22 July 2020

"This is What Democracy Looks Like": Effective Social Activism

Black Lives Matter Protest, November 2015 (Johnny Silvercloud)
I have been engaging with some on the ground protesters in Portland, Oregon, in the midst of large-scale Black Lives Matter protests happening in that city. During one live stream, the videographer addressed two sides of protestation: those who were actively nonviolently-disengaged with federal forces, and those who were “actively engaging” with the police and federal representatives. As gas began to flow through the street, the videographer asked all those watching: What do you think is effective?

America has a long history of social activism, some effective, much not. We have seen, and learned, from the movements of the past, from how to march to what to say to when to stand to when sitting is the strongest symbol of protest. The movement that we are seeing now is a time to both observe, and engage with, modern protestation and “what democracy looks like” in modern society.

Ultimately, my answer to the question of “what is effective” in the midst of social activism is really quite simple. There are many things that are effective, and many things that aren’t. Ultimately, any activity that enables action against a nonviolent moment, or the discrediting of the message of that movement, does not and cannot serve the movement, except to serve it a hearty dose of backwards momentum, and ultimately the loss of the message. Beyond this perhaps overly simplified statement, it’s also important to remember that there are many forms of social activism: we cannot do them all, we are not effective at them all, and we cannot dismiss those methods that serve a movement as “ineffective” or “irrelevant” simply because it is not the form we want activism or protestation to take.

Civil Rights March on Washington, August 1963 (Warren K. Leffler)
Bill Moyer, in Doing Democracy: The MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements, shares four crucial roles for the success of a social movement: the Citizen, the Change Agent, the Rebel, and the Reformer. Each role is essential, and each plays a different part in advancing a movement. What strikes me is how often one arm of modern social activism movements will actively lash out at another, because they are approaching the same issue from different angles. It seems overly easy to overlook the fact that not every method of protestation or activism can be the same and be effective. What movements like the Civil Rights movement of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s showed us is that no one voice can advance a message, and no one means of activism can stand alone. The movement needed those who marched, those who sat, those who spoke, those who wrote, those who taught, those who fed, guarded, advocated, instigated, pacified, and protested.

Another lesson that modern movements seem so often to forget is that no movement advances on the merit of a single, sudden, spurt of action. I do not mean to dismiss the importance or effectiveness of rallies, marches, protests, and so forth. These are, of course, essential to a movement, especially when done well. Yet in the most effective movements of the past, these things were facilitated with a basis in education, organization, and careful orchestration. There were trainings on how to protest nonviolently. There were dedicated messages that guided what was said, or signed, during marches, all based not in denigrating an opposing body but in advancing and emphasizing a message. Today, the question often comes down to that of message: Is the key takeaway of a march or protest the elevation of the ideology that “Black Lives Matter,” including the principle foundations of that movement’s message, or the screamed and signed messages attacking individuals or groups that shifts the focus from a movement and message to a “mark”?

I come back to the guiding principle of my own engagement in a social movement, in activism, in advocacy, and in the fight for meaningful social change: Any activity that enables action against a nonviolent moment, or the discrediting or dismissal of the message of that movement, does not and cannot serve the movement. These things only serve to send a movement spiraling backwards and convolute or destroy the message. My own answer to “what is effective” in social activism is simply the reverse of that idea: Any activity that lifts up the message and movement, that makes the message irrefutable and unavoidable, that reinforces the principles that guide positive social change, is effective activism. You might educate. You might advocate. You might protest. You might run a political campaign; you might create a public awareness campaign. You might research, survey, and study. You might raise money; you might give money. You might write; you might speak; you might serve. You might serve in the background; you might put yourself on the line. This is how a movement moves.

This is what democracy looks like. 


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"This is What Democracy Looks Like": Effective Social Activism

Black Lives Matter Protest, November 2015 (Johnny Silvercloud) I have been engaging with some on the ground protesters in Portland, Oregon, ...