OPINION: POTENTIAL PITFALLS OF ACTIVIST MOVEMENTS

By Daniel Verner

       If we are to have lasting cultural change, there are many dangers to avoid ahead

It was March 2nd, 1955. Claudette Colvin was on her way home from her racially segregated school, and hopped on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. The fifteen year old chose a seat up front, much to the dismay and horror of a plurality of  the white passengers. When told to move herself to the back of the bus, Claudette stood in the face of true oppression, and in a defiant tone stated “I have paid my fare, and this is my constitutional right.” Soon after two police officers arrived and dragged her off of that bus. Fearing that putting a fifteen year old girl in such a national spotlight (and with the assumption that her skin tone was not light enough for public sympathy) Rosa Parks, a respected member of the NAACP, followed Claudette’s lead and repeated those actions on the same bus line only nine months later, kicking off the Montgomery Bus Boycott.*

America’s Civil Rights movement had begun in earnest. Not only      was it a massively important activist group, it remains a near perfect example of how an activist group should conduct themselves.

Some activist groups grab headlines, and quickly burn out soon after. Others are so inflexible as to guarantee a purity spiral and their atrophy through a lack of outside ideas. These are just two problems The Liberalists must avoid in the coming potential maelstrom. Here are some solutions:

HIERARCHY: A cursory look at activist movements such as Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter show the dangers of not having a hierarchical structure within an activist movement. A dire example manifested in Egypt in 2011.*

A large gathering of students and activists gathered in Cairo at Terhar square to demand the ouster of their sitting president Hosni Mubarak. Lacking systemic involvement, the vacuum of Mubarak’s departure was filled by a conservative religious group that required a military coup to unseat.* To this day Egypt is regularly wracked with violent clashes.* A movement that refuses to combine a de facto ruling body with a de jure figurehead inevitably falls to fractionating in-fighting, media exclusion/manipulation and eventual burn out as there is no one to rally behind but esoteric concepts. People do not fight for an idea as much as they fight for those ideas personified within the figurehead. Movements require two pincers of pressure: street activism and systemic involvement. The de jure figurehead is the person the street activists follow. Remove Mahatma Ghandi or Martin Luther King from their respective movements, and I can virtually guarantee a failure of the movement due to the vacuum replacing non violent resistance with mob mentality destruction. On the other side of the pincer, a de facto ruling body works within the system as to facilitate the needed changes on the structural level, much like the NAACP and their work towards the Civil Rights Act. The figurehead procures positive public opinion*, while the ruling body works to win meaningful change at the policy level.*

INCLUSIVITY: We must not demand purity of opinion, but a common bond formed amongst our shared principles. Otis Moss of Cleveland, a close associate of Dr. Martin Luther King, reminisced that the movement “…called into action tens of thousands of men and women of all generations and ages including children, gathering them together in a ‘coalition of conscience.’”* We must create bridges between groups that on their face are disparate in regards to policy, but hold to the values of Liberalism. This can easily include people from any major or minor party in existence today, especially those dissatisfied with their chosen parties lack of real world action. Outside of political parties, church organizations and other social clubs with strong ties to their communities can be very useful allies. This all depends on The Liberalists as a movement not demanding overly specific policy but instead arguing for a return to broad Liberal values. Those values are a very compelling selling point that a large swath of the population can get behind as long as the messaging is done correctly.

MESSAGING: Messaging emanating from an activist group needs to be positive, direct, poetic, inclusive and consistent. Take a look at the slogans employed by the Civil Rights movement from the 1950’s and 1960’s.* These slogans worked in concert with King’s magnanimous spoken prose. Prose that continues to this day to soften the most hardened hearts of hatred.* Artwork from the time featured bright colors, avoiding for the most part reds and blacks as their symbolism is more apt to that of violence.* American flags were flown by the participants as a reminder of the higher ideal this nation promised upon its establishment. As to inclusivity, it doesn’t take much thought to realize that if the movement had said “Blacks shall overcome!” rather than “We shall overcome!” said movement would have never gotten off the ground. Some today might take a particular umbrage towards white men and women brought up to the front of marches and the like, but it was certainly necessary in those times to win mainstream support. Utilizing posters with clear, concise slogans with no room for media manipulation, there was no doubt as to what their movement wanted. The Liberalists would do well with a similar figurehead and a ruling body to ensure consistency of messaging in regards to stated goals, and with a careful eye towards it’s expected response amongst the general public.

