned methods like flyering or street art. Devote your resources to the areas where you can focus and then see if you can build coalitions with existing activist networks elsewhere that can spread your message along with their own.
Teach People To Take The Streets
A lot of people simply don’t realize how easy it can be to take action. More importantly, they don’t realize how thrilling it is to take action. Police and mainstream media work hard to make civil disobedience look either ridiculous or impossibly dangerous by turns. We can counteract this by teaching more people that action is accessible, approachable and actually fun.
Modern society has created the idea that large scale speech, such as a march or parade, are something other people do while most of us just get to watch. Yet many people who take the street once in protest find they want to do it again and again. Groups like GetEqual TX have recruited many new activists simply by creating spaces where everyone is encouraged to experience street protest for the first time in a safe, accessible manner. Egotists who pride themselves on being ‘more radical than thou’ might sneer at permitted marches like those GetEqual TX leads at Harvey Milk Day or joins at Austin Pride, but they undeniably encourage the next generation of direct action. Training camps like the Tar Sands Blockade’s recent Building Blockadia divide civil disobedience into risk zones, offering new activists a range of options from relatively safe road side sign-waving to full on arrestable sit-ins in an action’s “red zone.”
All Our Grievances Are Connected
There’s a certain set of cynics who grouse about the tendency of modern mass movements to become umbrellas for causes. Why is there a queer working group in the local Occupy when the banksters still aren’t in jail? Why are we worried about people without homes when there’s still corporate money in politics? Often these people point to a popular misconception that the civil rights movement was solely focused on Black equality, ignoring the fact that it was firmly grounded in an awareness of the larger class struggle.
By contrast, I tend to side with David Swanson in arguing that movements thrive by appealing to a broad spectrum. By recognizing the interconnected, systemic nature of our problems, we find common ground that increases our numbers and our effectiveness. It’s doubtful to me that the Idle No More movement would be growing so quickly if it maintained a laser focus on a few Canadian bills. Instead, the indigenous movement spreads a meme which appeals to everyone from Midwest occupiers to pipeline blockaders in East Texas.
The media outlets most devoted to maintaining the crony capitalist status quo may try to paint us as scattered, but it’s up to us to use our new tools to explain how Occupy Sandy feeding and clothing the victims of environmental devastation links to Occupy Wall Street’s battle against the corporations which create the conditions that devastate our economy and our environment.