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February 21, 2013
Beyond Demonstrations, Beyond Civil Disobedience
By Rob Kall
Demonstrations may look grassroots, but they're really top down. A handful of organizers set the time and place and they hope people will show up. Sometimes a handful of powerful or famous people will show up to give talks. It's not that demonstrations don't work at all, but they are so inefficient and usually ineffective... there are better ways to make change happen.
Demonstrations may look grassroots, but they're really top down. A handful of organizers set the time and place and they hope people will show up. Sometimes a handful of powerful or famous people will show up to give talks.
It's not that demonstrations don't work at all, but they are so inefficient and usually ineffective, as commenters who participated ten years ago in the massive worldwide anti-Iraq war protests have observed.
The most tame, least effective demonstrations disrupt the least. I think the more effective demonstrations disrupt-- work, traffic, or in some way, business as usual.
There have been examples where civil disobedience has worked. Alice Paul, a leader of the women's right to vote movement, led protests at the White House gates that led to civil disobedience arrests and incarcerations that ultimately made a huge difference.
The must view movie, Iron Jawed Angels, tells the story. But it's a very hard road and that action led to many women being sentenced to rough terms in prison under brutal conditions.
I recently did an interview with Staughton Lynd , who talks about the idea of accompanying vs. Organizing. Accompanying is more bottom up-- empowering the people, rather than organizing and herding them-- like most big unions do.
This seems to be similar to the ideas of Paulo Freire, described in his absolutely must-read book-- Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
The main idea is you, the activist, do not come in and tell oppressed people what to do. You engage them in dialogue, educate and empower them, get them to believe in their own ability to free themselves-- then, play some role in helping THEM to do what it takes to free themselves.
I see, for example, doctors working for single payer. But they don't engage and empower the 50 million uninsured. WTF?
This is the huge failure of most activism-- not engaging, empowering and including the oppressed. Sadly, this can be a full time job. That means that young people, raising families probably can't do it. But there are millions of boomers who are retiring. Perhaps instead of volunteering at religious institutions or hospitals, more people could get involved in educating, empowering and activating oppressed people.
Who are the oppressed today? Let's start with the 99%. We can drill down and talk about some more oppressed groups in America:
prisoners who have not hurt anyone-- like pot-smokers
This is an incomplete list. post your comment to add to it.
I write a lot about bottom up and top down processes and phenomena. Grassroots actions is usually categorized as bottom up. The words are sometimes even used interchangeably. But even within grassroots actions and activities there is a range, a degree of "bottom-up-ness."
I would argue that the more horizontal, as was and is practiced by Occupy folks, the better. The more leader-centric, the more top-down the decision making process for actions like demonstrations, the less effective and successful that action will be.
One factor that a more inclusive, bottom-up approach affects is building a feeling of connectedness for the people who are participating. If you involve people more, if you engage them and give them the power to make decisions, rather than simply instruct them in what to do, then they OWN the process and the action more. They feel more connected to the movement.
Psychotherapists know that when a client comes to a conclusion on her own and makes a decision to take action, rather than being told, the result and depth of meaning for the experience is much more profound. That applies to all aspects of life.
Doing things, like thinking and deciding for the people you intend to help is not really a favor. This is hard stuff. It can feel a lot easier to just "lead" from the top down. But it is not the way to build a sustainable movement that will make change happen.
The civil rights movement is a great example. The participants in the protests were highly trained and educated teams, not people who just showed up for a convenient weekend. David Swanson discusses some of these issues in his article on the recent protests over global warming and the Keystone Pipeline-- Pseudo-Protests and Serious Climate Crisis.
I talk a lot about the need for bottom-up approaches (here are some tags linking to articles by me and others: Bottom-up ; Bottom-up ; Bottom-up ; Leadership ;) , but there is always a need for leadership. Ideally, that leadership will be bottom-up. Yes, that is not only possible, it is the future. I've written about bottom up leadership among progressives here , and did an interview about it with Steve Denning, here .
Frankly, I'm no expert on Freirean approaches to activism. But between my experience with Occupy, with seeing how so many people misunderstood why it was important that Occupy start WITHOUT positions, demands or leaders, it's become clear to me that what we've been doing, with big demonstrations on convenient times-- usually weekends-- does not work. And we all know you call continuing to do something that doesn't work.
So, to wrap up this meandering essay, I'll say that there are a few things too many people are doing that are not working, or not efficient or effective. One is wasting a lot of time on electoral politics, supporting either major party. Both parties have become the corporate parties as has Obama become a corporations first president. It is a delusion to believe that if you have voted for a Democrat, you've done your part. Then there's the big demonstration. It's fun, feels good, is entertaining, but the biggest ones in the world have not worked-- particularly the ones where permits are obtained and there's been no-one inconvenienced.
Demontrations can take down a government. They did it in Argentina, as my interview with Marina Sitrin, author of the book, Horizontalism, explored.
To wrap up with a hopeful thought, Marina Sitrin, in her book, Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina discussing the potential for change through horizonal action, she points out:
"Lewis Carroll reminds us in Through The Looking Glass, "Alice laughed. There's no use trying," she said, "One can't believe impossible things!"
Rob Kall is executive editor, publisher and website architect of OpEdNews.com, Host of the Rob Kall Bottom Up Radio Show (WNJC 1360 AM), and publisher of Storycon.org, President of Futurehealth, Inc, and an inventor . He is also published regularly on the Huffingtonpost.com
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