It’s an eerie feeling when you know something should be happening, and it isn’t—yet. In The Washington Post, sociologist David Meyer has an incisive essay asking why, if Americans are so angry about their political system, are they not protesting? He notes the low approval ratings of President Obama and the Congress, as well as the economic dire straits we’re in, with no end in sight. He mentions the riots in England—to say nothing of those camping out in Israel, or the patient, courageous people being beaten down in the streets of Syrian cities. Or Spain. Or Bahrain. Or China. 2011 is primed to join 1789, 1848, and 1968 as a year of historic, bottom-up transformation. But, aside from a few weeks in Madison, the United States seems to have mostly been sitting it out.
Meyer provides part of an answer: organizing—or lack thereof. The labor movement is nearly crippled. Clicktivism only sort of translates into true collectivism. The best we seem capable of is a rally for apathy.
He’s the rare mainstream voice to recognize that civil resistance movements are not simply spontaneous eruptions of popular feeling, or the covert doings of shadowy CIA operations. They take planning, and years of preparation.
What gets people out into the streets to demonstrate? It’s not general unhappiness about policy, be it on immigration or the national debt. Social movements are products of focused organization. Even the icons of activism in American history wielded influence through larger groups. Rosa Parks wasn’t just a tired seamstress in 1955, when she refused to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Ala. She was a longtime organizer who served as chapter secretary of the local NAACP, which organized a bus boycott and a lawsuit in response to her action. Earlier that year, she had attended a workshop on nonviolent action at a labor center, the Highlander Institute, where she read about Gandhi and the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision striking down segregation in public schools. All of the specific actions weren’t choreographed, but activists had spent years building the infrastructure and cultivating the ideas that made the bus boycott possible.
Without such organizational support, individual actions might be dramatic and heroic, but effective movement politics is a test of endurance. Organization gives individual efforts meaning and staying power.
Without organization, furthermore, you get something like what we’re seeing across England, and in Libya—you get spontaneous eruptions of popular feeling, and it’s not likely to be pretty.
But organization is also exactly what Meyer is failing to see. Americans may not be out on the streets yet, but they’re planning on it. Just wait—or get involved. People are organizing. The more they prepare, the more likely they are to carry out actions worthy of their goals.
Something is happening. Even Al Gore said, earlier this month, that we need an “American Spring.” How about an American Autumn?
For the past few weeks, we at Waging Nonviolence have been talking with individuals and groups that are involved in one way or another in a variety of powerful new protest efforts. Here are a few of them:
In most of these cases, as I’ve learned from interviewing organizers, the ideas for these actions have come about spontaneously, and simultaneously, among a range of different groups. Something is in the air. But which way is it blowing?
The military is currently putting the breaks on the drive to war in Iran, says a former colonel and diplomat, but concerned citizens need to step up.
Two Iraqi peace activists discuss their commitment to peace and undoing the violence wrought by the last two U.S. wars in their country.
Waging Nonviolence is a leading publication on social movements around the world, and we’re looking to expand our coverage and work with new writers.