Change Can Happen Faster Than You Think

Uprising can be a craft.

Two weeks ago, I drew your attention to a fairly depressing book, How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. This week I want to balance that with a more hopeful book, This is an Uprising by Mark and Paul Engler.

From the title you might think it’s a manifesto, but actually it’s a study of how nonviolent action works, and how the thinking of nonviolent activists has developed over the last century or so. Along the way, it makes a convincing parallel argument: Nonviolence does work; sometimes it works on a scale and at a speed that its practitioners never envisioned; and it could work even better if more people understood the mechanics of it.

By the time you finish the book, you’ll probably know a lot more than you did about Gandhi, Martin Luther King, the resistance to Milosevic in Serbia, the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, the campaign for same-sex marriage, how ACT UP provoked action on the AIDS epidemic, and several other movements. You’ll see them warts and all: the doubts and uncertainties of the leaders, the key strategic decisions, the strokes of good and bad luck, and the disappointments as well as the achievements.

Nonviolence is an effective strategy, not just a bid for moral superiority. Each chapter makes a point and illustrates it with the story of a character or a movement. The introduction (Martin Luther King’s Birmingham campaign) and first chapter (Gene Sharp, the man who made nonviolent studies academically respectable), focus on a very basic precondition for understanding nonviolence: You have to grasp that it is a strategic choice, and that, like war, it has tactics that can be learned.

That may seem obvious once you say it out loud, but a lot of pre-Sharp discussion of nonviolent action implicitly assumed otherwise: Nonviolence was often equated with pacifism and framed as a fundamentally moral choice, a sacrifice of practicality to idealism. Its effectiveness was left to God, who presumably would eventually help causes that were deserving enough. Successful nonviolent movements were (and often still are) described as “spontaneous” and regarded as inexplicable, as God’s actions often are. (The Englers don’t use this example, but pre-Civil-War abolitionism was caught in this dilemma, seeing few options other than the violence of John Brown or high-minded attempts to change the hearts of individual slaveowners.)

Sharp documented how unarmed uprisings could produce remarkable and sometimes counterintuitive results. Whereas violent rebellions play to the strengths of dictatorships — which are deft at suppressing armed attacks and using security challenges to justify the creation of a police state — nonviolent action often catches these regimes off guard. Through what Sharp calls “political jiu-jitsu,” social movements can turn repression into a weakness for those in power. Violent crackdowns against unarmed protests end up exposing the brutality of a ruling force, undermining its legitimacy, and, in many cases, creating wider public unwillingness to cooperate with its mandates.

King’s success in Birmingham did not just happen. It was a well-thought-out campaign that created an ever-escalating public crisis. The city’s lack of any answer other than violent repression, and the demonstrators’ willingness to suffer that violence, created a national narrative that led not just to (fairly small) concessions from Birmingham’s business community, but to a sea change in the nation’s willingness to accept Jim Crow. Congress soon passed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.

Structure and Movement. The second chapter discusses two competing views of how nonviolent action can create positive change. One school (associated with Saul Alinsky) focuses on long-term community organizing that builds power step-by-step. (A typical Alinsky slogan is “Organized people can beat organized money.”) The canonical example is the neighborhood group that comes together to demand a stop sign at a dangerous corner, and then (having achieved that victory), looks for the next improvement it can win for its members. A labor union is another classically Alinskyite organization.

The second school (the Englers use Frances Fox Piven as a key theorist) focuses on mass movements: big demonstrations made up of people who may or may not have a deep understanding of the issues they are protesting, and who may or may not be committed for the long term. The important thing is that a lot of people show up, not that they have a long-term plan.

The book was published in 2016, so it could not use the Women’s March the day after Trump’s inauguration as an example, but it would have fit. People marched for a lot of different reasons, and shared more vaguely defined hopes and fears rather than a specific set of demands. But they showed up by the millions.

The two styles of action appeal to different kinds of activists, and at times can seem like competitors or even enemies. Community organizers sometimes resent the big movement activists who come to town, get a lot of attention, and then leave, taking the TV cameras with them even though the underlying problems remain. Mass-movement people, conversely, can see the community organizers — with their stop signs and other incremental demands — as lacking vision. They are so concerned about preserving the marginal gains of their organizations that they aren’t willing to reach for revolutionary change.

Working together. But what if the two types of activists saw each other as complements rather than competitors? This notion is exemplified (in the third chapter) by the Otpor — Serbian for “resistance” — movement that ousted Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic.

Otpor actually represented a third wave of mass protests: The first had failed in 1991-1992, and the second in 1996.

