From my article in The Sociological Quarterly‘s new special issue on Occupy Wall Street:
Public Performance and Backstage
We know that Rosa Parks was not merely tired when she refused to give up her bus seat. She was acting with agency, and the appearance of spontaneity was part of an intentional performance designed for strategic effect (Polletta 2006). It was fine—intended even—for most people to see and sympathize with her as a tired woman who had simply had enough. It would not be fine, however, for students and strategists of social movements to take her performance at face value. We must also look behind the scenes.
Accordingly, it behooves us to explore Occupy Wall Street’s (OWS’s) backstage and not take its bountiful public performances at face value when assessing the movement (Goffman 1954). What complicates matters is that what we might usually think of as a movement’s backstage—for example, decision-making processes, general meetings, working groups, planning, and so on—is not really behind the scenes with OWS. It is all part of the public performance. To many OWS participants, internal democratic processes were often indistinguishable from external messages. To me OWS’s hyperdemocratic process was an important part of the public message. General Assemblies at Zuccotti Park in New York City operated as a brilliant theater, dramatically juxtaposing a visibly participatory people’s movement against what OWS participants and sympathizers perceived to be a rotted political system that has effectively disenfranchised most Americans. The downside is that General Assemblies were not functional forums for actual decision making. Because they were so cumbersome and easily derailed, many of the most active OWS organizers, myself included, eventually stopped going to them. Thus, much of the real decision making was pushed back-backstage into underground centers of informal power…
Read the full article on The Sociological Quarterly website (no paywall). Check out the full special section on Occupy Wall Street here.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of hegemony, and reading Antonio Gramsci. I’ll be posting a few reflections as I go.
Years ago, I remember growing wary of tendencies (within activist groups I was part of) to exaggerate and glorify supposedly “spontaneous” elements of activism and protest. Some group members often recounted protests and direct actions as if what transpired had been spontaneous, even when the same individuals had themselves participated in elaborate planning meetings and preparations for the actions. What bothered me more was when this fiction of spontaneity mutated until it held a central place in some group members’ theory of change. The “theory” seemed to hold that if a few committed activists were willing to be “militant” enough, their actions might somehow inspire more people to do likewise; change would ultimately occur as a result of a spontaneous mass uprising of this sort.
Septima Clark and Rosa Parks at Highlander Folk School just before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955.
The myth of spontaneity also seemed present in how the broader society viewed protest and collective action-when it wasn’t ignored entirely-and this bothered me too. The story of Rosa Parks’ refusal, for example, was popularly told and retold as the story of a woman who was tired, who had had enough, and who spontaneously refused to unfairly give up her seat to a white rider on the bus. I had learned what really happened: that Rosa Parks was a seasoned community leader; that she had had many strategic discussions with other leaders about this very action beforehand; that she had been part of strategic trainings at the Highlander Folk School, a center that had trained many Civil Rights and labor leaders (including Martin Luther King Jr.). The story of, “I was tired,” annoyed me because it felt to me that it took political agency out of the equation. The implied lesson seemed to be, “If you, as an individual, muster the courage to stand up and do what’s right, you may just kick off a whole movement (spontaneously).” The more accurate and instructive lesson, in my opinion, would have been, “If you plan with others, prepare yourself and others, build strong relationships in your community, develop a strategy for action, and build community buy-in, then you may be able to effectively intervene in the historical process.”