Civil Rights Movement (1954-68)

Gray Matter: How Protest Works

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Movements have “disruptive” power when they make it more costly for people to support the status quo. Students in the civil rights movement used sit-ins to increase the everyday costs of doing business until business owners capitulated to their demands. In a 2015 study, the sociologist Michael Biggs and I found that sit-ins could prompt business owners even in neighboring cities to desegregate, because they feared the costs of facing future protesters. Disruption can also signal the depth of participants’ commitment to a cause and the movement’s capacity to withstand repression.

The drawback of disruptive power is that it often inspires counterattacks. The first order of business for elites and authorities facing disruptive protest is to bring it to an end. Some may meet protesters’ demands; some will crack down on protest. Others do both. One week Jerry Jones, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, was kneeling in apparent solidarity with players seeking to bring attention to racial injustice; the next week he threatened to bench any player who knelt.

Finally, movements build power through organizing. Strong organizations make possible the sort of sustained participation that supports a protest’s agenda for the long haul. In recent years, the Tea Party has provided an example of how movements can use organizational power to help bring about social and political change. The political scientists Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson have analyzed how Tea Party activists, building on the disruptive power of the movement’s initial protests in 2009, established local organizations, supported candidates who shared the movement’s ideals and helped transform the Republican Party.

Organizational power faces its own challenges, though, including the difficulty of sustaining meaningful participation. Staging the occasional protest and raising money are one thing; developing leaders and building constituencies are another. Despite substantial resources and hundreds of organizations, the environmental movement, for example, has not generated the sort of participation sufficient to meet the environmental challenges we face. This failure reflects a larger trend of professional advocacy groups that connect to their supporters primarily through fund-raising appeals.

How does a movement manage to combine cultural, disruptive and organizational power? In some cases, this is accomplished through a division of labor. For example, in the civil rights movement, prominent leaders linked the language of rights, the symbols and rituals of the black church, and the Gandhian approach to civil disobedience; student activists fueled disruption through direct-action protests; and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, with hundreds of local organizations and leaders across the country, challenged the powers supporting the status quo in their communities and through the courts.

Over the past year, people have taken to the streets and sought to establish or revitalize organizations to resist the Trump presidency and advance broader social change. To capitalize on the energy and urgency of the moment, leaders and activists should look to build a movement that generates new sources of cultural, disruptive and organizational power.

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Wendy Pettit

Wendy Pettit is a writer for NYT and writes for other publications on her spare time. She lives in Chicago with her husband and her dog Zuko.

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