“The school of organizing I came from was the student protests,” says [Otpor organizer Ivan] Marovic. “This organizing school was totally impulsive. It put no emphasis on establishing connections between people. It was about getting the greatest number of people and bringing them out on the street.

“We could draw out 10,000, sometimes 20,000 people, just from the university,” he explains. “The problem with this way of organizing is that it couldn’t last long, and we couldn’t take it outside our familiar terrain” — namely the prominent college towns.

Conversely, the opposition political parties had long-term members and enduring structure, but “couldn’t reach people who weren’t already connected to their networks. They couldn’t bring in people from the outside like we could with our protests.”

Otpor’s answer was to create not a hierarchical structure, but an organizational culture that made it “well organized but decentralized”. (Compare to Wikipedia. The strength of Wikipedia is in its easily grasped goals and methods, which allow tens of thousands of volunteers to contribute without an extensive management structure.)

The founders had intentionally created a sort of DNA that was replicated as Otpor chapters spread. … They had a clear strategy, a brand, and a vision of what they wanted to accomplish. They had a distinct set of tactics that people could pick up and use, as well as well-defined boundaries within which local teams expressed their independence.

Through humorous stunts, Otpor drew attention to just how widespread discontent was. Then came big demonstrations scattered around the country. Otpor graffiti was so simple that Milosevic didn’t even have to be named. (“It’s spreading.” “It’s time.” “He’s finished.”) Its leaders did not propose to take over the country themselves, and the movement did not stand for a governing philosophy. The purpose was simply to oust Milosevic. The plan was simple:

In short, activists would compel the regime to call elections; they would create massive turnout around a united opposition candidate; they would join other nongovernmental organizations in carefully monitoring election results so they could document their victory; and they would use mass noncompliance — leading up to a general strike — if and when Milosevic refused to step down.

It couldn’t have worked without both mass demonstrations and organized opposition parties. But the mass movement was already going by the time the parties needed to play their part. Under mass pressure and against their usual patterns, they got in line by compromising on a single challenger, and events played out as intended.

Change inside democracies. Bringing down an already unpopular dictator is one thing, but changing the direction of a democracy is something else entirely. That’s why the fourth chapter centers on the United States’ amazingly fast turnaround on gay rights, and particularly on same-sex marriage. From 1996, when the Senate passed the Defense of Marriage Act 85-14, to 2015, when the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide with the support of a large (and growing) majority of the public, was not even 20 years. (In 2012 I thought I was being bold predicting that “Everybody will support same-sex marriage by 2030”. I now think that was pessimistic.)

How did that happen? Not the way we were taught in Civics class.

Rather than being based on calculating realism — a shrewd assessment of what was attainable in the current political climate — the drive for marriage equality drew on a transformational vision. It was grounded in the idea that if social movements could win the battle over public opinion, the courts and the legislators would ultimately fall in line.

Changing public opinion would seem to suggest changing minds one-by-one. But that’s not exactly what happened either. And that’s the lesson of the fourth chapter: Society is neither a monolith nor a cloud of disconnected individuals. Using an architectural metaphor, the Englers say that the social order is held up by institutional pillars. Likewise, individual identities are shaped by the institutions those individuals identify with.

The battle for marriage equality was not fought mind-by-mind so much as institution-by-institution: In the media, first gay characters became accepted, and then it became safe for gay celebrities to come out. In religion, no church wanted to hold down the liberal flank of the anti-gay coalition. Unitarians accepted same-sex unions and gay clergy, then Episcopalians and Congregationalists, then Presbyterians and Lutherans. The battle was fought in associations of psychologists and therapists, professional organizations of doctors and lawyers, among educators and adoption professionals, within the military, and in many similar venues. Eventually, young people growing up in an era of increasing openness could barely grasp what the big deal had been.

In the same way that a dictator like Milosevic depended on a collective belief that nothing could be done about him, the second-class status of gays depended on each person feeling like there was no point in taking gay rights seriously, because it would never happen anyway. Instead, by focusing on these smaller venues, one group of people after another were put in the position that they personally were holding back the tide. Each institution that flipped pushed the onus onto the next.

Part of the process of transformational change is that once an issue has won, its righteousness becomes common sense. After this happens, people will commonly deny that the change was ever a big deal to begin with. They will contend that the shift was an inevitable by-product of historical forces, that it would have happened even without a struggle, and that the lessons that one can draw from it are therefore limited.

Momentum. In pragmatic political action, what counts is the concessions that authorities are eventually forced to yield. Whether the action succeeded or failed is judged by whether the pipeline gets built or the workers get a raise.

