Enter the Disruptors:  Calling BS and Mobilizing the Masses

That’s the title of Chapter 4 of my new book, Saving Ourselves: from Climate Shocks to Climate Action, which I’m hoping will be in press at Columbia University Press by early 2023. The book synthesizes my research on climate policymaking and activism over the past 20+ years to look at where we are going and how we save ourselves (for an overview of the conceptual framework for the book, see my paper on AnthroShift in a Warming World published in Climate Action this summer)

The book begins with the increasingly depressing news about the climate and the effect humans have had on it. The news is not unexpected for those of us who have been paying attention, but it still is not fun to see report-after-report saying the same thing: the world is warming, we have yet to stop it, and system-wide change is needed as soon as possible to limit how bad the effects will be on society and the planet. In the lead up to the COP27 round of climate negotiations, there have been a number of studies formally reporting that we are not doing nearly enough to stop climate change (or even come close).

In response to this lack of climate action, many activists have shifted their tactics from peaceful legally permitted and institutionally focused efforts to those that are more confrontational. These tactics include innovations that have gotten a lot of attention in recent weeks involving crazy glue and throwing food. I spent much of the summer interviewing leaders of climate groups that have made the conscious decision to shift towards more confrontation forms of civil disobedience and I am in the process of writing up this chapter (which is extra challenging as the tactics and activism continue to innovate and diffuse while I’m writing).

With this new wave of confrontational activism, there has been a lot of discussion about confrontational tactics and their effects on public opinion, support for social movements, and willingness of sympathizers to participate. At this point, the jury is out on the specific effect of throwing food on artwork (in a manner that does not damage the artwork), but there is plenty of research that suggests what the effects will be. A great recent overview is provided by social psychologist Colin Davis, who has done experiments to measure the effects of specific social movement tactics. I would start there. In the meantime, be prepared for much more activism to come–activism that involves civil disobedience has been organized by groups around the world in the lead up to and during the COP27 negotiations that begin in Egypt on November 6th.

Teaching How to Study #Resistance

Much of the content on this site has focused on understanding the Resistance: where it came from, who was involved, why they were involved, and what it means to political life in America today. My writing is informed by my independent research on activists and at protests in the US, along with my personal interpretation of historical perspectives on Resistance. Beyond the American Resistance book, I have written numerous articles about the activism I observed, including this collaborative paper on the science of protest.

I am also a teacher. This semester, my undergraduate honors course teaches how to study environmental problems using cases of environmental/climate activism and civic environmentalism more broadly. To that end, last week I took students from my undergraduate honors class down to the “Appalachian Resistance” Rally against expanding Fossil Fuel Pipelines in Washington, DC. Students observed as activists assembled and gave speeches about the issue and their lobbying on the issue. We also were briefed by an organizer and a journalist who covers protest for the Washington Post. There is no question that experiencing this Resistance gave the students a lot more information than any book, article, or video could.

My hope is that this experience will inform our conversations about how to study environmental problems and will inspire my students as the prepare to do their own research projects in the class this semester.

What Can We Learn from the Protests Against Systemic Racism in Summer 2020?

I just posted a piece at FixGov at the Brookings Institution that summarizes my recent piece with Stella Rouse, “Intersectionality within the racial justice movement in the summer of 2020,” which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The article analyzes data collected from participants in the protests after George Floyd was murdered to understand why protests were diverse. It concludes that collective efforts, coupled with identity-based motivations, and the moral shock of witnessing the murder of an unarmed Black man by a police officer over social media provided a dynamic catalyst for participation across race, gender, sexual orientation and other salient identities.

The new piece also discusses what social movements can learn from this particular moment in the struggle against systemic racism in the US. As some of my other recent work has discussed, a critical mass in the streets can help motivate concessions from policymakers in ways that smaller activism does not. By combining solidarity, identity, and moral shock, the BLM movement after George Floyd was murdered was able to mobilize the masses and sustain their engagement throughout the summer of 2020. 

Movements that aim to employ outsider tactics like protest would be wise to learn from these mobilization strategies to attract a broad base of support and engagement.   The question that remains is how to translate such a diverse and prolonged mass mobilization into social change.  Unfortunately, the effects of the protests in summer 2020 have been relatively disappointing so far, yielding mostly what Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor calls “the low-hanging fruit of symbolic transformation.”  Systemic racism is one of a range of progressive priorities that have highlighted the vast distance that must be traveled between protest and legislation or other forms of policymaking.  Once the masses are mobilized to participate in sustained activism, there is still much to learn about how to channel outrage in the streets into enduring social and political change.  There is no question, however, that the opportunities are substantially increased when protests are large, persistent, and include crowds that are diverse enough to be representative of the general American public.

Stop Clapping for Tinkerbell: The Left Needs to Be OK with Getting its Hands Dirty

Yesterday, Vanessa Williamson and I published a piece in the Nation about the asymmetries in the tactics on the Left vs the Right. We point out that many progressive organizations follow “an outdated playbook of one-day rallies and electoral politics that currently can achieve no more than a pro forma vote on doomed federal legislation.”

