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When Does a Moment Turn Into a ‘Movement’?

 

Five or six decades ago, a big crowd meant something big. When 250,000 people gathered for the 1963 March on Washington, or nearly a million showed up for the 1982 anti-nukes rally in Central Park, it symbolized a certain power and legitimacy, a collective coming-of-age. A major protest presented a huge organizational challenge, and pulling one off delivered a potent message: Here was a force to be reckoned with.

Today, the mass protest is often seen as a beginning, not an end — a moment of “bursting onto the scene, but only the first stage in a potentially long journey,” as the sociologist Zeynep Tufekci writes in her 2017 book, “Twitter and Tear Gas.” Getting people onto the streets remains difficult and time-consuming, but in the era of social media, it’s far easier than it once was. Now the real challenge comes after the grand event: Will the passion of the crowd translate into a “movement” capable of being sustained over the long term?

That’s the question being asked of the many and varied protest efforts that have sprung up in recent months. “The Parkland Teens Started Something,” a Washington Post headline noted in mid-April. “How Can It Become a Social Movement?” The Hollywood Reporter asked the same about the campaign against sexual harassment in the entertainment industry — “What’s Next for Time’s Up: Making a Moment Into a Movement?” Even the most dramatic mass actions are often interpreted as mere shows of enthusiasm: Instead of settling doubts about a movement’s significance, they seem to pose the question of whether a movement — something disciplined, tactically savvy and in for the long haul — might someday come into being.

This has made it hard to judge the significance of any given demonstration, no matter the size or the energy of the crowd. In Arizona, the RedForEd teachers’ revolt, which won higher wages and increased school funding, has been declared both defunct (“RedForEd movement comes to an end, teachers not ‘thrilled’ ”) and also loaded with promise (“What will #RedForEd movement do next?”). It has also produced a cycle of rapid obsolescence. In July 2016, just two years after Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Mo., some commentators were already asking: “Does Black Lives Matter still matter?”

The rise of “leaderless movements,” especially on the left, has only made impacts harder to predict and challenged more established institutions to keep up. After last year’s travel ban sparked airport protests and a flood of contributions, the American Civil Liberties Union began to flirt with a new identity. “Can the A.C.L.U. Remake Itself as a Mass Movement for Progressive Change?” The Nation asked recently, describing plans to “go beyond the courts — and into the streets” as a leading force against President Trump.

For most of modern history, constructing a major protest required months if not years of painstaking effort. During the 1960s, being part of “the movement” meant committing, heart and soul, to this sort of work, showing up wherever bodies might be needed. The label conveyed a sense of purpose, even an entire worldview: antiwar, pro-civil rights, power to the people. Today, joining or even making a movement is often pitched as a far more individualistic enterprise, available to anyone with the requisite outrage and promotional skills. “Leading Female Activists Tell You How to Start a Movement,” Cosmopolitan magazine recently instructed its readers, advising them to “post about your movement on your social-media feeds” while dutifully including a warning that “nobody can carry a movement by themselves.”

But even showing up in the street, in great numbers, does not necessarily earn much credit in the current environment. Making “your movement” has become easier; making it stick, gaining public respect and effecting concrete change, has arguably become harder than ever. If turning out thousands, or even millions, of outraged citizens merely indicates potential, how and when do we decide that a movement actually exists?

The early 19th century produced many varieties of collective action, from abolition to temperance to anti-Catholic crusades. But at the time, the words “social movement” meant just one of them: the effort to address “the social question,” an all-encompassing category that swept inequality, urbanization, the effects of mass immigration and all the burgeoning ills of industrial capitalism into a unified whole. This “social movement” had something to do with socialism, or at least with the idea that labor conditions and class relations would determine the social order. This idea never quite captured the full range of activity bubbling up during those years, but it did establish a vision of history as something full of motion and progress, in which “the people” would prod society out of its benighted state into a more enlightened future.

 

Since then, the basic idea of collective action and forward progress has taken such a dizzying variety of forms — liberal and conservative, grass-roots and top-down, “poor people’s movements” and “rich people’s movements” — that scholars have a hard time settling on a single meaning for what a social movement is and does. “The term has multiple definitions,” write the editors of the Encyclopedia of American Social Movements, “but perhaps the simplest one is the best: the coming together of large numbers of people to pursue a goal that they believe will improve society.” Movements are supposed to be different from other modes of citizen engagement, less beholden to elections and hierarchies, more fluid and open to transformative ideas. Often their goals are explicitly political, but the word is also used more casually these days, describing almost any group effort aimed at changing cultures, lifestyles or habits. There are craft-beer and slow-fashion and furniture-free movements. The ad firm Ogilvy & Mather champions the “wellness movement,” with “the new space it creates for brands and marketers,” while employers of all stripes proclaim their membership in the workplace “diversity movement.”

Even the most traditional social movements tend to change over time, further complicating the problem of definition. One commonly identified shift came in the 1960s, when “new social movements” began to experiment with street protest and consciousness-raising and nonviolent direct action in new ways. As initially understood by sociologists, these social movements came almost exclusively from the left. But the postwar era also proved to be fertile ground for movements on the right, ranging from the student activists of Young Americans for Freedom to “massive resistance” in the white South. Leaders of the self-identified “conservative movement” spent at least part of that decade policing their own borders and defining their ideological tenets, and by the 1980s, these “movement conservatives” were running the Republican Party.

On the right, many activists focused their energies on transforming or taking over existing institutions, including national parties and local school boards. On the left, movements sometimes rejected such institutional goals, pushing for sweeping changes in hearts and minds, perhaps with legislation or court decisions to follow. In his 2011 book, “American Dreamers,” the historian Michael Kazin identifies a persistent historical divide in outcomes as well, arguing that the left has been far better at “helping to transform the moral culture” than at presenting “a serious challenge to those who held power in either the government or the economy.” This distinction has basically held true for more recent movements. In the wake of the financial crisis, the Tea Party took control of a large share of the Republican Party, while Occupy Wall Street proved most effective at promoting a popular language to criticize the “1 percent.”

One thing they have in common, though, is that each came and went relatively quickly. Less than a decade from their origins, the Tea Party and Occupy already seem like anachronisms. Micah White, one of Occupy’s founders, argues in his 2016 book, “The End of Protest,” that today’s movements need a thorough reinvention if they hope to withstand the slings and arrows of opposition over the long term. From another perspective, though, the rapid turnover of today’s movements may actually be a sign of their success. “Occupy begat We Are the 99% begat Fast Food Forward begat $15 Now begat the Bernie Sanders campaign,” wrote Eric Liu in last year’s “You’re More Powerful Than You Think” — while the Tea Party “harnessed a radical anti-establishment spirit that seized and then consumed the Republican Party, fueled Donald Trump’s election, unleashed a new populism and created a ‘none-of-the-above’ opening for libertarians.” In this vision, we’re already living in a golden age of citizen activism, when even high school students have the tools to organize a nationwide protest in five weeks flat.

Whether that protest, or any other, will finally be deemed a “movement” no doubt depends on what it ultimately accomplishes. One open secret of social activism is that nobody can ever really predict when, where, how or why any given issue will change from a lost cause to a cause célèbre. As my Yale colleague and gay rights pioneer Evan Wolfson often reminds students, ambitious goals have usually seemed “impossible” until they were achieved, at which point they suddenly became “inevitable,” a matter of simple justice and common sense. The movement is what happens in between.

 

Beverly Gage is a professor of American political history at Yale. She is the author of “The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in Its First Age of Terror” and is currently writing a biography of the former F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover.

 

By            :               Beverly Gage

Date         :               May 15, 2018

Source     :               The New York Times