But transformational movements are always playing to a larger audience. If an action draws attention to a larger issue and can be spun as a momentum-building win, even comparatively meager concessions can amount to a major victory. Gandhi’s Salt March was resolved fairly cheaply by the local powers-that-be, but was a key step in the larger campaign for India’s independence.

The salt tax was hardly the heart of British power in India, and the modest agreement Gandhi eventually made did not eliminate it. But it was an issue whose symbolism everyone could grasp: The British had claimed control of the basic stuff of life, and British laws prevented Indians from providing for themselves. And whatever deal came out of the negotiations, the symbolism of Gandhi (in Winston Churchill’s account) “striding half-naked up the steps of the Vice-regal palace” to negotiate as an equal with a British Lord was a victory in itself. Biographer Geoffrey Ashe wrote:

In the people’s eyes, the plain fact that the Englishman had been brought to negotiate instead of giving orders outweighed any number of details.

King’s Birmingham campaign had a similar outcome: modest concessions from the Birmingham business community, but a huge national boost in momentum for the Civil Rights movement.

The Englers point to the importance of framing the result: Ideally, the movement sets goals that it can judge for itself, rather than objective goals that outside news media can declare unmet. Otpor referred to this practice as “Declare victory and run.”

Disruption, sacrifice, escalation. After the financial collapse of 2008, many well-established and well-funded organizations tried to get the public interested in economic inequality. Labors unions tried, national pundits tried, and the issue largely didn’t take off — until Occupy Wall Street.

It’s easy to look back and proclaim OWS a failure: It elected no candidates and passed no laws. The occupations are gone now and the system is largely unchanged. The Trump administration is busily rolling back what few post-2008 regulations did get passed. But OWS shifted the national conversation; its message of the 99% and the 1% has stuck, and we have not heard the last of it. David Graeber, who talked about his OWS experiences in The Democracy Project, stated a different way of judging success: “transformations of political common sense”.

OWS succeeded in getting the inequality issue on the table because — unlike the well-crafted arguments of pundits or the ad campaigns of established political organizations — they were disruptive and dramatic. In cities all over the country, people had to walk around the encampments and governments had to decide how long they would let them continue.

Disruption gets attention, but by itself it can be counterproductive: The public might just get mad at the disruptors and continue to ignore the issue they’re trying to raise. What counters that in a well-designed protest is that the protesters lives are disrupted more than anyone’s. By enduring hardship and the possibility of arrest or violence, protesters demonstrate their commitment and earn the public’s sympathy.

This kind of sacrifice is often described as an attempt to reach the heart of the enemy, but actually it works to raise the energy of friends.

When people decide to risk their safety or to face arrest, their decisions have the effect of mobilizing the communities closest to them. … Disruption is a crucial means for making sure that demonstrations are not overlooked. Sacrifice, meanwhile, makes it more likely that observers will side with the movement participants rather than those who move against them.

Established organizations, like unions or political parties, have too much to lose to engage in significant disruptions; they can be sued for their assets or their hard-won access and privileges can be taken away.

Finally, a successful mass protest needs a path of escalation. Occupy began as a few people camping in a park near Wall Street, but it quickly morphed into “Occupy Everywhere”.

Whirlwind. The goal of mass protest is to arrive at a state the Englers call “the whirlwind” — moments when previously “impossible” things are happening on a regular basis, the old political common sense is useless in predicting the future, and new possibilities open up. In 1989, for example, it seemed impossible that the East German government could fall, the Berlin Wall could be torn down, and Germany could reunify. In 1989, it happened.

Political scientist Aristide Zolbert describes them as “moments of madness” — periods of political exuberance when “Human beings living in modern societies believe that “all is possible”.

Whirlwind moments are usually triggered by some unpredictable event, like the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire and sparked the Arab Spring, or the shooting of Michael Brown that ignited the Ferguson protests. That unpredictability is a large part of what makes the whirlwinds themselves seem spontaneous and unplanned. But the Englers argue that “potential trigger events happen all the time”. What’s rare is a community ready to exploit one.

For example, Rosa Parks was far from the first African-American to refuse to give up her seat on a bus. But she did it at a moment when the Montgomery black community and the Civil Rights movement were ready.

Chance offers up possibilities for revolt; movements make whirlwinds.

Particularly inspired leaders sometimes come up with ways to make their own sparks, as Gandhi did in the Salt March. Other times the trigger events actually are foreseeable: Otpor foresaw that Milosevic would steal the election they had pushed him to hold.

Whirlwinds, however, do not last, and the visions they inspire at their peak are often not realized. That’s why afterwards it can be hard for activists to give themselves credit for what actually was accomplished. (In his model of the process, Bill Moyer — not to be confused with Bill Moyers the journalist — included “perception of failure” as a predictable stage.) But they should not lose heart.

