Three Things That Most Successful Uprisings Have in Common

The following is an excerpt from the new book This Is an Uprising by Mark Engler & Paul Engler (Nation Books, 2016): 

For people trying to understand social change—as well as those trying to create it—the question of why some protests are ignored and forgotten while others break out to become sensational public events is a critical one. And it was a particularly pressing concern after the financial meltdown of 2008.

In the years following the crash, the United States entered into its worst economic crisis in seventy-five years. The unemployment rate reached into double digits, which had not happened since the Reagan era. A record number of homeowners entered into foreclosure, and state governments reported skyrocketing demand for food stamps. Yet by 2011 debate in Washington, DC—influenced by the activism of the insurgent Tea Party—revolved around cutting the budget and trimming social programs. “We were basically having an insane national discussion,” remarked economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman.

It took an outburst of popular action to change this. And that outburst came in an unexpected form.

“A group of people started camping out in Zuccotti Park,” Krugman explained just weeks after Occupy launched, “and all of a sudden the conversation has changed significantly towards being about the right things.

“It’s kind of a miracle,” he added.

For students of civil resistance, the abrupt rise of Occupy Wall Street was certainly impressive, but its emergence was not a product of miraculous, otherworldly intervention. The haphazard assembly of activists who came together under the Occupy banner did not follow the time-honored rules of community organizing, but what they did do was highly relevant to those trying to create momentum-driven campaigns. They were willing to craft protests that were significantly disruptive; they put on display a high level of sacrifice among participants; and they escalated their protests, building to greater levels of activity and involvement. Each of these contributed force to their drive, allowing a loose and underfunded collection of protesters to alter the terms of national debate in ways that those with far greater organizational might had been unable to manage.

Time and again, in uprisings that steal the spotlight and illuminate injustices that are otherwise ignored, we see three elements—disruption, sacrifice, and escalation—combining in forceful ways. This strange and combustive alchemy begins with disruption.

Disruption is the first key factor in pushing outbreaks of revolt into the headlines. The amount of momentum that a movement generates can consistently be linked to the level of disruptive unrest its actions cause. The more that a protest directly affects members of the public, and the more it interferes with an adversary’s ability to do business, the more likely it is to draw widespread attention. Snarling traffic, interrupting a public event, shutting down a convention, stopping a construction project, making a scene at the mall, or impeding operations at a factory—all of these reflect varying degrees of disruption.

In the corporate-driven media, disenfranchised groups and their social movements are seldom able to make it into the mainstream news cycle at all, and even more rarely are they covered on favorable terms. Moments of unusual unrest provide opportunities for those without money or influence to dispel attitudes of indifference—and to highlight social and political injustices. “Our power is in our ability to make things unworkable,” argued prominent civil rights organizer Bayard Rustin. “The only weapon we have is our bodies, and we need to tuck them in places, so wheels don’t turn.”

Rustin’s insight has been echoed in the work of many social movement theorists, notably in Frances Fox Piven’s theories of disruptive power. For Piven, disruption occurs when people are willing to “break the rules” of social decorum and step out of conventional roles. In Poor People’s Movements, she and Richard Cloward explain, “Factories are shut down when workers walk out or sit down; welfare bureaucracies are thrown into chaos when crowds demand relief; landlords may be bankrupted when tenants refuse to pay rent. In each of these cases, people cease to conform to accustomed institutional roles; they withhold their accustomed cooperation, and by doing so, cause institutional disruptions.”

Piven has forcefully argued that such unrest is the engine of social change. In her 2006 book, Challenging Authority, she contends that the “great moments of equalizing reform in American political history” have been responses to periods when disruptive power was most widely deployed.

Gene Sharp, an influential theorist of nonviolent conflict, has emphasized similar aspects of noncompliance and disruption. When he devised his now-famous list of “198 methods of nonviolent action,” Sharp divided the tactics into three categories.

