History suggests they are the only vehicles of change.
In America, we love a train wreck. It’s not that we want to see people hurt, but it seems situations have to be that catastrophic before we pay attention. So it goes for social change. It’s nice to think that our legislators are the primary movers and shakers of progress, but that’s not anywhere close to reality — Congress almost never does anything out of the goodness of their collective hearts, or for the good of their country unless they have no choice.
In fact, it’s not until grass roots movements are sustained, and maybe take on a level of militancy, are they regarded as a force to be reckoned with and measures taken. Militancy doesn’t necessarily mean violence — riots and the like turn victims into perpetrators and has a better chance of derailing a movement. That’s what almost happened as a result of the tactics used by the Weathermen during the Vietnam anti-war protests. Rather, confrontational acts that are angry, yet non-violent, are needed to call attention to a cause and draw in the crowds as participants. Lobbying has its value, but it’s slow and won’t be effective until the power of the masses is unleashed, and repeatedly so.
Here’s a review of a few movements that have taken place in the last century and how Congress and the President were eventually moved to institute laws providing for the rights and safety of citizens.
Women had been pushing for the right to vote since the founding of our nation but their requests fell on deaf ears. Things got more serious around 1910 or so, when the National Woman’s Party began organizing parades and pageants which successively grew in size over the next few years. But they still weren’t getting the job done. The parades were becoming little more than entertainment for bystanders. And so at the beginning of 1917 they began to take things to another level.
Regular demonstrations were held right outside the White House, which included daily pickets and watchfires — burning of copies of Wilson’s speeches. Things moved along faster when a banner was unfurled as Russian delegates arrived: “We women of America tell you that America is not a democracy. Twenty million women are denied the right to vote. President Wilson is the chief opponent of their national enfranchisement”. Another referred to the president as “Kaiser Wilson”.
From the perspective of today, that’s not a big deal, but in 1917 that was viewed as almost criminal, and led to arrests and jail time. Yet daily demonstrations with provocative banners continued, and after 6 months of it Wilson had enough and changed his position to advocate women’s suffrage.
Unions and labor
Labor disputes have been going on in the U.S. since the 1650’s, before there was a U.S. Early on these were mostly small time affairs, and typically ended with fines or arrests of striking workers, because up until the middle of the 19th century, workers organizing against their employers could be convicted of conspiracy. In such cases the plaintiffs and the courts weren’t so interested in punishment as setting precedents to deny power to workers and limit their ability to function collectively.
Workers began to organize into larger groups in the second half of the 19th century, but the effectiveness of their organizations, such as the National Labor Union (NLU) and the Knights of Labor was still limited. Later organizations such as the AFL and the Railroad Brotherhoods were better and were eventually able to improve worker conditions.
However, these unions might not have achieved much at all if it weren’t for the sacrifice of workers. A union could call for a strike, but it’s the workers who were out there losing wages and risking their lives. The United States is considered to have had the bloodiest and most violent labor history of any industrial nation in the world. The violent clashes — The Great Railroad Strike of 1877, the Haymarket Affair, the Battle of Virden, among others, are what made the headlines, lined up the supporters, and forced action. Why would a company increase wages or improve conditions if they did not believe striking workers had the courage of their convictions, and without some evidence that they had to be taken seriously?
African Americans were well aware of the abuse they were taking at the hands of America before the 1950’s. During the first half of the twentieth century, the civil rights strategy for change was largely based on public education, lobbying, and court challenges, under the direction of the NAACP and other organizations. A very civilized approach, but very little was accomplished.
It wasn’t until grass roots organizations began a campaign of direct action, including boycotts, sit-ins, civil disobedience, non-violent resistance, Freedom Rides, and marches that the pace of change quickened. Incredibly bold acts of courage by regular people were required to bring the plight of African Americans to the consciousness — or the conscious — of the public. How much did photos of lynchings and the violence perpetrated on peaceful demonstrators make us more aware and more sympathetic to their cause?
It wasn’t lobbying or good citizen thinking that led to legislation. It was sustained personal risk –Rosa Parks, the Little Rock Nine, the Woolworth’s Lunch Counter, the Selma March, the March on Washington, and so on.
The Woman’s movement actually runs across multiple stages, being an ongoing struggle for about 200 years, but we’ll focus just on the late twentieth century. The 1960’s movement had the goal of achieving equal participation in the labor market. Again, we see the attempt to use legislation to get the ball rolling, and it did — a little. An amendment against gender discrimination was piggy-backed onto the Civil Rights Act, but it was not enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and so little happened.
National Organization for Women (NOW) was formed to get things moving along, and they began by pushing consciousness raising programs to educate women as to just how far they were oppressed.
During the 1960’s and 1970’s, NOW and Women’s Liberation Movements brought together thousands of activists who organized a variety of demonstrations, including the Miss America pageant, Abortion Speakouts, sit-ins, and countless marches. These may not have occurred without consciousness raising groups that got woman motivated. However, without their presence on the streets en masse, it’s not likely that much would have been accomplished.
We’re in the midst of another phase. With the Me Too movement, women are taking courage to a different level. Once a person goes public about sexual harassment or abuse, from that day on her life is not the same. Her private life is no longer private, and she becomes a target. Still, many women, famous and not, have stepped up to give their own personal accounts as victims.
Relative to earlier movements, Me Too is truly modern, and may be the model for the future. That’s all because of social media. Through Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, organizers have been able to inform virtually the entire world in a matter of days as to the magnitude of the problem. The phrase, “Me Too” has taken hold simply by having been posted online millions of times. But still it’s the public display — the demonstrations and marches — that will give the movement real teeth and effectiveness.
What about Guns?
So now we have the latest situation — the killing of 17 students at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. After each of such incidents, activists have pressured legislators to change our gun laws, and that has gotten them nowhere. However, this one may be different. The students are becoming activists and they are organizing. Their rhetoric is militant and they are planning events — a march on the Florida state capital, classroom walk-outs, and a march on Washington — and they’ve motivated others around the country to do the same.
Whether or not they are ultimately successful will depend on how well they can sustain the pressure over time. By that we mean keep the issue in the public eye so that more and more citizens can be become part of the movement.
At the risk of being too optimistic, these students seem to be on the right path — they are spacing things out. The process works best if demonstrations are spread over weeks and months across different cities, instead of having one day of marching nation-wide. Doing it all at once makes one loud noise, but its over quickly and can be forgotten a week later.
Long-term clamoring, on the other hand, is ultimately much more annoying to lawmakers.