A movement that is building popular support need not worry if its initial moment in the spotlight passes and the fickle news media turns its attention elsewhere. Instead, its active supporters can ready themselves to ignite fresh waves of protest when the opportunities arise.

Division, violence, and discipline. A movement need not become popular to achieve its purpose. ACT UP, for example, used divisive and aggravating tactics to force a reluctant nation to recognize the AIDS epidemic. Often the group raised more hostility than support, but what it really garnered was attention for an issue the mainstream would rather have ignored.

Asked in 2005 if he thought ACT UP’s tactics had been alienating, [activist Larry] Kramer responded with characteristic indignation. “Who gives a shit? I’m so sick of that. You do not get more with honey than you do with vinegar. You just do not.”

Protest is nearly always polarizing to some extent, because often the purpose of a protest is to dramatize injustices previously swept under the rug. Martin Luther King, for example, was often criticized as a troublemaker who disrupted previously peaceful cities.

Yet there is a danger here. For polarization to work to the advantage of a social movement, advocates cannot delude themselves into thinking that public reaction does not matter or that “anything goes” is a viable strategy. Activists can take the risk of being called rude and rash as a result of pursuing confrontation. But if a movement is to remain effective, it must be another thing as well: disciplined.

The cautionary example here is Earth First!, whose tree-spiking tactic sometimes resulted in injury for sawmill workers. (Logging companies could have avoided this by not logging areas that had been spiked, but they typically were not the ones blamed.)

If a movement’s tactics are so divisive and widely condemned that they overshadow the issue at hand and foster sympathy for the opposition, polarization works against it. Judi Bari, who turned Earth First away from spiking, never became a pacifist. But she recognized

People who put their bodies in front of the bulldozer are depending on prevailing moral standards and the threat of public outrage to protect them from attack. Unfortunately, prevailing public opinion in the country, at least in the timber region, is that if sabotage is involved, they have a license to kill. Until that changes, mixing civil disobedience and monkey-wrenching is suicidal.

It may at times be tempting to answer government violence with violence. But Gene Sharp cautioned:

It is important for the actionists to maintain nonviolent discipline even in the face of brutal repression. If the nonviolent group switches to violence, it has, in effect, consented to fight on the opponents own terms and with weapons where most of the advantages lie with him.

Ecology of radical organization. The book closes with a chapter explaining that many different types of groups are necessary to achieve lasting change.

Not all efforts to create change prevail over the long term. But those that do tend to see themselves as part of an ecology that is made healthier when different traditions each contribute: mass mobilizations alter the terms of public debate and create new possibilities for progress; structure-based organizing helps take advantage of this potential and protects against efforts to roll back advances; and counter-cultural communities preserve progressive values, nurturing dissidents who go on to initiate the next waves of revolt. …

The point of momentum-driven organizing is not to deny the contributions of other approaches. But it is to suggest a simple and urgent idea: that uprising can be a craft, and that this craft can change our world.

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  • Dennis Maher  On April 30, 2018 at 8:00 pm

    I had read reviews of this when it came out, but had forgotten the title and author. I think Steven Pinker makes some of these points as well. I wondered as I read your piece — Can nonviolence promote evil causes? Then I thought that evil (and for that matter, the right) doesn’t value nonviolence and would never use it. Every putsch or mobs at Florida election boards are essentially intimidating, threatening and violent. The left has done this, too, but the left that cares about values and truth tends to be nonviolent in principle.

  • eidswick  On April 30, 2018 at 10:05 pm

    Thanks for the thoroughgoing review. I look forward to reading this book.


  • By Transforming Common Sense | The Weekly Sift on April 30, 2018 at 11:24 am

    […] week’s featured post is “Change Can Happen Faster Than You Think.” It reviews what I think is a very important book: This is an Uprising by Mark and Paul […]

  • […] Change Can Happen Faster Than You Think […]

  • By The Yearly Sift 2018 | The Weekly Sift on December 31, 2018 at 10:39 am

    […] of the Middle-Class Constitution, How Democracies Die by Stephen Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, This is an Uprising by Mark and Paul Engler, and Network Propaganda by Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal […]

  • By Fulfilling the Dream | The Weekly Sift on July 29, 2019 at 1:07 pm

    […] wonder if the answer isn’t to borrow an idea from the Serbian resistance to Milosevic: very simple slogans that became nationwide graffiti, like “It’s time” and […]

  • By Sí, se puede! – Josh Allred on August 18, 2019 at 5:09 am

    […] Narration over compliance. […]

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