The first encompasses methods of “protest and persuasion,” including public assemblies, processions, displays of banners, and formal statements by organizations. These make up the bulk of routine protest actions in the United States, and they tend to involve minimal disruption.

Sharp’s other two categories, however, involve increasingly confrontational measures.

His second grouping, “methods of noncooperation,” encompasses economic boycotts, student walkouts, and workplace strikes. And the third category, “nonviolent intervention,” includes sit-ins, land seizures, and civil disobedience.

This last category involves not only a refusal to participate in political or economic structures but also intent to actively interrupt normal daily activity. Such interventions, Sharp writes, pose a “direct and immediate challenge.” A lunch-counter sit-in, after all, is more urgently troublesome for a storeowner than a more removed consumer boycott. And, Sharp contends, because “the disruptive effects of the intervention are harder to withstand for a considerable period of time,” these actions can produce results more swiftly and dramatically than other approaches to nonviolent conflict.

In the long run, the breadth of participation in a protest movement matters; but in the short term, a sense of drama and momentum can trump numbers.

The scenario for confrontation offered by Occupy Wall Street fell into Sharp’s third category, and as a result it possessed a different tenor than the marches and rallies that had come before. Particularly at its beginning, Occupy Wall Street involved a much smaller number of people than the “One Nation Working Together” march on Washington the previous year, sponsored by major unions and designed to draw attention to economic inequality. Yet Occupy set out to generate a much greater level of disruption. Activists intended to go to the investment banks in the heart of Manhattan’s financial district and erect an encampment on their doorstep, hampering the daily business of those most responsible for the economic crisis. Although the protesters ultimately established camp at a location several blocks from Wall Street itself, the occupation at Zuccotti Park effectively posed a dilemma for those in power. Authorities could allow activists to hold the space indefinitely, permitting a staging ground for continual protests against the area’s financial institutions. Or police could act on behalf of the country’s wealthiest 1 percent and shut down dissent, a move that would perfectly illustrate the protesters’ claims about what American democracy had become. It was a no-win situation for the state.

While city officials pondered these unattractive options, the question of “how long will the occupation hold?” fostered a growing sense of dramatic tension for the public.

The tactic of occupation had other advantages as well. One was that it could be replicated. Somewhat jokingly, a few weeks into the mobilization, organizers issued a call to “Occupy Everywhere!” Much to their surprise, people responded in droves: the disruptive impact of Occupy grew as encampments sprung up in cities throughout the country. They even sprouted internationally, as with Occupy London, which set up shop directly outside of the London Stock Exchange.

As Occupy progressed, protesters staged sit-ins at banks and marches that blocked streets and bridges. By the end of the year, Occupy-related actions had resulted in an estimated 5,500 arrests in dozens of cities, big and small—from Fresno, California, to Mobile, Alabama; from Colorado Springs to Honolulu; from Boston to Anchorage—all dramatizing the divide between the “99 percent and the 1 percent.” Such actions propelled Occupy forward.

Not every exercise in strategic nonviolent conflict generates the type of intense flurry of activity that surrounded Occupy. But the experience of that movement illustrated a phenomenon that has been repeated in many campaigns of civil resistance. At their most successful, campaigns of nonviolent disruption create new spaces of possibility in public life. They produce situations in which the normal rules of politics appear to be suspended, and large numbers of people respond with outpourings of hope and creativity.

In Occupy's case, the movement had profound impact in shifting the national debate, prompting a change that had important ramifications in the realms of policy and electoral politics. In January 2012, well after Occupy Wall Street’s eviction, Richard Morin, a senior editor at Pew Social and Demographic Trends, told the New York Times, “Income inequality is no longer just for economists… It has moved off the business pages into the front page.”

Five years later, the fact that a candidate such as Bernie Sanders could rattle the Democratic Party establishment with an insurgent campaign highlighting many of the same issues as Occupy is testament to the movement's continued ability to reverberate in American life.

Excerpted from THIS IS AN UPRISING by Mark & Paul Engler. Reproduced with permission from Nation Books.


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