Where Will the Next Social Movement Come From?

Much of our future is reliably unpredictable, and what more so than the moments when mass movements suddenly break out and sweep across our world? Who expected, for example, that for perhaps the first time in history hundreds of thousands of people would hit the streets of U.S. cities and towns—and millions the global streets from London and Barcelona to Sydney and Jakarta—in early 2003 to protest the coming invasion of Iraq, a war, that is, that hadn’t even begun? Or that such a movement would essentially vanish not long after that war was predictably launched?


Who imagined that, in September 2011, a small group of youthful protesters, settling into Zuccotti Park, an obscure square near Wall Street in downtown Manhattan, would “occupy” it and so the American imagination in such a way that “the 1%” and “the 99%” became part of our everyday language; Wall Street (as it hadn’t been for decades) a reviled site; and “inequality” part of the national conversation rather than just the national reality? Who imagined in the moment before it happened that such a movement, such a moment, would then sweep the country and the world, that streets and squares in American cities and those around the world would be “occupied” and that global inequality would become, and remain, an issue of import?

Who imagined that a small number of environmentalists running an obscure organization called 350.org would help spark a climate-change movement that would spread globally in a startling fashion, mount a large demonstration in Washington and others across the planet,venture into the Arctic and by kayak into the waters of the American West, and actually stop the building of a pipeline slated to carry the carbon-dirtiest of energy sources from now-ravaged Alberta, Canada, to the American Gulf Coast, and—with a growing divestment movement and other activities—put the fear of god into the most profitable and influential corporations on the planet?

And who imagined that the shooting of a young black man in a place no one (outside of Missouri) had ever heard of and the death-by-choking of another black man on the streets of New York City, events that were, in the annals of American policing, hardly out of the ordinary, would propel a protest movement whose name couldn’t sum up its goals better—Black Lives Matter—to national prominence or that this would, in turn, help spark a movement of millennials, discussed today by TomDispatch regular Avi Chomsky, that would sweep college campuses nationwide?

Is there anything stranger than what in the world, on occasion, gets into us human beings, what suddenly makes us so ornery that we sometimes stand up to overwhelming power in defense of convictions that, until moments before, we didn’t even know would occupy us in such a way? And perhaps nothing is more useful than the unpredictability of such moments, such movements. Otherwise how would they ever catch power off guard?

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