Begin typing your search above and press return to search. Press Esc to cancel.

Citizen Activism: Two Paths

„Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.“

Frederick Douglass, Selected Speeches and Writings


I was present at the 2017 Inauguration of U.S President Donald Trump. It was a contentious moment in American history and politics. A vast number of Americans were angry, shocked and disappointed. The national mood reminded me of the days following September 11th, 2001 but less traumatic. That moment renewed a spirit of citizen activism in the country and it manifested in two very different types of citizen activism.


On Inauguration Day, I witnessed more than a hundred men and women, dressed in black and hiding behind facemasks, sprinted through the streets of Washington D.C., smashing storefront windows with crowbars and blocking roads with barriers of burning trashcans. Their protests drew little attention from national media, but provided fuel for the propaganda machines of right-wing websites. If you had spoken with one of the protestors, they would have told you they were standing up against the latent fascist ideology of President Trump’s rhetoric and the fascist beliefs his followers hold. The violence and vandalism carried out during their protest overwhelmed any message they might have presented to people who were reluctant to embrace the president’s views and who might have been willing to listen to the message of a non-violent, non-destructive protest.


The next day, nearly 500,000 Americans descended on Washington D.C. for the Women’s March to protest the misogyny and sexism represented by President Donald Trump and to stand up for women’s rights and human rights. According to the Washington Post, it was the largest gathering of protestors in American history, beating the protests of the civil rights movement and the anti-war protests during the Vietnam War. The protest drew millions of protestors in cities all over America and all over the world. Estimates concluded the protests drew more than 5 million people world-wide. The protest was the headline story of every news outlet in America and many news outlets around the world. Whether you supported the president or not, it didn’t matter, everyone was talking about the protest. Another important point is this: those who criticized the protest were forced to criticize the ideological arguments of the protestors, because there was no violence or vandalism for them to criticize instead.


The contrast between the two protests had another major distinction which is important to understand. When I asked the black-clad anti-fascists what should be done after their day of violent protest to help further their message and cause, none of them seemed to have an answer. They had no organization in place to further their goals, and they had no plans to enact change. The only purpose of their protest seemed to be to provide an outlet for their anger and frustration. As I walked through the crowd of protestors at the Women’s March, I saw community activists leading workshops on grassroots activism and local government. When I spoke with them about their goals, they told me about detailed plans to get more women running for political positions, fundraising campaigns to support candidates who champion their values, applying pressure to elected leaders through coordinated phone and letter writing campaigns, and much more than I can cover in this editorial.


The Women’s March embraced the ideology of the non-violent protests of Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi and Ceasar Chavez, while the anti-fascists rejected the idea of creating change through non-violence. The difference between the approaches, not the number of protestors, is the reason why one will succeed while the other fails.


The superiority of non-violent protests over violent ones is unquestionable. A non-violent protest eliminates criticism in the form of protest and forces critics to engage in the ideological arguments of the movement, furthering the discussion on the terms of the protestors. Violent protests provide an easy attack for critics and alienate people who might be sympathetic to a cause, but who also abhor violence and vandalism.


If you want to see change in your community, you have to agitate for the change you want to see, but you also have to build support for your cause by moving beyond protests. Movements that rely too much on single methods — such as protests, petitions or rallies — are less likely to win in the end. You have to engage people who are indifferent and those who are opposed to your movement, and you have to win them over through the strength of your arguments.


However, that alone is not enough. You also have to have a plan to enact change. You need to organize and build an infrastructure to support your goals. A saying overheard frequently during the Women’s March was, “Think national, act local.” Small movements have a hard time making themselves heard at the national level, especially in America, but at the local level, even a small number of people can have an outsized impact on their government.


There is a massive body of literature on how to develop and build a grassroots movement. I would be committing an injustice to the reader by trying to cover all of the advice built on years of successful social movements; so instead, I’ll do my best to offer a few resources for activists. Gene Sharp has written numerous novels on citizen activism, all of which are must-reads for grassroots movement leaders. The Movement Strategy Center has an impressive collection of articles, videos and webinars on citizen activism. Marshall Ganz also has an impressive collection of resources for developing movement leaders and building a sustainable infrastructure to enact positive change.


As you move forward, building your movement and enacting change, strive to replicate the successful social movements of the past and the protesters at the Women’s March.


Author: William Gardner. Photo: Flickr