questions for the social movement post Ferguson

(Washington, DC) The social ferment following the Ferguson verdict looks bigger to me than Occupy, and bigger than the other nascent US social movements that I can recall from personal experience, going back to the 1980s.

That is a subjective impression based on my social networks, personal interests, and preferred news sources, but I have talked to reporters who feel the same way. [link added later.] The unrest taps much deeper and broader concerns than the recent shootings and legal decisions themselves. It is a response to trends as large as the incarceration crisis and the fraught condition of America’s poor communities of color. As my colleague Peniel Joseph writes, “Multiracial, multi-ethnic, multi-class, and multi-generational Americans have swarmed the streets in vast numbers to not only protest against racial injustice but to expose systemic oppression that has been an open secret since the heyday of the late 1960s and early 1970s.” They are developing the “WUNC” elements of a successful social movement that Charles Tilly identified:

  • Worthiness: moral standing in the eyes of the country;
  • Unity: Despite  demographic, ideological, and regional diversity, a sense that participants stand together;
  • Numbers: Marches, die-ins, etc., signify that many people stand together;
  • Commitment: Getting arrested, standing up to speak—these and other actions demonstrate commitment.

Many of my friends are involved in this nascent movement, in body and/or soul, and I see a lot of potential myself. But what I can offer at this moment are some relatively abstract thoughts about the challenges that face such movements in general. (By the way, we should not expect a uniform response to any of these challenges. Internal debates will yield a variety of approaches, and that is healthy.)

1. Participants must decide on their level of diagnosis. Confronted with the Ferguson verdict, some people think the problem is the control that prosecutors exercise over grand juries. Then a solution might involve special prosecutors. A totally different kind of diagnosis says that the problem is racism, as a relatively invariant underlying force in American life. When de jure segregation ended, racism was like a pool of water that needed a new outlet, and mass incarceration followed. In that case, the only solution would be some direct, frontal attack on racism. Many other theories are available, and they are not all mutually exclusive, but they suggest very different strategies. My own view is that social problems can rarely be divided into foundational causes and superficial effects. They are usually complex systems of reciprocal causes. That is an argument against treating the largest available abstraction, such as racism, as the main target. But this is debatable, and it will be debated.

2. Participants must choose a target. Occupy chose Wall Street: that was the original name of the movement. But Occupy never found a way to press Wall Street itself. The institutions that Occupy most effectively challenged were public universities, like UC-Davis, and big cities, like Oakland, where conflicts with the police made the institutions look bad. This was a case, in my opinion, in which one target was chosen but a different one was hit. After Ferguson, the question is again where to direct confrontation and how to make sure that the intended target receives the pressure.

3. Related to the question of diagnoses and targets is the matter of demands. What will the movement call for, and what will it accept?

4. Participants will have to figure out their relationship to formal institutions, such as governments, parties, the mass media, and universities. I have been asked whether I expect the movement to start running candidates or rather to eschew electoral politics because it looks so corrupt and unresponsive. I think it is far too early to say. Social movements often begin in their own spaces, apart from institutions that they perceive as hostile and unreformable. Especially during that phase, it is appropriate for some participants to say that they stand apart from the system. Such statements do not rule out later engagement with formal processes.

5. Participants must demand attention in a competitive space. Social movements typically say that business as usual must stop because their issue is too important to allow regular activities to continue. That is often a valid claim, actually. But it competes against many other such claims. Right now, for instance, a serious case can be made that all Americans must demand criminal prosecution of the torture authorizers during the Bush Administration. Inaction makes us complicit in felonious torture. Not to mention climate change and campaign finance, which just got worse yesterday. Social movements must  claim attention while somehow navigating rival claims.

6. The movement will have to address the usual tensions between prominent leadership and decentralized activism; honoring the heritage of past work while demanding new directions and giving space to young leaders; and staying relatively small and pure versus broadening and potentially losing focus.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.