On the morning of the second March for Our Lives, it’s worth thinking about how this is playing out across a range of progressive issues today. Calling for a peaceful march and some lobbying days to try to get Congress to pass a bill (that has no chance of making through both houses and onto the President’s desk) redirects civic outrage into symbolic/performative measures that can backfire for the movement as a whole.

We observe this same process around gun reform, reproductive rights, and climate change right now. The piece concludes: “If they close the doors on confrontational activism and civil disobedience, mainstream liberal and Democratic organizations cede a whole range of demonstrably effective tactics to their opponents.”

Welcome to the Graveyard of the Progressive Movement

5 years ago this weekend, millions joined the Women’s March in the largest single day-demonstration in US history. This weekend, however, there is no Women’s March scheduled. Instead, we will only see activists marching in DC as part of the Annual March for Life (against abortion rights).

Last January, I spoke with Danielle Kurtzleben on NPR about what will come of the Resistance in the wake of the 2020 election and how progressive groups need to pivot from defense to offense to support the progressive agenda. There’s historic precedent that, when Democrats win, movements die.

A year in, it’s clear that, even with a Democrat in the White House, the progressive agenda is failing: the Build Back Better Act, which includes funding to support childcare, healthcare, and to address climate change, is dead in the water; Roe v. Wade may be overturned this year; and last night, Federal Voting Rights legislation failed when two Democrats joined the Republicans to block changes to the Senates rules.

Although the Biden Administration has made some progress on a range of issues in the past year, the progress has been limited by the Senate and a conservative Supreme Court. The top issues that motivated the Resistance and turned people out in the streets to raise their voices in protest during the 4 years of the Trump Administration are floundering.

What comes next is the trillion dollar question. Policy failure can be demobilizing for many movements and there is evidence that Resisters are following that pattern. The political Right provides an interesting contrast: conservative civic groups have been very effective at maintaining momentum in recent years, even when Republicans win. If the Left doesn’t figure out how to sustain engagement and support its agenda from within the political system, it is destined to keep losing–and that’s bad news with the 2022 Midterm elections only 8 months away.

Does the Rittenhouse Verdict Change the Lessons of the American Resistance?

The outcome of the Kyle Rittenhouse case provides an important moment for reflection about the role of protest in American democracy and the risk protesters face when they participate in activism.

While protests on the Left have remained predominantly peaceful over the past five years, the dangers to protesters have spread silently.  I wrote about the implications of the Rittenhouse case on protest in America and what are the lessons from the Rittenhouse verdict to the hundreds of thousands of Americans who jointed the Resistance for Slate (which, of course, came out the afternoon before Thanksgiving).

My piece focuses on some comments made by Representative Swalwell about how to interpret the verdict as a call to mobilize. The comments conflate different forms of protest: those that are confrontational by design and coordinated by people who have limited access to power (if any) versus those that are intentionally peaceful and aim to send a political message through media coverage to representatives, as well as building up solidarity that channels concern into other political work (which was the bread and butter of the American Resistance during the 4 years of the Trump Administration).

Although both types of protest take place in the streets, one works within the system and the other creates pressure from outside of it– pressure that threatens the system’s very existence.

With the current risks to protesters, what is the future of protest in America?  History tells us there are two options. 

The first option is to double down on the work of the Resistance and follow the original advice of Rep. Swalwell.  If enough activists mobilize to work for electoral change, it would matter more than ever before. With more Democrats in office, they might finally deliver the democratic reforms that are so badly needed.

Given recent trends and the fact that the party in the White House rarely retains the majority in the House of Representatives, though, it is hard to imagine that the Democrats could win enough seats in the mid-term elections to secure the necessary political power (especially as Republicans have been quickly gerrymandering districts across the country).  

The other more dangerous option is to get back in the streets and follow the example of the Civil Rights Movement and fight for our civil rights that are very much at risk.  Those rights that were hard won by the sweat, tears, and blood of activists who risked violence and death to stand up for what they believed.  With the Rittenhouse verdict empowering vigilantes and states efforts to repress civic participation, the risks to protesters are clear.  But there is growing evidence that only insurgent tactics can fulfill the promise of America.

More Climate Resistance Around the World

Today is a Global Day of Action for Climate Justice. It follows yesterday’s huge climate march that was coordinated by youth involved in Fridays for Future and featured a speech by Greta Thunberg. I wrote this piece to explain how the climate movement has grown (and why we should expect to see much more activism at this round of climate negotiations than we have seen before).

Not only should we expect more activism, protest, and resistance at international meetings, but this growing movement will certainly also target their activism within countries–including the US. As I note at the end of my recent piece: “I’ve studied the climate movement for more than twenty years — observing activists in the field at protests, conducting waves of interviews with leaders, and witnessing firsthand their commitment and energy. This movement is undergoing a major change that is likely to lead to social change because diverse coalitions of social movements are far more likely to succeed in achieving positive change. For the climate movement, there’s strength in numbers.”

