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Quickly Mobilize Mass Protests or Slowly Build Organizations? A Look At Two Theories of Change

Social movements can be fast ... and they can be slow.

Photo Credit: Daryl Lang /


Social movements can be fast, and they can be slow.

Mostly, the work of social change is a slow process. It involves patiently building movement institutions, cultivating leadership, organizing campaigns and leveraging power to secure small gains. If you want to see your efforts produce results, it helps to have a long-term commitment.

And yet, sometimes things move more quickly. Every once in a while we see outbreaks of mass protest, periods of peak activity when the accepted rules of political affairs seem to be suspended. As one sociologist writes, these are extraordinary moments when ordinary people “rise up in anger and hope, defy the rules that ordinarily govern their lives, and, by doing so, disrupt the workings of the institutions in which they are enmeshed.” The impact of these uprisings can be profound. “The drama of such events, combined with the disorder that results, propels new issues to the center of political debate” and drives forward reforms as panicked “political leaders try to restore order.”

These are the words of Frances Fox Piven, the 81-year-old Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Sociology at the City University of New York Graduate Center. As co-author, with Richard Cloward, of the classic 1977 treatise, Poor People’s Movements, Piven has made landmark contributions to the study of how people who lack both financial resources and influence in conventional politics can nevertheless create momentous revolts. Few scholars have done as much to describe how widespread disruptive action can change history, and few have offered more provocative suggestions about the times when movements — instead of crawling forward with incremental demands — can break into full sprint.

In recent years, Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring have created renewed interest in such moments of unusual activity. These uprisings have spawned discussion about how activists might provoke and guide other periods of intensive unrest, and also how these mobilizations can complement longer-term organizing. Those coming out of traditions of strategic nonviolence and “civil resistance,” in particular, can find striking parallels between their methods for sparking insurgency and Piven’s theory of disruptive power.

Zuccotti Park is now quiet. The small, sanitized plaza in lower Manhattan has long since returned to being a place where a few employees in the financial district take their lunch. But when it was the home of the founding Occupy encampment, Poor People’s Movements was one of the most fitting titles to be found on the shelves of its free library. And for those interested in refilling America’s public plazas with defiant citizens, the book continues to offer insights difficult to find elsewhere in the literature on social movements.

In 2010, when Fox News host Glenn Beck revealed to America what he imagined was a vast left-wing conspiracy to take over the nation, he identified a few select individuals as presenting particularly grave threats to faith, family and fatherland. At the root of the “tree of radicalism and revolution” that Beck  unveiled for viewers, he placed Saul Alinsky, the godfather of modern community organizing. The trunk of the tree, meanwhile, he labeled with two names: Piven and Cloward. From there, the tree branched off in several directions. Out of Piven and Cloward’s ideas, according to Beck, grew such sinister offshoots as ACORN, ex-Weatherman Bill Ayers, and even the radical-in-chief himself, Barack Obama. Although Piven was in her late 70s at the time, Beck  argued that she was not merely “an enemy of the Constitution,” but one of the “nine most dangerous people in the world.”

Beck’s theories about the left, of course, contained too many errors and unfounded leaps to easily enumerate. Nevertheless, he was correct to identify both Alinsky and Piven as groundbreaking social movement thinkers. Where he went wrong was in concluding that they were part of a unified and malevolent scheme. In truth, while Piven and Alinsky have similar commitments to radical democracy, they represent opposite ends of a spectrum of beliefs about how grassroots advocates create change.