NONVIOLENCE: The only time violence against the state or it’s actors is justified, is under an Authoritarian system in which no institutional involvement is possible. Outside of that outlier, there is no reason whatsoever to expect positive results from negative actions. Cognitive science clearly shows that riotous violence turns people’s hearts away from the movement committing it and towards preserving the status quo.* History also shows the state response to violence coming from a movement absolutely breaks the group.* Despite it being our best path forward, nonviolence is an extreme undertaking. It requires an immense amount of self discipline and courage and is not for the weak of heart or spine. King was heavily influenced by the writings of Mahatma Gandhi, even going as far as to visiting him in India.* Gandhi was a practitioner of  satyagraha whose meaning essentially signifies “truth” or “love-force”.*

King “…came to see for the first time that the Christian doctrine of love
operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence was one of the most potent
weapons available.” King had six principles of nonviolence:*

                                  Dr. King’s Six Principles of Nonviolence:

  • Nonviolence is not for cowards.  It is a way of life for courageous people.
  • Build the Beloved Community everywhere you go.
  • Attack the forces of evil, not persons doing evil.
  • Accept suffering without retaliation for the sake of the just cause.
  • Avoid inner violence of the spirit as well as outward physical violence.
  • The universe is on the side of justice.

Non-violence as a principle will strengthen the individuals sense of resolve towards the just cause and becomes a sort of “feedback loop” in regards to self confidence and courage. Non-violence is a proactive, positive force that essentially avoids the pitfalls of falling into snares in which your opponents in the media and elsewhere can neuter your movement before it gets any steam amongst the mainstream. The “reactionaries” of extreme ideology seek to procure negative reactions from their opponents so as to have them seen as useless in the context of the culture at large. These ideologues have nothing to lose implementing violent acts into their activist lexicon as essentially they are unwitting tools of the status quo establishment, despite their proclamations of “revolution.”  We have everything to lose if we follow suit and react the way they want. The Liberalists must commit to only positive actions that increase community engagement and social cohesion, including but not limited to: boycotts, marches, protests, charity drives, and community volunteering.

By no means is this an exhaustive list of the dangers inherent of an activist movement and their adoption by society at large. Neither did the Civil Rights movement see results overnight. It took countless years of principled individuals struggling before they were able to see any movement towards the change they had initially sought out to create At the risk of being overly brusque, neither do I see a reason as to why the above would be held in disagreement by members of The Liberalists. If anyone is a publicity seeking self aggrandizing narcissist or a violent neanderthal, perhaps they are better suited amongst the reactionaries in their quixotic mission for a Utopia that will never arrive. They might consider this John F. Kennedy quote: “Those that make peaceful revolution impossible, make violent revolution inevitable.”

                                         Let’s make peaceful revolution possible.

END NOTES

  1. https://www.npr.org/2009/03/15/101719889/before-rosa-parks-there-was-claudette-colvin
  2. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2011/01/201112515334871490.html
  3. http://www.emannabih.com/threats-muslim-brotherhood-terrorist-organization/
  4. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/24/world/middleeast/mosque-attack-egypt.html
  5. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0899764005280631
  6. http://www.naacp.org/oldest-and-boldest/naacp-history-voting-rights-act/
  7. http://www.caux.ch/node/1602
  8. http://www.cnn.com/2014/04/07/us/gallery/iconic-civil-rights/index.html
  9. http://www.greatfallstribune.com/story/news/local/2016/01/03/former-kkk-leader-organizes-great-falls-mlk-celebration/78246618/
  10. http://africanamericanart.si.edu/art
  11. http://www.omarwasow.com/Protests_on_Voting.pdf
  12. http://mashable.com/2016/01/10/1985-move-bombing/#n7r9MlssakqL
  13. http://okra.stanford.edu/transcription/document_images/Vol05Scans/13Apr1960_PilgrimagetoNonviolence.pdf
  14. http://sfr-21.org/sources/satyagraha.html
  15. https://nonviolenceinstitute.org/index.php/programs-services/nonviolence-training/