Before the Women’s March Marches Again

On Saturday October 2nd, the Women’s March will march again. This time, the focus is specifically on defending Reproductive Rights. Although it is not clear how many people will join this mobilization in the streets during a pandemic before the Supreme Court reconvenes, the issue of Reproductive Rights is certainly on the mind of many resisters who have been out in the street starting at the first Women’s March in 2017.

In fact, in a 2019 paper, Lorien Jasny and I found that the issue of Reproductive Rights explained who was persisting in the Resistance, marching in the streets again-and-again during the Trump Administration. At last year’s Women’s March (in October before the 2020 elections), Reproductive Rights was one of the top reasons that participants were out in the street. Here’s the breakdown from my data in Washington, DC:

As national conversations focus more-and-more on the issue of Reproductive Rights and threats to Roe-v-Wade, it is likely that more and more of these Resisters will find their way back out into the streets.

When Protest Becomes Insurgency Revisited

Today, the House of Representatives is holding its first hearing of the January 6th Committee, which includes the testimony of 4 police officers.

Listening to the testimony is chilling but provides us with important reminders that there is much to learn about how January 6th happened. Every single testimony provides evidence that the insurrection was premeditated and coordinated. Important questions that need to be answered include: what groups were involved, how were they coordinated, how did they communicate with and mobilize participants, as well as how were the people involved connected to people in positions of power. I hope that those who investigate January 6th take advantage of the tools of the social sciences that we have used to study social movements.

While I listen to the testimony, I am reposting my piece from January 11th:

Since violent insurgents stormed the US Capitol on January 6th, myriad accounts of what happened have been reported. It is clear that what many believed would be a peaceful protest that was legally permitted by the National Park Service, turned into something altogether different. In contrast to some claims that the actions of January 6th were unexpected (and that is why the Capitol police were so ill-prepared), expectations of violence had been reported far and wide prior to the events last Wednesday. For example, here is a detailed report from the day before the event in the Washington Post.

The distance between peaceful protest and violent confrontation that can turn into an insurgency is smaller than you might expect but it is not a spontaneous process–it involves significant planning and coordination. When we look back over the past 8 months, there were many signs that pro-Trump groups were radicalizing, in terms of the targets of their grievances and the tactics that they were considering. Look back at the ways they responded to COVID restrictions and organized counter protests to Black Lives Matter events in cities for clear signs.

As I noted less than three weeks ago, the current moment is the product of normalizing hate, legitimizing untruths, and emboldening misinformed Americans to challenge the legitimacy of the US government and take up arms in the streets. Yesterday, I published a new piece in Business Insider that asks: How do we stop an insurgency provoked by the President of the United States? How do you douse the flames of hatred, mistrust, and deliberate misinformation that creates a false reality?

The piece ends by noting how differently participants in the insurrection at the US Capitol last week were treated than protesters have been treated at events I have observed while studying protest for the past 20+ years. Although law enforcement is now rounding people up, there’s an enormous difference between escorting people out of the building to go back to their hotels and arresting everyone who breached the building. A clear message was telegraphed on January 6th that Pro-Trump supporters can incite violence, threaten elected officials, and occupy federal buildings with no recourse. We are now seeing some of the participants facing consequences, but I worry that this type of post-hoc response is not sending a strong enough message as groups prepare to return to DC this weekend and stay through the inauguration next week.

Networks of Engagement Around the 2020 Election

As part of the Indivisble Census, members of the Indivisible network were asked to indicate how they worked with the Democratic Party, Individual Candidate’s Campaigns, and other groups during the 2020 election. About half reported working with each.

Respondents wrote in about 2,000 groups that they had worked with around the 2020 elections.   Five groups were each named by more than 200 respondents individually: Vote Forward, MoveOn, Swing Left, Fair Fight, and ACLU.  It’s worth noting that there was quite a bit of overlap with the organizations mentioned in 2020; 12 of the top 15 groups were in the top-15 during both years.  The three groups that were new were: Fair Fight, Flip the West, and Black Lives Matter. For those respondents who reported participating with other groups as well as Indivisible, more than half of them (56%) reported that Indivisible was their “primary connection to the progressive movement.”  The following figure shows the groups that were mentioned by at least 60 individual respondents in 2021.

To look at how Indivisibles worked with other groups, here is an affiliation network map of connections to other groups that were mentioned by at least 100 Indivisibles.  The blue nodes are the nine organizations that were mentioned the most. Nodes are sized based on the frequency of mention by respondents.  The map shows that the network is extremely dense and is made of activists with numerous overlapping organizational affiliations.

Affiliation Map of Indivisible Network

To understand better the relationship between the different groups, the following visualization uses an algorithm that more clearly shows co-affiliation patterns among individuals.

Overall, this analysis provides clear evidence of the ways that Indivisibles worked across a range of progressive groups, which focused on a diversity of tactics, during the 2020 election.